WASHINGTON - The Bush administration and congressional allies are gearing up to renew a plan for drug eradication in Latin America despite some grim news: The $5.4 billion spent on the plan since 2000 has made no dent in the availability of cocaine on American streets and prices are at all-time lows.
United Nations figures released this month show that coca cultivation in the Andean region increased by 2% in 2004 as declines in Colombia were swamped by massive increases in Peru and Bolivia. And the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service said last week that the anti-drug effort had had "no effect" on the price or purity of drugs in the United States.
The findings have fueled skepticism in Congress, where conservative groups have joined efforts to lobby against continued funding. The National Taxpayers Union called the anti-drug program a "boondoggle."
Nonetheless, a House committee last week approved the administration's request for $734.5 million for next year as part of a foreign aid bill. Debate on the bill could start as early as today. President Bush also may unveil a renewed multiyear commitment to South American anti-drug efforts this year when Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, a staunch U.S. ally, is expected to visit.
"We are heading in the right direction and we are winning," the federal drug czar, John P. Walters, told Congress last month.
"Plan Colombia" a six-year effort by Washington and Bogota to eliminate drug trafficking, end more than 40 years of armed conflict with rebels and promote economic and legal reform in Colombia expires this year. The Bush administration wants to continue it, a senior State Department official said.
"You adjust your tactics and you adjust your resources," the official said. "There's no inclination on the part of our administration to give up just because it's tough."
Negotiations with Bogota over details of a successor program to Plan Colombia will begin next month, the official said.
Administration and some congressional officials say Plan Colombia has had some striking success. Killings, massacres of villagers and other attacks blamed on drug trafficking all have fallen sharply since 2002, and kidnappings have fallen by half, according to Colombian Defense Ministry figures, even though this year has seen a resurgence of violence.
Drug crop eradication and drug interdictions are cutting into the profits of Colombia's right-wing paramilitaries and leftist rebels, Walters told Congress last month.
Walters testified that "cocaine production in the Andes has declined by 29% since 2001, and Colombia's opium crop was cut in half from 2003 to 2004." He said the reason that price and availability had not been affected was the lag of six months to a year between the time when the coca plant was harvested and when its cocaine was available on American streets.
The reports call the administration's assessment into question. Whereas cocaine production fell 11% in Colombia in 2004, it soared by 23% in Peru and 35% in Bolivia, according to the report by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. Overall, coca cultivation in the region increased 2%, the U.N. study said.
"The [U.N.] numbers are devastating," said Adam Isacson of the Center for International Policy, which has argued that eradication campaigns must be accompanied by large-scale development efforts that offer peasants alternative livelihoods.
"The spraying, when it isn't accompanied by any alternative development, doesn't seem to discourage [coca farmers] from trying again, because there just aren't a lot of other good choices out there," Isacson said.
Peasants have responded by planting even more coca, hiding it under trees and among other crops, and turning to varieties that produce a higher yield, the U.N. report said.
Whether or not the anti-drug effort is succeeding, the U.S. foreign aid budget is under new scrutiny, especially with the war in Iraq costing more than $4 billion a month and a $379-billion deficit looming for 2006. Colombia, the fifth-largest recipient of U.S. aid after Iraq, Israel, Egypt and Afghanistan, could be a target for cuts.
The Congressional Research Service tallied State Department and Defense Department spending on the Andean Counterdrug Initiative at $5.4 billion since 2000. Though the anti-drug program aids Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil, Panama and Venezuela, Colombia has received most of the money, about $4.5 billion."While there has been measurable progress in Colombia's internal security, as indicated by decreases in violence, and in the eradication of drug crops, no effect has been seen with regard to price, purity and availability of cocaine and heroin in the United States," the research agency report said.
The report said Colombia was no closer to ending its decades-long armed strife.
The conservative National Taxpayers Union last week called for the program to be cut back or killed.
"By all measurable criteria, Plan Colombia's effectiveness is dubious," said Paul Gessing, governmental affairs director of the anti-tax group. "It's a big taxpayer boondoggle."
Liberals also contend that the program is wasteful. Rep. James P. McGovern (D-Mass.) plans to offer an amendment to the foreign aid bill that would slash $100 million in U.S. military and security aid to Colombia.
One senior U.S. government policy advisor, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear he would be excluded from administration policy discussions, agreed with many of the critics.
"It's a complete waste of money," the advisor said. "You have to ask yourself, why are we in Colombia?"
He added: "The bottom line is not how much they produce or how much we eradicate, the bottom line is, is there enough supply to meet the demand [in the United States], and there always is. The traffickers are always one step ahead of us."
Plan Colombia began under the Clinton administration primarily to fight drugs. But after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Bush administration has emphasized counter-terrorism and regional security.
While some conservatives wish to cut funding for Colombia, many Democrats want to spend less on its military and more on rural economic development. Democratic critics also wonder whether the U.S. has an exit strategy for Colombia.
Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel), a former Peace Corps volunteer in Colombia, said the U.S. effort there violates a key principle of international aid: "Work yourself out of a job."
After five years of U.S. funding, American military advisors are still training Colombian troops and American companies are still being paid to maintain expensive U.S. Black Hawk helicopters, Farr said.
"Look at how much attention is being paid to building local capacity in Iraq so we can leave," Farr said. "This is where we're failing in the war on drugs, because we're not developing the capacity of these countries to handle their own problems."
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