Members of Congress have taken a close look at the growing problem of illicit narcotics being trafficked through the Central American region.  U.S. officials involved in interdicting narcotics flows testified before a House of Representatives committee.

Even as the United States works to reduce opium cultivation and cocaine production and trafficking in and from Colombia and Andean nations, U.S. authorities face troubling obstacles in battling the growing trend of narcotics transiting Central America.

U.S. assistance to Central American nations in recent years has focused on providing training and other assistance aimed at countering this threat.

Lawmakers say the drug trade through the region, including such nations as Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Mexico also involves criminal youth gangs that U.S. officials fear may be on the way to becoming the new syndicates controlling hundreds of metric tons of product flow each year.

Jonathan Farrar, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, described the gang problem in testimony to the House Western Hemisphere Subcommittee.

"While these gangs are not yet involved in large-scale drug trafficking, the potential is there," he said.  "The gangs are astride alien smuggling routes in Central America and Mexico.  An effort on their part to make the transition to large-scale drug smuggling can be expected." 

Mr. Farrar adds that corruption in Central American governments is also a big problem, which could contribute to the region remaining the primary transit zones for narcotics.

Michael Braun, Chief of Operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, says that with few exceptions Central American nations are ill-equipped to handle the threat of the burgeoning narcotics flow.

"Many Central American countries are experiencing weak economies, and scarce resources are often allocated for other pressing problems," he explained.  "The corrupting power of illicit drug trafficking organizations on the governmental institutions of Central America significantly increases the difficulties of successful drug interdiction efforts."

U.S. officials say two-thirds of cocaine from Colombia destined for the United States transits through Central America, with Guatemala emerging as a key storage and consolidation area for all narcotics headed to the United States, Mexico, and Europe.

Drug smuggling takes place via land, sea and air.  Rear Admiral Jeffrey J. Hathaway, Director for Joint Interagency Task Force South of the U.S. Coast Guard, discusses a primary method smugglers are using.

"In the Caribbean about 90 percent of the drugs moved in what we call a go-fast conveyance, about anywhere from a 40 to 60 foot high-powered vessel, multiple outboard engines," he noted.  "They are just trying to race past any kind of end-game, plus they are very difficult to detect."

Things are different in the eastern Pacific region, where about 60 percent of smuggling takes place via fishing vessels as opposed to these fast-moving craft.

Witnesses said collaboration with Colombian authorities in narcotics interdiction has been more productive in contrast to what Rear Admiral Hathaway calls a lack of capability in Central American nations.

They also say efforts are hampered by a lack of sufficient resources to maintain what is called "wide area surveillance" that would increase interdiction rates.

"We have the intelligence that tells us there is a load coming up the Caribbean or in the western Pacific," said Democratic Congressman William Delahunt.  "We have that information, we know that drug is being transported but we don't have the necessary assets to consummate the interdiction."

Lawmakers urged the officials to tell Congress what additional resources will be needed to improve narcotics interdiction.

Congressman Dan Burton is the Republican chairman of the committee.

"We have a major problem that needs urgent correction with both helicopters and maritime patrol aircraft to control both the eastern Pacific and the Caribbean drug trade.  These gaps are undercutting Plan Colombia and our eradication efforts in the Andean region," said Mr. Burton.

Lawmakers also heard from Vice Admiral Guillermo Barrera, Chief of Naval Operations for the Colombian Navy, who described the war on narco-terrorism in his country as a matter of survival for freedom and democracy there.