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February 23, 2005 - The Financial Times (UK)

US Seeks Colombian Help On Drugs

By Andy Webb-Vidal, in Caracas

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US counter-narcotics authorities are examining controversial policies used in Colombia, the world's top cocaine producer, to formulate efforts to combat the flow of drugs from Afghanistan, the world's leading supplier of heroin.

John Walters, director of the US National Drug Control Policy, said on Wednesday in Miami that methods used to combat drugs in Colombia principally aerial fumigation were being studied to see how they can be replicated in Afghanistan.

Under President Alvaro Uribe, who is strongly supported by Washington, the area of land cultivated with coca, the plant from which cocaine is made, has halved to about 212,000 acres, according to official figures.

Colombia's example shows that you can build institutional capacity and change the face of the threat of illegal narcotics, Mr Walters said. The Colombians have been very co-operative in helping to supply additional information on what they have done and how it works.

Experts from the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) are this week being briefed by anti-narcotics police in Bogot, Colombia's capital.

DEA agents are also evaluating the methods used by the Colombian police to destroy cocaine laboratories. The capacity of Colombian cocaine labs is similar to those used to process opium in Afghanistan, experts say.

But analysts say the policy experiment is controversial because the nature of the two countries' drugs industries have key differences. Aerial fumigation of herbicide in Colombia has forced coca growers to move crops into national parks. The spraying of Afghan poppy fields is more complicated.

The government of Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, has opposed the use of aerial fumigation, and this month asked for assistance in developing alternative economic options for poppy farmers.

Additionally, Afghanistan's rampant opium trade employs far more people than the cocaine business in Colombia. But drugs workers in both countries see their work as more lucrative than cultivating other crops.

If the Karzai government leads with a punitive approach like eradication before there are alternative livelihoods in place, that is a political disaster, said John Walsh, of the Washington Office on Latin America, a think-tank.

US drugs policy in Latin America has been criticised for being too focused on tackling supplies via eradication and interdiction a policy, some argue, that results in drugs crops being pushed from one place to another.

Under President George W. Bush's budget proposals, counter-narcotics aid for Colombia is to be increased, while it is to be decreased in Peru and Bolivia, where some reports suggest the size of drugs crops have actually been increasing.

But Mr Walters said there appears to be no evidence of such a phenomenon, which experts call the balloon effect.

The [critic's] view has been that whenever you see progress it's illusory, because the problem goes into surrounding countries, he said. That apparently is not happening. Basically because the cultivation levels in Bolivia and Peru have remained roughly the same.

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