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.

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.

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.

In 2005, a record-breaking 170,000 hectares (419,000 acres) of coca were destroyed: 138,000 sprayed and 32,000 pulled out by hand or plowed under.

In total, since the program began in 1994 (and particularly since it was ramped up in 2000), 986,925 hectares of coca plant and opium poppy have been eradicated – an area almost equivalent to the size of the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined.

Drug seizures are another pillar of the plan, and here too, there are results. Two hundred and twenty-five tons of cocaine hydrochloride and cocaine base were seized in 2005, up from 125 tons in 2002, and the number of clandestine drug labs destroyed soared to nearly 2,000 last year from 317 in 2000, according to a July study by Colombia's National Narcotics Directorate (DNE). Meanwhile, the number of traffickers extradited to the US in the last four years is climbing toward 400.

"We are squeezing them. We are forcing them to change their drug trafficking routes and their methods," says Walters.

A better-trained and -equipped military and police, meanwhile, has meant that overall security in Colombia has vastly improved, especially in the urban areas. From 2002 to 2005, the murder rate fell 35 percent – from 28,837 murders to 18,111 – and kidnappings have dropped from nearly 3,000 in 2002 to 800 last year, according to Uribe's office. As a consequence, nearly 1 million foreigners visited last year, a 21 percent jump compared with 2004, and foreign investment hit $10 billion last year, a fivefold increase since 2002. Microsoft's Bill Gates is scheduled to visit in March, to take a look, he said last week, into business opportunities.

"Plan Colombia," says Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank in Washington, "....has manifestly helped the government restore some measure of authority in a country that was on the verge of being a failed state six years ago."

* * *

But even Plan Colombia advocates admit the impressive statistics do not a complete victory make.

"We're making first downs," US Ambassador to Colombia William Wood is fond of saying, "...but we're not sure how long the football field is."

President Uribe is often even more circumspect. "It is clear we cannot abandon Plan Colombia," he said while in New York last week."But it is also clear that, in comparison to our efforts, we should be seeing better results."

Sometimes, it seems the harder Colombians and Americans fight, the more the drug lords push back and the coca fields reproduce.

When Escobar was shot to death on a Medellín rooftop in 1993, some expected the industry in which he had played such a key role would contract. But, the Medellín cartel was soon replaced by their Cali rivals. And when key Cali cartel leaders were jailed a few years later – the trade was divided up by competing factions of the Norte del Valle cartel and a host of smaller "cartelitos." Mexican cartels meanwhile, moved quickly to fill remaining voids.

Uribe's government, meanwhile, is being criticized for allowing some top drug traffickers to avoid extradition by surrendering themselves as part of the government's peace deal with the paramilitaries. And the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in turn, may have been pushed into more remote zones – but they are estimated to still be earning hundreds of millions of dollars a year from their involvement in the drug trade.

There is no lack, after all, of coca. Despite the unprecedented eradication efforts, coca cultivation actually increased last year by 8 percent, according to a study released in June by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). More significantly, the amount of cocaine being produced from coca leaves is also increasing. According to DNE, Colombia produced 776 metric tons of cocaine last year, 231 more than previous US estimates, and enough to supply almost 80 percent of the world market.

Why? Growing techniques have improved over the years and farmers in some regions are now able to harvest coca leaf six times a year, instead of the usual four harvests, according to UNODC. Also, aerial spraying has pushed farmers to smaller, more isolated plots deeper in the countryside, making spray operations more complicated and less effective. While coca was concentrated in three provinces at the start of Plan Colombia, today, it has spread to at least 23 of the country's 32 provinces.

This geographical expansion also feeds a different problem, explains Pablo Casas, a security expert at the Security and Democracy Foundation in Bogotá. In the past, counternarcotics work was concentrated in a few areas, he says, but "everyone touches drugs now. Which means there are more police, military, and local authorities for the narcos to try to corrupt."

Even worse – as far as Washington is concerned – is that the most expensive US foreign aid program outside the Middle East has apparently failed to significantly change the availability, price, or quality of cocaine on American streets.

The question of cost and purity of street cocaine in the US remains contentious, due both to methods of gathering statistics, and ways in which those statistics are interpreted. When the White House drug czar's office announced last November that the price of a gram of cocaine was slightly higher (a sign of less availability), it was quickly attacked with statistics showing the opposite.

Sen. Charles Grassley, (R) of Iowa, chairman of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, in an April letter to Walters, even suggested the White House was selecting data to paint "a rosier, but not necessarily more accurate, picture" of the achievements of Plan Colombia.

Most sides to the debate agree however with the findings of the 2005 US National Survey on Drug Use and Health released this month. The study shows youth rates of cocaine use have fallen slightly since 2002 – but the number of first-time users is up, as are the number of hard-core addicts. Overall, according to the survey, levels of cocaine use and addiction are at least as high as they were in 2000.

"We need a new a new approach to drug policy," says John Walsh, a drug policy expert at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), an advocacy group. "A reevaluation is long overdue."

* * *

Gomez quit the police force when she got married and lost interest, over time, in the drug war shop talk. But Murillo, her husband, remained a member of the counternarcotics unit, and "he loved being part of the big game ...working with the Americans," she says.

Once, she says, he called her from San Diego, Calif., where he was testifying in a big case. "He was so excited. He felt he was doing something important," she remembers.

In the year before his death, Gomez admits, they had begun to argue a lot. He would say he was going to do something with her and the kids, and would be called away by the unit. He would promise to call, and then be out of touch. When he missed their sixth wedding anniversary because of a drug operation, she had just about had enough: "Tell your Gringo masters I want my husband back!" she had screeched down the phone line.

They talked of separating. She berates herself most now for not telling him she still loved him, the last time they spoke.

Lately, after speaking out in the press against the Colombian military, Gomez has been receiving menacing phone calls late at night. "Prepare coffins for the rest of the family," a muffled voice told her last week.

She is scared to take the kids to the park across the street. She rarely goes out herself. "If I could just speak to Carlos one more time, I would tell him I was never angry with him," she says. "I was just angry with the way everything was being done... I would tell him we needed to do it over again, differently."

Next part: Is there a better way?

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