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Soca and coca

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Mark Easton | 08:58 UK time, Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Why did the former spook who heads the Serious Organised Crime Agency give me exclusive details of his organisation's apparent success in the fight against cocaine smugglers?

Sir Stephen Lander is a man who likes to operate in the shadows. When he moved from running MI5 to heading up Soca in April 2006, he told me that he had no interest in parading any achievements they might have in front of the cameras.

His aim was to reduce the harms associated with serious organised crime, particularly drug running, and there would be no flag-waving or grandstanding by his agents. Leave that to the police, he suggested, even if the real work behind an operation was down to his organisation's efforts.

"How will we know if you have done a good or a bad job?" I asked him. Sir Stephen explained that he was satisfied that Whitehall would hold him accountable.

Well, with a couple of months to go before he retirement from public life, it seems that the old spymaster has changed his tune.

Soca has had a troubled press. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have both been hostile - the Tories have hinted they might abolish the agency - while parts of the media, frustrated perhaps by its tight-lipped nature, have also started questioning the value of the organisation. Is it worth its £400m budget?

Sir Stephen and his sidekick Bill Hughes, a former police officer, have defended themselves vigorously. Mr Hughes sent a letter to The Times a year ago [45KB PDF] - furious at the suggestion that his agency was not up to the job.

But their problem has been in demonstrating success, not denying failure.

These are the "Strategic Imperatives" for Soca, proudly displayed in their annual report [756KB PDF]:

• to build knowledge and understanding of serious organised crime, the harm it causes, and of the effectiveness in tackling it;
• to increase the amount of criminal assets recovered and increase the proportion of cases in which the proceeds of crime are pursued;
• to increase the risk to serious organised criminals operating against the UK, through traditional means and by innovation within the law;
• to collaborate with partners, join up domestic and international efforts to reduce harm and provide high quality support to partners; and as appropriate seek theirs in return; and
• to build capacity and capability to make a difference.

With the exception of the amount of criminal assets recovered, these demands are almost impossible to quantify: knowledge building, collaboration, innovation, making a difference.

Harm-reduction is a noble aim, but without hard data measuring progress, those paying the bills need the warm feeling that comes from supportive headlines. Such coverage has been largely absent.

So what do we make of today's story, which links an apparent rise in the wholesale price of cocaine and a slump in quality in on the streets with Soca's international activities?

Something is clearly happening in the cocaine market. Organisations as diverse as the Forensic Science Service and Drugscope concur that purity levels have fallen markedly in recent months while street prices remain stable.

Evidence on the price of wholesale cocaine is harder to come by, but there is some corroboration for Soca's claim from authorities in Spain and Belgium. The agency accepts that some of the 25% increase is a factor of the weakness of the pound - the cocaine market is measured in dollars - but argue that the price increases have been seen "across Europe" and therefore reflect more than simply international exchange rate variations.

The figures they quote on British prices will also be used by expert witnesses in court cases, where they may be challenged.

The agency has had documented successes, along with international partners, in South America, the Caribbean and West Africa. An operation in Sierra Leone which saw $200m-worth of high quality cocaine go up in smoke a couple of weeks ago was important because, temporarily at least, it closed off an air-bridge across the Atlantic.

Smugglers had loaded up light aircraft with cocaine but also with aviation fuel so they could replenish their tanks while airborne.

The question is whether all this activity and disruption is sustainable.

There are those who think that the supply-side strategy is doomed, like Danny Kushlick from the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, which wants all drugs legalised and regulated.

"Over the long term, all the reports have shown that the price of illegal drugs has dropped and that the purity has increased", he points out. "You can see blips where you have raised the price because of some enforcement activity, but that has never worked in the long term."

Last month, a report [192KB PDF] from the human rights group Washington Office on Latin America claimed that new data revealed by President Obama's administration contradicted their predecessors' claims that supply disruptions had achieved unprecedented cocaine shortages in the United States.

lowering_expectations.png

To be fair to Soca, it accepts that impact on the supply side is going to be "cyclical". The focus is now on "anticipating the likely changes in cocaine traffickers' tactics".

But perhaps something has changed permanently here. Soca may have decided that, whatever you do on the war on drugs, you cannot win the vital public relations battle by operating from the shadows.

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