Tuesday, June 29, 1999

Federal funds
to put heat on
‘ice’ dealers

Its designation as a High Intensity
Drug Trafficking Area gives Hawaii
more options -- and money

By Pete Pichaske
Phillips News Service


WASHINGTON -- In New York, they've turned old National Guard armories into youth centers. In Kansas City, Mo., they've shut down methamphetamine labs before they've even opened by busting known meth "cooks."

In Miami, they've seized hundreds of millions of dollars in drugs and laundered money, and crippled one of Colombia's biggest cocaine cartels.

Across the nation, law enforcement officials working under the banner of High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas are using innovative, creative weapons in the drug war.

Hawaii, which recently was named an HIDTA, hopes to join them soon.

"HIDTA seems like exactly what we need," said Steven Alm, U.S. attorney for Hawaii, who led the state effort to win the coveted designation. "There's no one agency here that has the ability or the resources to come up with what we're going to do with HIDTA.

"We really have the potential for statewide impact."

The HIDTA program was started a decade ago to target areas with booming drug trades. It uses federal money, and the clout that money carries, to bring federal, state and local agencies together to find new ways to combat specific drug problems.

HIDTA organizers describe their program as the glue that forces agencies to pool their resources in fighting drugs.

"It's not somebody inside the beltway trying to tell you in your hometown how to deal with the problem," said national director Joseph Peters. "We want people to identify what the threat is, and to configure programs to fight the threat. ... Every HIDTA looks different."

In Hawaii, the threat is "ice," or crystal methamphetamine, and the isles' status as an international drug distribution hub.

Alm said he wants to target the state's airports, through which 90 percent of the ice and cocaine in Hawaii move.

The specifics of any local programs, however, will have to be worked out by an executive committee. That panel is made up of representatives from a long list of agencies, including Alm's office, Hawaii's four county police departments, the National Guard, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the IRS and more.

The federal government will provide $700,000 to pay for any initiatives the first year.

HIDTA officials say each drug area has different problems and none of the others faces the same drug threat as Hawaii. But the experiences of other HIDTAs suggest that the isles are in for an array of unusual approaches to combating an old problem.


South Florida is considered one of the most "mature" and effective HIDTAs. It was among the first five HIDTAs, picked in 1990.

The region was being flooded with drugs flowing up from the Caribbean and Central and South America.

In the past decade, the federal government has poured $115.8 million into the south Florida HIDTA to stop the flow. The result has been an explosion of anti-drug initiatives formed with an array of agencies.

"Operation Cornerstone," for example, pulled together federal and local law-enforcement agencies to target drugs from Colombia. Organizers say the operation broke one of that nation's leading drug suppliers, the Cali Cartel.

A more recent cooperative effort aimed at drug-related violence, the Street Terror Offender Program, has broken up numerous local gangs.

Last fiscal year, according to the organization, the south Florida HIDTA was responsible for the seizure of $88 million in laundered money, $3.9 million in property, 31,526 kilos of cocaine and 2,553 arrests.

"We've become an institution here, for sure," said the HIDTA's interim director, Tim Wagner. "We're probably the first place these agencies look to when they have a problem that's over their heads."

Before HIDTA, Wagner said, agencies often were reluctant to cooperate or share information, and there was only one interagency task force fighting drugs. Today, there are 800 law enforcement officers from 60 agencies working with multiagency task forces.

"We see HIDTA in a very positive light," said Sgt. Jim Scott of the Miami-Dade Police Department, a squad supervisor in the HIDTA-led anti-gang program.

"It enables us to get the financial backing we didn't get through traditional sources. And it lets us work with all sorts of agencies."

Bringing immigration agents in on busts, for example, makes it possible to hit offenders with immigration violations, Scott said.

But even Wagner concedes that all the drug busts and arrests have not stopped the region's drug trade.

"We've caused displacement, and a lot of it wouldn't have happened without HIDTA support," he said. "But we certainly have a long way to go to stop it entirely."


In the Midwest, the biggest drug problem is methamphetamines. So when the Midwest HIDTA was established in 1996 (including parts of Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota), choosing the focus was a no-brainer.

But closing down the labs where methamphetamine is manufactured was costly, time-consuming and dangerous -- and it didn't strike at the root of the problem. So last year, the Metro Meth Task Force was established. One of its main components is to nail suspects already convicted of running meth labs.

In the past year, 196 repeat offenders have been arrested, and authorities say that has reduced the number of meth labs.

"The police were running from lab to lab with no time to investigate," said HIDTA deputy director Ed Mall. "Now we're hitting the people known to be cooks."

The result: Meth labs "are being pushed to other places," Mall said.


New York City and northern New Jersey, designated an HIDTA in 1990, face the full array of drug problems, from importing and distribution to money laundering and rampant drug use. Consequently, the region has a full array of anti-drug programs.

One of the most highly touted is one of the few HIDTA initiatives aimed at drug prevention.

Little-used National Guard armories in troubled neighborhoods are being converted into youth centers, offering sports and recreational activities, classes and mentoring programs.

New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani dedicated the first such center in Washington Heights early last year. Another opened in Jersey City in September.

This year, HIDTA hopes to open four more: in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan and Queens.

Advocates for
treatment question

HIDTA's emphasis on law enforcement
is one of the biggest concerns

By Pete Pichaske
Phillips News Service


WASHINGTON -- Politicians and law-enforcement leaders rejoiced recently when Hawaii was named a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area and became eligible for millions of dollars in federal aid and expertise.

But not everyone is convinced that HIDTAs are the drug-slaying dragons they are cracked up to be.

In the anti-drug community, there are critics who say the program is too heavy on law enforcement and too light on treatment, too politicized, and, a decade after it began, still an unproven product.

"There's really no data on it," said Eric Wish, director of the Center for Substance Abuse Research at the University of Maryland, which evaluates drug abuse programs.

"I know they exist and are involved in a lot of activities, but as for their efficacy, we just don't know."

Suggestions that HIDTAs are heavy on law enforcement echo a widespread national debate, one that pits those who favor drug crackdowns against those who say treatment and prevention are more effective.

Both sides agree that HIDTAs rely far more on law enforcement than on treatment.

In announcing Hawaii's designation as an HIDTA, for example, officials here said the federal money was for "law-enforcement initiatives."

"It's a totally legitimate (approach), but people shouldn't expect too much from improved law enforcement cooperation in terms of the overall drug problem," said John Walsh, a research associate with Drug Strategies, a policy research institute here.

"There may be some benefits, but we don't know how well it works."

The debate has reached Congress.

Faced with complaints from pro-law enforcement factions, national drug czar Barry R. McCaffrey, whose office oversees the HIDTAs, decided to phase out money for the few drug treatment programs in use.

When members of Congress, who control HIDTA's purse strings, got wind of that idea, they complained to McCaffrey. He agreed to back off, at least tentatively.

But treatment advocates remain nervous. And one pro-treatment member of Congress, Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., is proposing a bill to make sure HIDTAs can still offer treatment if they care to.

'Pork barrel project'

The incident highlights another criticism: that HIDTA is too political, too sensitive to Congress.

These critics, pointing to the explosion of drug areas from five in 1990 to 26 now, say HIDTA has become something for elected officials to brag about to their constituents.

"In the last several years, it's turned into a kind of pork barrel project," said Chad Thevenot, operations manager for the liberal National Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. "It's become a kind of bumper-sticker program."

Thevenot noted that the original HIDTAs (Houston, Los Angeles, New York/New Jersey, South Florida and the Southwest border) were clearly plagued by heavy drug traffic.

More recent additions seem less a haven for drug traffickers than home to influential lawmakers, he said.

Thevenot pointed out that the federal government spends a total of $18 billion a year fighting drugs -- 100 times what was allotted for HIDTAs this year.

"I'm just not certain that a few million dollars here and there is making a difference," Thevenot said.

HIDTA defenders say areas are picked only after a rigorous screening process. They say the proliferation of areas merely proves their program's effectiveness, and has been mirrored by a proliferation of funding ($25 million in 1990, $187 million this year).

"Congress sees the successes," said Joseph Peters, national program director. "There's been an explosion in growth."

Evaluation pending

Even defenders, however, seem to agree that HIDTA's effectiveness needs a close look. HIDTA administrators already are preparing for the first programwide evaluation, which must be submitted to the Office of Management and Budget by March of next year.

"We're putting together the information now to see if there's a trend," said David Cheatham, a policy official at HIDTA's main office here.

He said the evaluation will compare HIDTAs with non-HIDTAs, looking for differences in crime rates, cost of drugs, drug usage and the like.

"We'll see if we can see any types of changes as a result of HIDTAs," he said.

For now, he agreed, the answer to that pivotal question remains unknown.

E-mail to City Desk

Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]
[Stylebook] [Feedback]

© 1999 Honolulu Star-Bulletin