$4b later, drugs still flow in Colombia

By Lunar Loops · May 23, 2006 ·
  1. Lunar Loops
    Surprise, surprise, the war doesn't work, but no notice will be taken. More money will be thrown into the ridiculous war, some people NEVER learn. The text of the article from the Boston Globe is below, but if you follow the link there is an audio slideshow too (http://www.boston.com/news/world/latinamerica/articles/2006/05/21/4b_later_drugs_still_flow_in_colombia/)

    $4b later, drugs still flow in Colombia
    By Indira A.R. Lakshmanan, Globe Staff | May 21, 2006

    TUMACO, Colombia -- Six years and $4 billion into the US-backed campaign to wipe out cocaine at its source, Colombia appears to be producing more coca than when the campaign started, according to US government estimates.
    As Congress opens debate this month on another $640 million for next year for Washington's most ambitious overseas counternarcotics effort, a growing number of critics say the costly program has neither dented the cocaine trade nor driven down the number of American addicts. Two of the program's major missions -- to dramatically reduce coca growing in Colombia and provide alternative livelihoods for drug farmers -- have fallen far short of hoped-for goals.
    Onetime supporters, including some Republican lawmakers who championed the plan at its creation, are now demanding to know why the most expensive US foreign aid program outside the Middle East and Afghanistan is not winning the war on drugs.
    Backers of Plan Colombia, as the antidrug program is called, count its successes in the hundreds of thousands of acres of coca eradicated, hundreds of tons of cocaine seized, and thousands of clandestine drug laboratories destroyed. Without the campaign, they say, cocaine would be flooding the streets of America.
    ''Large coca farmers have been eliminated, along with power of large cartels," said Sandro Calvani, chief of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in Colombia. ''Were it not for Plan Colombia, cocaine would be so cheap in America you could distribute it door-to-door like milk or pizza."
    But critics say the program for Colombia, which supplies 90 percent of the cocaine and half the heroin consumed in the United States, has not lived up to the high hopes. Growers and narco-traffickers have adapted to the crackdown, drug enforcement officials say. While coca was concentrated in three provinces at the start of Plan Colombia, it has spread to at least 23 of the country's 31 provinces.
    With heavily armed leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries running drug networks and protecting them, Colombian traffickers are a formidable opponent for even stepped-up law enforcement. Drug seizures in the first quarter of this year were less than half of what they were in the first quarter of last year, according to Admiral Álvaro Echandía, Colombia's navy intelligence chief. Authorities estimate that only a minority of drug shipments to the United States are intercepted.
    Drug producers have also learned to rescue, replant, fortify, and move coca bushes. Satellite imaging over the last six years has revealed a ''balloon effect," in which illicit crops are squeezed out of one region and new bushes pop up elsewhere.
    Opposition to eradication is also growing. Last week, about 5,000 farmers blocked the strategic Pan-American Highway in southwestern Nariño Province, and clashes with police left at least 60 people injured, according to the coca growers.
    Spraying coca bushes
    The highest concentration of coca in Colombia is grown in the municipality of Tumaco in Nariño Province. In remote villages, without markets or transport, most legal crops are unprofitable. Easy-to-sell, hard-to-spoil coca became the vogue about six years ago, when Plan Colombia's eradication planes targeted neighboring Putamayo Province, then the hotbed of coca.
    Today, US-financed planes and helicopters buzz overhead, pumping herbicide onto swaths of land dotted with coca bushes. Police and military forces work to intercept cocaine before it leaves the province, headed for the United States via the Pacific.
    At the same time, technicians from a US-funded United Nations development project that is part of Plan Colombia are trying to persuade poor farmers to abandon the quick-cash crop. Peasants who do so risk deadly reprisals from militias who control the production chain.
    With a budget of only $2 million, the two-year program was able to enlist just 8 percent of farmers along the Rosario River, teaching them to grow cocoa for chocolate and to harvest lumber. Women are learning to make jewelry from discarded shells and seeds. The rest in this neglected backwater are left to grow illicit crops on the collectively owned land.
    Participants in the alternative development project say spray planes are frustrating their efforts.
    ''If they're going to fumigate everything anyway, what's the advantage of planting legal crops?" asked Pablo Nilson Preciado, 32, a former coca farmer taking part in the project.
    US and Colombian officials deny they are spraying indiscriminately. In a recent police flight over Tumaco to investigate farmers' claims of unfair fumigation, authorities pointed out small coca plantings hidden among plantains, palms, and other food crops. ''There was not a single complaint out of 210 that was legitimate," asserted Police Colonel Henry Gamboa, chief of crop eradication.
    Yet farmers point to wilted bananas and palms. Rosalba Quiñones, 52, says she lost five acres of African palm to the herbicide glyphosate. ''How can we continue all this work if in one moment it can be gone?"
    The UN's Calvani says eradication alone will never win the drug war. Governments must ''eradicate illicit crops from the minds of the people" by simultaneously helping farmers earn a living from other crops.
    Yet the vast majority of $8.5 billion invested by the US and Colombian governments in the last six years has gone toward law enforcement and eradication. Alternative development projects reach fewer than 20 percent of coca-growing peasants, Calvani says, leaving the rest with little incentive to grow anything but drug crops.

    More funds for Colombia
    On Friday, a House of Representatives subcommittee proposed $640 million in military, police, and social assistance to Colombia for next year. For the first time since the campaign began, congressmen proposed moving $135 million in economic aid out of the counterdrug budget, giving Colombia more freedom to spend it. The budget may face further changes in the Senate, with the full Congress voting by fall. That aid is apart from about $160 million for Colombia expected to be approved as part of the Defense Department budget for next year.
    Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican and chairman of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, recently accused US drug czar John Walters of selecting data to paint ''a rosier, but not necessarily more accurate, picture" of the achievements of Plan Colombia.
    Last November, the White House Office of Drug Control Policy announced a rise in cocaine prices and drop in purity in mid-2005, implying the campaign was squeezing the cocaine supply. In a letter to Walters last month, Grassley questioned Walters's claim of a price spike, and cited data showing cocaine prices on a downward slide since 1982 -- indicating a steadily growing supply.
    Even using the controversial White House data, the retail price of cocaine would have been around $170 a gram last September, not far from the $168 price in 2000 when Plan Colombia began.
    Plan Colombia's supporters say more money and patience are needed before the efforts will be reflected on the streets of America.
    ''We're making first downs," said US Ambassador to Colombia William Wood, ''but we're not sure how long the football field is."
    Critics on Capitol Hill say it's not enough to cite eradication and seizure figures in Colombia, when the ultimate goal is a drop in drug abuse in the United States.
    ''We've put in all this money, and American people want results," said a Republican staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to comment. ''We see X number of tons seized and drugs labs shut down there, but we . . . don't have a marked increase in the price or kids switching to lesser drugs."
    The latest US government National Survey on Drug Use and Health found a 33 percent increase in first-time cocaine users under the age of 18 between 2000 and 2004, and a slight increase in hard-core addicts.
    Critics of Plan Colombia also cite the White House's own estimate last month that coca cultivation was up 26 percent in 2005 over the previous year. The White House drugs office counters that surveyors saw more coca because they were looking harder last year, at an area 81 percent larger than before.
    Still, US estimates of coca cultivation are now higher than when Plan Colombia began.
    ''For American taxpayers, the benefit is a big fat zero. You're right back where you were in 2000," said Adam Isacson, Colombia analyst at the Center for International Policy, a Washington think tank.
    The UN's Calvani says debating the efficacy of eradication is beside the point. ''If I got rid of all the crops tomorrow, I'd still be at square one, because people just replant it. The real debate should be about why there is replanting."
    The growers' struggle
    Desperately poor and far from public services or markets, farmers along the Rosario River say they resorted to coca because they had no other way to survive. But it brought disaster in its wake.
    ''We were in a critical situation; we had very little food for our families," said Inocencio Nuñez, 43, a former grower. ''Then we discovered that people live in ruin with coca."
    First, the crop destroyed the habitat. On average, three acres of virgin forest are cut and burned to make way for one acre of coca. Nearly 500 pounds of chemicals are used to process one acre's worth of leaves, toxins that contaminate rivers into which they are discarded.
    Guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the National Liberation Army came to the Rosario River on the trail of coca, charging ''taxes" to growers as a percentage of each harvest, and persecuting those who didn't comply, residents say. Even when coca plants were fumigated, rebels demanded money. Peasants lived on loans from big drug producers, so when their crops were fumigated, they lost everything.
    One reason Colombia has been so attractive to narco-trafficking is that before Plan Colombia, there was virtually no government presence in vast swaths of territory, allowing illegal armies to control and profit from drug networks.
    US aid, supporters say, has helped return Colombian security forces to the countryside, and has loosened the grip of illegal militias. Since 2002, US antinarcotics aid to Colombia can be spent on counterterrorism. About 80 percent of US funds go to eradication and military and police assistance.
    Under congressional strictures, a maximum of 800 US military and 590 civilian contractors can be posted in Colombia, and Americans cannot be directly involved in counterinsurgency operations. Embassy officials say about 350 US military personnel and 400 civilians are flying crop dusters, maintaining aircraft, and conducting security training and assistance.
    Many involved in trying to stem the drug trade say a combination of pressure on coca growers and support for alternative crops is the only hope for lasting change.
    Javier Sánchez, of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, directs the US-funded program on the Rosario River that the UN says can be a model for weaning farmers from coca. With a transport network and markets for their goods, farmers in such programs can make as much or more than they did in coca, the UN drugs office says.
    ''Maybe 70 percent of the population is ready to get out of illicit crops," Sánchez said. ''What they're missing is a bigger program to accommodate them."
    Former coca farmer Nuñez has been singing the program's praises to his neighbors, and little by little, they are taking notice.
    ''This project has convinced us we can leave that behind and take advantage of our own natural riches," he said. ''Now we may earn little, but we live in a situation of peace and tranquility."

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