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Critics say U.S. war on drugs in Colombia failing
date: 02-February-2006
country: COLOMBIA
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"The lack of reliable evidence of of well-documented progress..." What, truthiness is not enough anymore? Blame it on Oprah!

Six years after the U.S. initiated an anti-narcotics program in Colombia, American policymakers and experts are at odds over whether the effort has significantly reduced the supply of cocaine reaching U.S. shores.

Since 2000, the U.S. has poured more than $4 billion into Plan Colombia, a program that has provided everything from police training to Black Hawk helicopters to a nation that supplies 90 percent of the cocaine and much of the heroin used in the United States.

U.S. officials say that intensive fumigation of Colombia's cocaine-producing crops has reduced cocaine production and, for the first time in recent years, caused a squeeze in supplies and a jump in the price of cocaine in the United States.

William Wood, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, said that stepped-up drug interdiction along with the record number of Colombian traffickers extradited to the United States for trial also has contributed to Plan Colombia.

"We think that the counterdrug program is being effective," Wood said.

A November 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, has questioned the reliability of U.S. government data on cocaine trafficking.

John Walsh, senior associate for drug policy at the Washington Office on Latin America, a liberal think tank, said that although Washington has intensified the drug war, the long-term trend in the price of cocaine has been downward, indicating supply has not been reduced.

"They are putting the best face they can on the numbers because Plan Colombia has run it course," Walsh said. "Plan Colombia was supposed to have a major impact on supply, prices and availability of cocaine, and it hasn't panned out."

Congress to debate program

The debate over Plan Colombia is expected to shift into high gear this spring as Congress weighs whether to continue funding the program.

Even critics such as Walsh say Plan Colombia has overwhelming support in Congress because Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, one of the few U.S. allies in the region, says the program is crucial to ending Colombia's internal conflict.

Two armed groups, the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, a right-wing paramilitary force, have financed their armies though narcotics trafficking.

With the AUC demobilizing in a peace deal with the government, Uribe says that battling drugs is an effective way to weaken the FARC's ability to wage war.

"People want to help Uribe because he has been a terrific chief executive," said Myles Frechette, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia from 1994 to 1997. "But they are tired of hearing about progress [in the drug war], and they want more measurable success."

Frechette and other experts say one issue U.S. lawmakers are likely to examine closely during the debate over Plan Colombia is the effectiveness of the paramilitary demobilization.

About 17,000 of the AUC's 20,000 fighters have surrendered their weapons since 2003. Uribe supporters say demobilization has reduced killings and other violence.

Critics say the demobilization law does not ensure the dismantling of the AUC's criminal enterprises while also granting what amounts to amnesty for paramilitary leaders accused of murder, drug trafficking and other crimes.

A December 2005 report by Carl Meacham, a Republican staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, recommended that Plan Colombia be extended on a year-to-year basis so it can be "continually evaluated."

"The lack of reliable evidence of well-documented progress in the war against drugs and neutralizing paramilitaries is disappointing considering the billions of dollars the U.S. Congress has appropriated," wrote Meacham, an adviser to committee Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.).

Chemical eradication

A cornerstone of the U.S.-financed anti-drug effort in Colombia is aerial spraying of coca crops with the common herbicide glyphosate.

U.S. officials say fumigation has cut Colombia's crop of coca--a bushy plant that provides the raw material for cocaine--from an estimated 419,406 acres in 2001 to 281,209 acres in 2003.

But the number of acres under coca cultivation rose slightly in 2004, and one UN expert predicted the size of the crop would remain roughly stable in 2005.

"If it has not leveled off, we are very close to that," said Sandro Calvani, who heads the Colombia bureau of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

While Wood acknowledged the area under coca cultivation remained flat in 2004, he said fumigation continues to diminish Colombia's drug output because it targets larger, mature coca plants that have a higher yield.

Nevertheless, Calvani said U.S. and Colombian authorities must spend far more money on providing jobs and other assistance to coca farmers to lure them away from the illegal trade.

He said many coca farmers whose crops are fumigated either replant or move to more remote areas--often under guerrilla control.

One area where coca cultivation has risen sharply in recent years is in Colombia's national parks, where government authorities have avoided fumigation because of the controversy over whether glyphosate damages the environment.

In late January, about 930 Colombian peasants under military protection began manually eradicating coca in La Macarena, a spectacular national park where more than 11,000 acres of coca are grown in an area long controlled by the FARC.

During a visit to La Macarena last week, Uribe promised to pay thousands of coca farmers about $450 a year to abandon the illegal crop and act as park rangers to protect the land.

"The only way to eradicate coca crops is by giving growers an alternative livelihood," Colombia's National Park Service Director Julia Miranda said.



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