Before Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, or the war on terror, the US was waging another global battle: the war on drugs. The main front in that conflict was South America - and Colombia specifically, the origin of most of the world's cocaine supply.
Lately, the drug war has taken a back seat to conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it's still being fought, and statistically, at least, it's being won. Yet behind the numbers, the drug war is changing - into a terror war of its own. And the success of that fight is harder to quantify.
When President Bush visits the seaside city of Cartagena Monday, he and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe are sure to tick off the latest figures: crops of coca, the main ingredient in cocaine, were reduced in Colombia by 16 percent in 2003, to 213,000 acres, according to the United Nations. That's a 47 percent decline over three years, from a high of 403,000 acres in 2000. US figures, which rely on different methodology, are slightly less optimistic but still significant - a 33 percent decline since 2001. Production of poppies, the source of heroin, is down by 33 percent in the past two years, the US government says. With US help - to the tune of $3.3 billion - Colombia in recent months has seized record amounts of cocaine headed to US ports, approved the extradition of infamous drug barons like Cali cartel chief Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela, and confiscated scores of luxurious properties belonging to notorious narcotraffickers.
Also, under the hard-charging Mr. Uribe - perhaps the firmest US ally in Latin America and a strong supporter of the Iraq war - Colombia has launched an unprecedented military drive called Plan Patriot against the leftist rebels known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). And Uribe is in peace negotiations with the right-wing paramilitaries, who are heavily involved in the drug business. Up to 3,000 troops in the 20,000-man army are expected to demobilize by year's end.
The drop in drug production is largely due to the aggressive coca fumigation program, mostly executed by US planes and pilots. In 2003 they sprayed 328,500 acres, the UN says. So far in 2004, according to the Colombian government, 310,600 acres have been sprayed, a slight drop from this time last year.
Uribe said last week that he would ask Mr. Bush to maintain aid levels even after Plan Colombia, the massive antidrug plan created under President Clinton, expires at the end of 2005. He predicted that Colombia would finish the year with 160,500 acres of coca - 25 percent less than last year. "We can't leave the eradication of drugs half completed," he told local radio. "The battle needs to be fought until Colombia has defeated drugs."
Since Uribe took office, the war on drugs has rapidly evolved into a full-scale battle on terror. With enthusiastic US backing, Uribe has gone after FARC rebels, who often rely on drug proceeds to fund their armed struggle. Plan Patriot has dispatched 17,000 Colombian troops into remote southern areas to capture territory and top leaders.
The US is fully behind Plan Patriot, with the Bush administration succeeding in limiting the number of military and civilian personnel allowed in Colombia at any one time. Arguing that Uribe needed further help to do away permanently with "narcoterrorists," Bush won a doubling of the military cap to 800 troops and an increase of civilian contractors to 600 from 400.
With news on other fronts like Iraq increasingly becoming negative, Bush administration officials have loudly sung the praises of Plan Patriot.
"Plan Patriot has been successful," says Gen. Brantz Craddock, headof US Southern Command, on a recent visit to Bogotá. "After receiving detailed reports, I see that progress has been significant, above all in the counterterrorist and counterdrug areas."
Still, some argue that the FARC is in a strategic retreat, biding its time instead of confronting the Army head on. Several midlevel FARC commanders have been captured or have deserted, but no major chiefs have yet been nabbed.
Though US troops cannot participate in direct combat, they are training Colombian mobile units and providing logistical help, intelligence, and helicopter support and maintenance.
Adam Isacson, a Colombia analyst at the Center for International Policy, a watchdog based in Washington, warns that the involvement of US troops in the Colombian conflict may continue to escalate. He says aid to Colombia has become increasingly military - one-third to one-fourth of aid is now considered military assistance, compared with none in 2002. "The main pitfall is that we're slowly getting involved in a conflict that has the potential to grow," he says. "If the strategy is going to be a largely military one while neglecting the social side, we're going to be chasing this around for a long time."
Indeed, US and Colombian officials are puzzled by the fact that despite record eradication and seizures, there has been no corresponding drop in US street prices. Some US officials speculate that drug traffickers may have stockpiled a substantial amount of cocaine along supply routes. And the UN says student surveys reveal US cocaine use is stabilizing and even diminishing.
But Francisco Thoumi of Bogotá's Rosario University, an expert in drug trafficking, says that aerial spraying alone won't work. He argues that despite massive fumigation, there have been substantial new plantings that include more productive coca plants and plants grown closer together, thereby producing more coca per acre. He also cites rumors that farmers have produced coca plants resistant to pesticide. "I am very pessimistic" that the drug war can be won under the current policy, he says. "All of my work has brought me to the conclusion that the problem can't be solved with repressive policies. In the best of cases, the coca crops will move to other countries," like Bolivia and Peru.
Thoumi further argues that at one time, Colombia trafficked in drugs without growing them. Thus, eliminating coca crops in Colombia won't do away with the myriad cartels that sell them.