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Special Agent Michael Chapman
"The movie is the first attempt to get to the meat and potatoes of the drug issue"
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Friday, 26 January, 2001, 09:10 GMT
The truth behind the Traffic

This weekend the widely-acclaimed film, Traffic, starring Hollywood's hottest couple Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones, opens in the UK. BBC News Online's Chris Summers takes a look at the real-life battle against drug traffickers in the US, on which the film is based.

Traffic, which opened in UK cinemas on Friday, is Hollywood's best attempt for many years at tackling the thorny subject of the drugs trade.

The film won Best Screenplay at the Golden Globe Awards earlier this week and is tipped to pick up several Oscars.

While numerous films - such as The French Connection, Scarface, The Godfather and Boyz N The Hood - have been set in the drugs milieu, few have addressed the subject with such factual accuracy.

Michael Douglas in Traffic
Michael Douglas plays a judge chosen to be America's drugs czar
Special agent Michael Chapman, of the Drugs Enforcement Administration (DEA), says they worked closely with director Steven Soderbergh in an attempt to make the film as true to life as possible.

The plot itself - which sees judge Michael Douglas become the next US drugs czar while battling to control his daughter's own addiction - is fictional, but based in truth.

Soderbergh brings together several plotlines and characters - Benicio Del Toro as a Mexican policeman who the narcotics barons try to seduce, Don Cheadle as an undercover DEA agent, and Catherine Zeta Jones as the pregnant wife of a wealthy American drug importer.

Producer Laura Bickford got the idea for the film after watching the Channel 4 mini-series Traffik, starring Bill Paterson, while staying in London a few years ago.

The DEA gave technical advice to the makers of Traffic and allowed them to film inside the El Paso Intelligence Center near the Mexican border, said Chapman.

Sources of misery
65% of the heroin seized in the US (in 1998) was produced in Colombia and 17% in Mexico
Heroin producers in The Golden Triangle (SE Asia) have switched to markets in Asia
70% of drugs enter the US across the Mexican border
He told BBC News Online: "The movie shows how difficult it is to combat the drugs trade and how vulnerable people are to the drugs predators.

"In the past Hollywood has tended to over-glamourise drugs. This is the first real attempt to get to the meat and potatoes of the drug issue."

Drugs are a commodity, like any other, said Chapman, and drug dealers are motivated by greed and will go wherever the best profits lie.

In recent years low prices in North America have encouraged cocaine dealers to switch more exports to Europe and the UK.

In the film the bad guys are the powerful and brutal Obregon drug cartel.

Catherine Zeta Jones in Traffic
Catherine Zeta Jones stars as the wife of a drugs kingpin
But who are the real-life bad guys? The DEA's website goes into great detail about traffickers past - and present.

The most high-profile traffickers in the 80s and 90s were the Cali and Medellin cartels, from Colombia.

Both groups were smashed in the mid-90s.

Medellin's Carlos Lehder, arrested in Colombia, was handed over to the DEA in 1987 and later sentenced to 135 years in prison.

Pablo Escobar, suspected of bombing an airliner killing 110 people (including two men he believed were informants) was killed in a shoot-out in Medellin in 1993.

The Ochoa Brothers (Fabio, Juan David, and Jorge Luis) were jailed in 1991 but released in 1996 and are believed to be back in their native Medellin.

Benicio Del Toro in Traffic
Benicio Del Toro plays Mexican policeman Javier Rodriguez
The main Cali kingpins, the Rodriguez-Orejuela brothers, were captured in 1995.

In the absence of these powerful drug lords, the drug trade has become more decentralised.

Power passed to experienced traffickers who moved out from under the shadow of the Cali cartel.

Mexican traffickers have become increasingly significant in recent years, whether they are producing and smuggling their own heroin and cocaine or simply handling Colombian drugs.

The most powerful is the Arellano-Felix Organisation (AFO), based in Tijuana.

The Caro-Quintero organization is based in Sonora, Mexico and transports cocaine and marijuana.

The Juarez cartel was formerly run by Amado Carrillo-Fuentes, who died after undergoing plastic surgery to disguise himself in 1997.

His death led to a power struggle which resulted in 60 deaths.
Don Cheadle in Traffic
Don Cheadle plays undercover DEA agent Montel Gordon
The Amezcua-Contreras organization, based in Guadalajara, was run by brothers Luis, Jesus, and Adan Amezcua-Contreras.

Jesus and Luis were arrested in 1998 and are awaiting extradition to the US. Adan was freed in May 1999.

While the Mexicans and Colombians dominate the import trade, they usually pass on their supplies to a variety of gangs who are feared enough to be able to sell on credit - and ensure they are paid.

Chapman says while Traffic is a good movie, he fears the message it may put over is that the DEA is losing the war against drugs.

He says this is far from the case and points out that drug use in the US has been reduced by 50% since the late 1970s.

"We have had some great successes against the traffickers and hope we have many more in the future," he said.

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