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November 12, 2005 - Philadelphia Inquirer (PA)

A Losing Battle On Drugs In Colombia?

"The Better We Get At Catching Them," A U.S. Official Said, "The More Creative They Get."

By Shannon McCaffrey

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

BOGOTA, Colombia - The six puppies looked fine at first. But when police gave them a closer look, they found fresh scars on their bellies that told a different story.

The tiny Labradors and rottweilers had been surgically converted into drug couriers, cut open, with several packets of heroin stitched into their abdomens.

Even Colombia's hardened police, who found the puppies at an abandoned house outside Medellin, had never seen anything like it. Traffickers were apparently going to ship the dogs to the United States saying they were pets. It is almost certain that they would have been discarded as soon as their valuable cargo was removed.

"The better we get at catching them, the more creative they get," said Mark Styron, supervisor of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Heroin Group in Bogota.

Staying ahead of the smugglers is expensive. Since 2000, the United States has sent $4.5 billion to Colombia to help battle drug trafficking. That six-year program, known as Plan Colombia, is set to expire at the end of this year.

Although the Bush administration and Congress have signaled a willingness to continue funding at current levels for at least one more year, some are questioning the money's effectiveness in stemming the tide of drugs to the United States.

Much of the cocaine and a major part of the heroin that end up for sale on the street corners of the United States originate in the rich soil of this conflict-ridden South American country.

The Colombians, defending the antidrug effort, point to the hundreds of thousands of acres of coca and poppy fields they have destroyed and the tons of drugs seized at their airports and borders. Kidnappings and murders are down.

But a report from the United Nations showed that while coca cultivation in Colombia was down, it had risen in neighboring Peru and Bolivia.

And the efforts in Colombia seem to have had little measurable effect on the U.S. drug supply. The Justice Department's National Drug Threat Assessment for 2005 found that heroin and cocaine were still readily available throughout the United States. Data from the DEA show that the purity of wholesale cocaine being smuggled in from South America has increased slightly.

At least with heroin, however, there is some evidence that a crackdown begun in 2002 is showing results. DEA tests show that purity has dipped 14.5 percent since 2000. It is generally believed that if a drug is in short supply, purity decreases and prices increase.

Colombia remains the world's largest producer of cocaine, and the nation's image remains closely linked to the drug.

Yet in the United States, concern is running high about heroin. Although the opiate is not used with the frequency of cocaine or marijuana, it is highly addictive and leads to a disproportionately high number of overdoses and deaths, according to emergency-room data.

Colombia produces only 2 percent of the world's heroin, but it is generally believed to be among the best, often so pure that users can snort it, rather than injecting it. And almost all Colombian heroin flows into the United States. Ninety percent of the heroin on the East Coast is Colombian, according to the DEA.

Plan Colombia was launched under the Clinton administration as a way to fight drugs. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Congress said the funding could be used for counterterrorism as well.

In Colombia, the two are inseparable, officials say.

"The drugs are the terrorists' juice," said William Wood, U.S. ambassador to Colombia.

The drug pipeline to the United States often begins in the camps of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Known by its Spanish-language acronym, FARC controls swaths of rural coca- and poppy-growing territory. Colombian police and intelligence officials say FARC supports itself and its insurgency against the government with millions of dollars from the drug trade.

One FARC defector said in an interview that he abandoned the group because of its brutality. Leaders in his front ordered his brother to kill his girlfriend after she violated the rules and killed a civilian.

The man, who declined to give his name out of fear of retaliation, said that he grew up in FARC and that drugs were a constant presence.

"To end the drug war, you have to end the guerillas," he said. "As long as there are guerillas, there are drugs. They exist together."

Everywhere in Colombia there is evidence of U.S. money and influence: Black Hawk and Huey helicopters, twin-engine Otter police planes, fixed-wing fumigation planes. At a rural training site southwest of Bogota, American Special Forces help the Colombians train for dangerous raids to destroy drug labs.

"It would be much worse without the U.S.," said Gen. Jorge Daniel Castro, chief of the Colombian National Police. "This is a long and difficult battle, and the United States has been our strongest ally."

Over the last 10 years, Colombia has lost 40 U.S.-supplied aircraft battling FARC and the right-wing United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC. The additional aid is needed to keep the fleet operating, the Colombians say.

Wood, the U.S. ambassador, said that more people died every year in the United States from Colombian drugs than in the Sept. 11 attacks. U.S. aid will eventually decline as the situation stabilizes, he said. But the drug problem will never go away entirely, and the United States - as the primary consumer of South American drugs - will likely always have a role in Colombia.

"It's like asking when is crime over," Wood said. "It's never going to be over."

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