Pubdate: Sun, 20 Jan 2002
Source: Boston Globe (MA)
Copyright: 2002 Globe Newspaper Company
Author: Kirk Semple
Bookmarks: (Heroin)


BOGOTA - Amid a renewed ban on opium trading in Afghanistan, and close
international scrutiny of the new Afghan government, US and
international drug-control officials are expecting a shift in the
world's opium trade away from central Asia and toward Colombia.

Afghanistan, despite the ban, is still believed to be the world's
largest supplier of opiates. An edict this month by the US-backed
interim Afghan government, prohibiting the cultivation of opium
poppies and the sale of their derivatives, including heroin, renewed a
Taliban decree in 2000.

"With the presence of the United States and the United Nations in
Afghanistan, we hope the ban will be effective," said Klaus Nyholm,
chief of the UN Drug Control Program in Colombia. "If it is, we know
there will be an effect here in Colombia."

Colombia's share of the international heroin trade is minuscule, from
2 to 3 percent, according to UN officials. But the country is the
biggest supplier of heroin to the US market. About 60 percent of the
heroin sold in the United States comes from Colombia, said Leo
Arreguin, director of the DEA's office there.

By contrast, Afghanistan is responsible for about 70 percent of
production of opiates, and about 90 percent of the heroin used in
Europe, said Kemal Kurspahic, a spokesman for the Vienna-based United
Nations Office on Drug Control and Crime Prevention.

After the Taliban opium decree of July 2000, poppy cultivation and
opium production was almost wiped out, according to a UN study
published in October. But Afghanistan continued to supply much of the
world's heroin markets from huge stockpiles of raw opium from boom

Even before the Sept. 11 strikes, US and Colombian officials had
quietly formed a joint heroin task force to curb Colombia's growing
heroin market. The force, which now involves about 75 officials, is a
Colombian operation with DEA support, Arreguin said. The group's
agents come largely from Colombian police and the attorney general's
office, and operate out of Bogota, officials said.

The DEA has three agents assigned to assist the new task force. A
funding request approved by Congress and the Bush administration will
provide another 13 positions this year, Arreguin said. A similar
effort in 1997 to establish a joint US-Colombian task force never came
to fruition, a spokeswoman for the US Embassy in Bogota added.

US drug-control officials say that since the drastic fall of Afghan
opium production under the Taliban, they have seen no signs of jumps
in other opium-producing countries such as Colombia, Mexico, and those
in the so-called Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia, Myanmar, Laos, and

"It's too early to say what exactly has changed since then," said
Will Glaspy, a spokesman at the DEA's headquarters in Alexandria, Va.

International drug-control officials, however, warned that demand may
already be shifting to Colombia, even as the administration of
President Andres Pastrana has stepped up its antinarcotics efforts
with $1.3 billion in US drug-fighting assistance that has mainly
focused on reducing the cocaine trade.

"We think the flower went elsewhere since the Taliban's decree,"
Nyholm, the UN official, said of the poppy plants that are used to
make heroin. "So it makes sense that there should be more opium poppy
grown in Colombia than before."

Despite intense aerial chemical spraying efforts in Colombia,
authorities have reported a rise in opium poppy cultivation, but the
extent is hard to measure. The crops' high mountain location, the
frequent cloud cover, and the poppies' cultivation among other crops
make satellite and aerial monitoring difficult.

The United Nations estimates that 12,000 to 15,000 hectares (a hectare
amounts to about 2.5 acres) are under cultivation in Colombia. This is
double the figure used by police and other government officials.

"We know that there is more than there used to be," Nyholm

A new phenomenon has also worried officials: Some small coffee growers
who have lost money because of plummeting prices have begun turning to
opium poppy, according to authorities.

Colombian heroin exports to the United States have grown significantly
over the last decade, beating out supplies from Asia and Mexico,
Arreguin said. Southwest Asia, primarily Afghanistan, is a smaller
player in the North American heroin industry, and accounts for between
4 and 10 percent of the market, Glaspy said.

As the US market has become saturated with heroin, the next logical
market for Colombian dealers would be Europe, especially with the
supply of Afghan heroin in doubt, experts said.

Colombian traffickers have proven themselves adept at seizing business
opportunities: Once a supplier of marijuana, Colombia is now the
source of about 80 percent of the world's cocaine. The country's
cocaine industry, like its heroin trade, has grown under the auspices
of leftist rebels who protect crops, laboratories, and trafficking

"Colombian narcotraffickers are very smart in what they do, in how
they hide drugs and get it to a new market. They did this with
cocaine," Arreguin said.

Driven by their competitiveness, Colombian heroin traffickers have won
their dominant share of the US market away from Asian control, and
have done it with heroin of high purity, the DEA official said. Europe
may be the next front.

"The Colombians could one day open their eyes and say, 'Could I
capture this market?"' Arreguin added. "Sooner or later the
Colombian narcotrafficker is going to fill that void."
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake