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March 30, 2005 - The San Diego Union-Tribune (CA)

Bush Plan To Reduce Drug Program Budget Riles Law Enforcement

By Joe Cantlupe, Copley News Service

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WASHINGTON - Local officials and the Bush administration are clashing over a White House plan to cut money from an enforcement program that targets illicit drug suppliers, including Mexican drug cartels.

At issue is a program known as HIDTA, or High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas, that would get 55 percent less money than it did last year, when it spent $227 million.

State, local and federal law enforcement officials said the funding is needed to bring together organizations in drug-related cases.

"This is eviscerated," said Ronald E. Brooks, president of the National Narcotic Officers Association Coalition.

"Reduced federal commitment to help local law enforcement fight drug trafficking will deliver a slow, but devastating blow to the quality of life in America."

The Bush administration said the HIDTA money has not been spent wisely and the program should be overhauled drastically.

The White House proposes to reduce the 2006 funding to $100 million, said John Walters, head of the White House Office of Drug Control Policy.

Walters said in budget documents that the HIDTA program is "no longer well focused and comes at an enormous cost."

"State and local drug enforcement efforts have not been able to show a link with significant reduction in drug trafficking," said Walters, the administration's drug czar.

The Office of Management and Budget also said the program has not been able to "demonstrate results."

HIDTA was created in 1990 at a yearly cost of $25 million. It expanded greatly over the years as the war on drugs intensified. Administration officials describe the program as bloated, saying drug use among youth - what they term the most important aspect of the drug-war effort - is down 17 percent.

Law enforcement officials said HIDTA has been important in many respects, not the least of which is bringing together local, state and federal officials to work on cases.

Across the country, there are 355 HIDTA task forces, 53 intelligence centers and more than 12,000 officers assigned to HIDTA investigations.

In San Diego County, authorities last year spent about $10 million on HIDTA programs, and Imperial County spent $2 million.

Among the major concerns for officials in San Diego and Imperial counties is the uncertain budget fate of the Major Mexican Traffickers Task Force, which includes 20 local, state and federal agents, and focuses on drug cartels in Mexico.

"If HIDTA funding was eliminated, the local and state positions assigned (to the task force) would be lost," said Imperial County District Attorney Gilbert G. Otero. "This would have a devastating effect on all the initiatives within Imperial County because we all depend on each other to provide intelligence and assistance."

"The worst effect would be that we would lose track of the activities currently happening in Mexicali - because much of the (drug) cartel's activities are moving from Tijuana to Mexicali."

San Diego County's HIDTA, on its Web site, listed as among its goals the "push for complete dismantlement of the AFO (Arellano-Felix Organization) as well as proactive investigations."

Neither White House nor local officials would discuss a breakdown of possible personnel cutbacks if the Bush budget plan is enacted.

Inevitably, "local departments will have to pull people away from some (investigative) initiatives," said David Bejarano, the U.S. Marshal for the Southern District of California and former San Diego police chief.

The Bush budget plan is under review by the House subcommittee on criminal justice, drug policy and human resources.

Chairman Mark Souder, R-Ind., said the panel is concerned that the administration proposal "is both premature and too sweeping."

Under the administration plan, HIDTA would be moved from the drug czar's office to the Department of Justice's organized crime drug enforcement task force program, created two decades ago.

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