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Plan Colombia: Big gains, but cocaine still flows

The US cites record coca-crop destruction, and major arrests in Colombia. But cocaine flows north unabated.

By Danna HarmanCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 28, 2006



CALI, COLOMBIA

Margarita Consuela Gomez Ricardo and Carlos Murillo met during a police raid on a warehouse of pirated DVDs seven years ago. Later that evening, after they swooped in and made the arrests, he asked her out for coffee. And six months later they were married.

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Now, at age 31 and with two small children, Ms. Gomez is a widow. The last time she spoke to Murillo was on Friday, May 19. He said he was coming home that weekend. Their 2-year-old son was watching Power Rangers on TV at full volume and she could barely hear her husband's goodbye.

She went out to get her hair done, and dressed up the kids nicely, but Murillo never showed. She was disappointed, but that wasn't unusual.

On Monday night, as she channel-surfed in their Cali apartment, she caught a newsflash: An elite police unit had been shot in Jamundí. She called the station, but she knew.

Murillo, along with 10 others, most of them US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) trained counternarcotics specialists, had been killed by a military unit. Colombia's attorney general says the soldiers were on the narcotraffickers payroll.

In the weeks and months ahead there would come the questions, suspicions, accusations, and fears. But right then, with the TV remote in hand, all that Gomez felt was despair.

"What is wrong with this country?" she thought. "Nothing ever changes."

* * *

Sitting in his Washington office a block from the White House, John P. Walters, President Bush's 'drug czar,' sees a different picture. "There is absolutely no question we are winning," he states flatly.

The "winning," in this case, is against narcotraffickers. And the "we" is the US and Colombian governments, inexorably bound together in a multibillion dollar war against the drug trade.

In 1989, when the US drug czar's post (officially, the Office of National Drug Control Policy, or ONDCP) was created, Pablo Escobar, the notorious head of the Medellín cartel, was the kingpin. "Escobar and other drug lords were the most powerful and violent people in the world. They could buy or kill anyone. They could go anywhere. They could do anything," says ONDCP director Walters. Those days, he stresses, are patently over.

"Through years of systematic efforts, and not always without obstacles and setbacks, the Colombians have reconstructed their police, military, judicial, and political institutions," he says, giving much credit, as many in the administration do, to Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, Washington's conservative ally in Bogotá. Mr. Uribe's success in bringing stability to the country, says Mr. Walters, is nothing short of "astounding."

But Walters doesn't downplay the U' role. "You can't build capacities without metal detectors and armored cars and radios and people who are going to teach personnel to use all those things effectively," says Walters. "It could not have been done without our assistance."

The US Embassy in Bogotá, since the launch of the $4.7 billion Plan Colombia in 2000, has grown into the second largest US diplomatic mission in the world, after Baghdad. It employs over 2,000 people, including some 350 US military personnel and 750 contractors.

The cornerstone of Plan Colombia is the massive effort to eradicate Colombia's coca plants before they are processed into cocaine. Some 20 aircraft, piloted by contractors with DynCorp International, headquartered in Falls Church, Va., take turns carrying out daily spray missions. Army and police units assist these efforts by clearing the ground of coca farmers, guerrillas, or traffickers below, and by protecting the spray mission from above – with a fleet of 71 US provided helicopters. The majority of the State Department's counternarcotics and law enforcement budget in Colombia is dedicated – directly or indirectly – to these endeavors.

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