Mixed Results from Anti-Coca 'Plan Colombia'
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
And despite the focus on the war on terror, the US still spends billions of dollars trying to stem the flow of drugs from South America. NPR's Eric Weiner reports.
ERIC WEINER reporting:
By almost any measure--dollars spent, personnel assigned--the war on drugs remains a hot war and, according to Bush administration officials, a war the US is winning, or at least not losing as badly as in years past. David Murray is a policy analyst at the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Mr. DAVID MURRAY (Office of National Drug Control Policy): We were losing this heavyweight title fight a few years ago. Every round we were falling further behind; they were growing more and more coca. That stopped. Because of Plan Colombia, starting around 2001 we began to win every round. It's not over, but we have driven them down more than 30 percent in their coca production, more than 60 percent in their opium poppy production.
WEINER: Plan Colombia is a $4 billion effort to reduce the flow of drugs from Colombia, the world's biggest producer of cocaine. In fact, the amount of drugs seized by Colombian authorities has risen sharply; so has the number of suspects extradited to the United States. The big drug cartels, such as Pablo Escobar's Cali cartel, are a thing of the past. But not everyone agrees that we are, indeed, wining the war on drugs. Francisco Thoumi is a professor at Rosario University in Colombia's capital, Bogota. He points to one statistic: the price of a kilogram of cocaine on the streets of American cities. The law of supply and demand would suggest that if fewer drugs are in circulation, then the price would go up, but it has not.
Professor FRANCISCO THOUMI (Rosario University): It basically suggests that somehow we have not achieved too many results or we are just treading water.
WEINER: The big cartels, he says, have splintered into hundreds of tiny cartels, or cartelitos. They grow coca on small plots of land, difficult to spot by satellite. The US and Colombian governments are up against not only well-armed narco traffickers but, also, the laws of economics, or cocanomics. A Colombian farmer earns $2 an acre if he grows bananas, $700 an acre for coca. Choosing coca, says Adam Isaacson of the Center for International Policy, is simply a rational survival choice, especially for people living in Colombia's most isolated towns and villages, places like Ramolinos(ph).
Mr. ADAM ISAACSON (Center for International Policy): Not only are they off of the power and water in all other grids, they're even off the financial grid. There isn't even currency. The national currency doesn't reach Ramolinos. The way people pay for things is by bringing little crumbs and rocks of coca paste, the basic paste that the peasants make from coca leaves, and they weigh them in scales on the counters of the stores. You are completely off the grid.
WEINER: Getting villages like Ramolinos on the grid and out of the grip of the narco traffickers is one part of Plan Colombia, but most of the US money, some 80 percent, goes towards military operations. At times, in fact, the war on drugs and the war on terrorism seem like one and the same. Colombian guerrilla groups, like FARC, are both involved in the drug trade and on the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations. Again, Adam Isaacson.
Mr. ISAACSON: And so it was a very, rather, smooth move to go beyond the limitation on just the narcotics mission in Colombia to allow all of the dozens of helicopters and thousands and thousands of military trainees, other weapons that we'd given for the drug war to begin to be used for this larger mission.
WEINER: US officials defend the scope of Plan Colombia. As long as Colombia's terrorist groups are involved in the drug trade, they say, you can't fight one without fighting the other. Plan Colombia is due to expire at the end of this year. Both US and Colombian officials want to extend the program. Eric Weiner, NPR News.
BRAND: More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.