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December 7, 2005 - San Francisco Chronicle (CA)

Watchdog Challenges U.S. Drug War In Colombia

By C. J. Schexnayder, SF Chronicle Foreign Service

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Bogota, Colombia -- A U.S. government report to be released next week raises serious questions about the effectiveness of the multibillion-dollar U.S. anti-drug campaign in Colombia, despite moves by the Bush administration to extend the program.

The 52-page report by the Government Accountability Office, an advance copy of which has been obtained by The Chronicle, challenges administration conclusions that the drug interdiction effort known as Plan Colombia -- a five-year program that ends this year -- has reduced the amount of cocaine available in the United States.

The report was skeptical of the statistics the government relied on for its upbeat assessments, calling its information on cocaine production and use problematic. It also said the Office of National Drug Control Policy had failed to fully address previous "recommendations for improving illicit drug data collection and analysis."

On Nov. 9 in Bogota, John Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said Plan Colombia had been responsible for a substantial increase in the street price of cocaine in the United States and a drop in its quality from Colombia, which supplies an estimated 90 percent of the world's cocaine, and an estimated $65 billion in illegal drugs to the U.S. market.

"There were those who did not believe it was possible to change the availability of cocaine in the United States," Walters said. "What we're announcing today is, there's no question that's happened."

But the GAO, the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, specifically criticized those figures, saying that they reflected trends that "could reflect law enforcement patterns rather than drug availability patterns" and that the number of U.S. cocaine users remained constant at about 2 million. "Other sources estimate the number of chronic and occasional cocaine users may be as high as 6 million," the report stated.

The GAO also found the White House assessment of the amount of cocaine entering the United States in 2004 -- 325 metric tons to 675 metric tons -- to be too varied to be "useful for assessing interdiction efforts."

In an interview, David Murray, a special assistant to Walters, downplayed the report. "We have more data and more analysts working on this out of our office than anyone," he said. "We feel we have some of the best information in the world on the issue. We are trying to make sense of a business whose very core element is hiding from plain view."

Since 2000, the United States has poured about $6 billion into Latin America to fund antidrug efforts, more than half of it earmarked for Plan Colombia. Its supporters in Colombia say the program is crucial not only for battling the drug trade but also to combat left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries involved in the nation's four-decade armed conflict that depend on financing from drug profits.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) -- the country's largest rebel group -- raked in as much as $1.3 billion in 2003, of which an estimated 45 percent came from cocaine, according to a report released earlier this year by the Joint Intelligence Command, the Colombian equivalent of the U.S. National Security Council. Plan Colombia "is essential for what we do," said Col. Yamlik Moreno of the National Police's antidrug division. "Without the funding ... we would have to reduce our operations by 90 percent."

The U.S.-Colombia strategy, which targets cocaine production at its source, is aimed at reducing supply and driving up prices and thereby discouraging consumption in the United States. Military aid provided by Washington over the years includes combat helicopters, light weapons ranging from machine guns to rocket launchers and intelligence technology as well as advisers, chemicals and fumigation planes to spray coca fields. Just last month, Walters helped inaugurate a $12 million helicopter hanger just north of Bogota.

Colombian officials also say they are winning the drug war and point to an increase in the fumigation of coca fields and record seizures of cocaine. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says the amount of acreage devoted to coca cultivation has been reduced by more than half in the past five years, to about 200,000 acres from 403,551 acres in 2000, while production has fallen more than 45 percent to 149 metric tons last year.

But critics say that spraying has merely pushed coca production into more remote areas and that statistics do not adequately measure the amount of drug each acre produces.

"These antidrug policies have failed to address the real causes, the real structural reasons that Colombia produces drugs," said Francisco Thoumi, an economist at Rosario University in Bogota who has followed the drug trade for more than three decades. "They confront the problem in a short-term limited way, and there is no reason to believe that will change with a new version of Plan Colombia."

Colombia will send its proposal for an extension of Plan Colombia to the U.S. State Department, as required by international protocol, within the next few months. Walters says he is confident the new plan will be accepted by both countries. "We have been clear we intend to continue this policy," he told The Chronicle.

Congress recently approved $712 million in fiscal year 2005-06 for the Andean Counter Drug Initiative, an antidrug aid package for South America.

Last summer, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., requested the GAO study to review official statistics used to evaluate the program.

Grassley noted that GAO criticism was likely to hurt the administration's push to extend the program, at least at its current funding levels.

"While we want to keep a multi-pronged approach with our efforts in Central and South America, we need to ensure that the money that is being provided, for both military and nonmilitary efforts, is being used effectively," said Grassley in an e-mail message. "Basically, it (GAO report) is saying it is very difficult to prove the policies are affecting the overall drug trade."

In Bogota, government officials remain closemouthed about the follow-up to Plan Colombia. President Alvaro Uribe, who has high approval ratings and is expected to run for re-election next year, has been an enthusiastic supporter of the program. But opposition candidates and even some members of the government have started to voice criticisms, noting the lack of tangible results in contrast to the program's high cost over the past six years.

"Under no circumstances are we saying we do not need the aid or that the aid is not important," said Comptroller-General Antonio Hernandez. "The question we have to ask is if this set of actions, efforts and sacrifices ... requires a different path. We are asking if there is another way of approaching the problem."

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