A drug war in Orlando? 

Esequiel Hernandez Jr. wandered into the drug war only steps from his backyard. And you could, too, if you live in Orlando or one of the other 20 regions designated as "High-Intensity Drug-Trafficking Areas," or HIDTAs. These include not only the 150-mile-wide swath along the U.S.-Mexico border, but also nearly every major urban area in the country.

Any place can become a HIDTA. All it takes is one civilian law enforcement agency -- such as a police force, sheriff's office or federal agency -- to obtain the endorsement of all other local law enforcement agencies, then submit a joint request to the Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington, D.C. If all agencies agree there's evidence of drug trafficking, the national office designates the area as a HIDTA.

Once a region is so designated, any law enforcement agency with jurisdiction there may request federal anti-drug assistance. The request is submitted to Operation Alliance, based just outside El Paso, Texas. Operation Alliance determines the type of assistance required and the federal agency most capable of providing that support. If it is determined that active or reserve armed services units can best handle the support, the request is forwarded to Joint Task Force Six (JTF-6), which is headquartered just next door in a former Army stockade. JTF-6 will then solicit a military unit to conduct the operation.

The majority of these requests do not involve the deployment of armed troops. JTF-6 routinely staffs training, intelligence analysis and engineering missions. Training missions, many of which involve teaching interrogation and tactical methods to local law enforcement, are popular nationwide. The South Florida HIDTA participated in 18 analyst missions and 10 training missions during fiscal year 1997.

Most of the engineering missions are performed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has built roads, fences, lighting and facilities at the request of the U.S. Border Patrol. JTF-6 has tackled smaller construction projects as well, such as the construction in Florida of a firing range for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Department.

But many missions are "operational" and involve the supply or armed troops or advanced weaponry to civilian law enforcement agencies. Most, but not all, of these come at the request of the Border Patrol.

In rare cases, the "anti-drug" pretext is thin. The tanks and other heavy arms used in the disastrous assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, for example, was supplied by Operation Alliance and JTF-6 after the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms revised its request to include suspicion of drug manufacturing equipment within the compound. The equipment was never found.


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