2nd May 2006
BOGOTA, Colombia -- Aerial spraying of illegal, drug-producing crops in Colombia - an expensive linchpin of the U.S.-backed war on drugs - is failing, key members of Congress and drug policy experts said Tuesday.
Despite a record fumigation last year of almost 550 square miles of coca, the latest U.S. government survey found 26 percent more land dedicated to the plant used to make cocaine.
The White House attributed the meteoric rise from 2004 to an 81 percent increase in the satellite sampling area, which skewed an otherwise 8 percent drop in coca production in areas previously surveyed.
But the nuances have largely fallen on deaf ears.
From Congress to the editorial page of Bogota's main newspaper, criticism of the U.S.-backed anti-drug effort known as Plan Colombia - which has cost American taxpayers $4 billion since 2000 - is growing.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who chairs the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, called on President Bush last week to fire the nation's drug czar, John Walters.
In a letter to Walters, Grassley called the drug czar's touting of the drug war's achievements as "premature and perhaps even unfounded."
The letter took particular aim at Walters' November claims that Plan Colombia had helped reap a 19 percent increase in price and 15 percent decrease in the purity of cocaine found on U.S. streets, data Grassley called misleading and based on a six-month snapshot.
"Plan Colombia has been an important part of our strategy to stop illegal drugs from entering the United States and we need to know if it's really working," Grassley told The Associated Press in an e-mail. He said he hoped Walters' office "stops spinning the numbers."
A spokesman said Walters was unavailable for comment Tuesday.
James O'Gara, deputy director of supply reduction for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, says the fact that traffickers are working so hard to replant confirms that the current strategy is effective.
"The new coca estimate shows just how much the spray program is forcing traffickers to react, but we're getting better intelligence and our methods are sound," he said.
In the report Grassley questioned, the ONDCP estimated that Colombia, the world's largest cocaine producer, had just over 550 square miles under cultivation in 2005 - an area 25 times the size of Manhattan.
The amount exceeds by 17 percent the coca measured in 1999, the year before Congress funded Plan Colombia to stamp out the drug trade, which has fueled Colombia's civil bloodletting. Lawmakers say the development shows Plan Colombia is nowhere close to meeting its goal of halving coca production in five years.
"Instead, six years later, cocaine is as easy to find on Americas streets as it was before," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., ranking member of the Senate subcommittee responsible for U.S. assistance for Colombia.
Moreover, 2005 estimates show that, for the first time in a decade, coca production is on the rise in all three coca-producing, Andean nations - Colombia, Bolivia and Peru.
In Colombia, President Alvaro Uribe's two main challengers in this month's elections have used the report's findings to reopen a debate over decriminalization of drug use.
In a Sunday editorial, the generally pro-government newspaper, El Tiempo, called the war on drugs "un fracaso," a failure.
Uribe, the United States' closest ally in South America, has so far refused to contemplate a strategy shift. Instead, he wants the Bush administration to add to the current fleet of 20 planes dedicated to fumigation.
But that might not make much difference.
Colombia's anti-narcotics police say drug traffickers are using more sophisticated methods to grow coca, hiding it among smaller, canopy-covered plots and planted among traditional crops.
They have also successfully shifted production to remote, largely ungovernable areas like the state of Vichada, on the Venezuelan border.
"The drug traffickers will always be one step ahead of the spray planes," said Adam Isacson, director of programs for the Center of International Policy, in Washington. "Fumigating an area is no substitute for governing it."
Even supporters of the government's reliance on aerial spraying acknowledge they were angered by the ONDCP's admission that it has long been underestimating Colombia's coca harvest.
"If they tried to get a job as a pollster for Congress being off by that much, they'd never work again," said Marc Wheat, staff director of U.S. House of Representatives' subcommittee on drug policy.