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The world's police are floundering in the war on drugs, now the most potent threat to global stability, says the head of Interpol, the international police agency.

''We're pretty overwhelmed,'' says Interpol Secretary General Raymond Kendall. Governments talk a lot but do little to create a world strategy against crime barons, he says.

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The 176-nation International Criminal Police Organization, based in Lyon, France, is holding its annual congress in Beijing from Oct. 4-11 for what is likely to be a gloomy reassessment of police action in a world now free of the cold war.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, ''if you look at the real threat to our societies today, what you have is a combination of organized crime and drug trafficking,'' Mr. Kendall says. Vast drug profits mean that traffickers ''have the ability to corrupt our institutions at the highest level. If they can do that, then it means our democracies are in real danger,'' he says.

Organized-crime gangs have found drugs a profitable addition to more traditional activities such as racketeering and arms smuggling. And the lack of legal checks in ex-East bloc nations has spawned crimes ranging from drug smuggling to art theft. Political guerrillas are also turning to drugs as a source of funds, partly because state sponsorship is drying up.

''We're seeing that drugs and insurgency go together, notably in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, even in Pakistan and Burma,'' Kendall says.

''A truly strategic approach'' is lacking among the world's governments, says Kendall, a Briton. ''This is the real difficulty we have today.''

He raps politicians for ''talking about the war on drugs, the war against organized crime. If you really mean it, then let's think of putting the resources into it that you would put into a war,'' he says.

Kendall cited UN estimates putting the international drug trade at $400 billion a year. Interpol's budget is $28 million.

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''With our budget, you might be able to buy a couple of tanks,'' he says. Interpol has about 315 employees at its gleaming headquarters, opened in 1989, to coordinate its war on international crime.

He suggested that Interpol and the United Nations team up to devise a new global strategy against drugs, blamed for more than 50 percent of crime in major western cities.

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