Coca crop jumps despite U.S. aid
The CIA finds Colombian acres grew 21% during eradication effort costing billions.
Bogota, Colombia - In a blow to the United States' anti-drug campaign here, which cost more than $4 billion, new White House estimates indicate that Colombia's coca crop expanded by nearly 21 percent last year.
Figures released late Friday by the Office of National Drug Control Policy indicate Colombian farmers last year grew 355,680 acres of coca, the raw material for cocaine. That represents a jump of nearly 74,000 acres from 2004 even though U.S. funded crop-dusters destroyed record amounts of coca plants in 2005.
Washington has provided the Bogota government with more than $4 billion, mostly in anti-drug aid since 2000 for a program known as Plan Colombia — which was supposed to cut coca cultivation by half within six years.
Yet according to the new figures, more coca is now being grown here than when Plan Colombia started. "This is going to turn heads" on Capitol Hill, said Adam Isacson, a Colombia expert at the Center for International Policy in Washington and a longtime critic of U.S. counterdrug strategies in Latin America.
"You're talking about $4.7 billion spent on Plan Colombia, and this is all we have to show for it?"
The Bush administration downplayed the significance of the coca crop survey, an annual study of parts of Colombia carried out by the CIA using satellite imagery and on-the-ground inspections.
Rather than an increase in the crop's size, the higher numbers may reflect a more thorough job of surveying the Colombian countryside, the White House said in a news release.
The statement said the area of Colombia sampled for the 2005 coca estimate was 81 percent larger than in 2004.
"Because of this uncertainty and the significantly expanded survey area, a direct year-to-year comparison (of the size of the coca crop) is not possible," said the statement.
However, when year-to-year drug crop comparisons have reflected positive trends, U.S. officials have loudly touted the numbers as clear proof of success.
In 2002, for example, the CIA survey showed a drop in coca production and White House drug czar John Walters declared: "These figures capture the dramatic improvement. ... Our anti-drug efforts in Colombia are now paying off."
But some U.S. officials and drug policy analysts claim that Colombia has likely been producing far more coca over the past five years than the CIA surveys have indicated.
"The cultivation numbers, wherever they seem to be headed, need to be taken with a grain of salt," said Joy Olson, director of the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank. "In reality, coca cultivation and cocaine production exceed the official estimates, perhaps by wide margins."
What's more, she said, cheap, potent cocaine remains readily available on U.S. streets, indicating that the drug war in Colombia is having little real impact.
Some U.S. officials have forecast a gradual reduction in assistance for Colombia, starting in 2008. This year, Washington will send about $750 million in aid to Colombia, the source of 90 percent of the cocaine sold on U.S. streets.
The centerpiece of the U.S. anti-drug strategy here is a controversial aerial-eradication program in which crop-dusters, escorted by helicopter gunships, bombard coca plants with chemical defoliants. But the program costs about $200 million annually and many critics say the money would be better spent elsewhere. The idea of eradication is to persuade peasant farmers to give up growing coca and to plant legal crops. But funding by the U.S. and Colombian governments for crop-substitution programs pale in comparison to the eradication budget and most efforts to develop alternatives have failed.
Part of the problem is that coca is often grown in remote jungles and mountains that are controlled by Marxist guerrillas, contain few roads or markets, and have almost no government presence. Thus, even as crop-dusters have killed off record amounts of coca, farmers stay a step ahead of the spray planes by pushing deeper into the wilderness to grow more.
In 2000, Colombian farmers attempted to grow about 450,000 acres of coca, about one-third of which was wiped out by the spray planes, according to U.S. government figures. Last year, by contrast, they tried to grow a whopping 780,000 acres. "People with no economic alternatives have not been deterred by fumigation," said Isacson of the Center for International Policy. "Fumigating an area is no substitute for governing it."
Despite the rise in coca cultivation, Anne Patterson, a former U.S. ambassador to Colombia who heads the State Department bureau that runs the eradication program, told a congressional hearing in Washington last month that the Bush administration was considering "stepping up" the crop-dusting campaign.
Beyond the drug war, Patterson said, the overall U.S. aid program "has benefited Colombia in ways we had not anticipated."
She cited better security conditions in the cities and the countryside, where the number of kidnappings and murders has dropped, as well as recent blows to the nation's narcotics traffickers and guerrilla groups.By John Otis