Pubdate: Sat, 05 May 2007
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2007 Los Angeles Times
Author: Sam Enriquez, Times Staff Writer
Bookmark: (Marijuana)
Bookmark: (Cocaine)
Bookmark: (Walters, John)
Bookmark: (Mexico)


Figures for Last Year Show That Cocaine Is Cheaper, Purer and Widely Available.

MEXICO CITY -- The United States and its Latin American allies are 
losing a major battle in the war on drugs, according to indicators 
that show cocaine prices dipped for most of 2006 and U.S. users were 
getting more bang for their buck.

Despite billions of dollars in U.S. antidrug spending and record 
seizures, statistics recently released by the White House Office of 
National Drug Control Policy suggest that cocaine is as available as ever.

Cocaine users and law enforcement officials both care about price and 
purity. Authorities work to choke off supply, driving up cost and 
dampening street sales. Users want better coke at cheaper prices.

In 2005, John P. Walters, the head of the drug policy office, made 
headlines touting a surge in cocaine prices and falling levels of 
quality. Those figures indicated that U.S. drug control policies were 
working, he said.

But the new numbers issued by his office indicate that any victory 
was short-lived. Retail cocaine prices last year fell more than 12% 
from January to October, while average purity of cocaine seized by 
authorities rose from about 68% to 73%. And this time, the drug 
policy office did little to publicize the figures, releasing them in 
a letter to U.S. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa).

The new statistics emboldened critics who say the Bush 
administration's antidrug strategies need to change.

"You can spin this any way you want, but when prices go down and 
supply goes up, the fact of the matter is that this policy is not 
working," said U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), a longtime critic 
who supports spending more on economic development.

Since the Iraq war began more than four years ago, the Pentagon has 
sharply reduced spending on air and sea surveillance of trafficking 
routes in the Pacific and Caribbean. The centerpiece of the U.S. 
strategy against cocaine has shifted to Plan Colombia, which funds 
aerial fumigation of coca plants. Colombian growers supply 90% of 
U.S. users through Mexican smuggling rings that control the cocaine 
and marijuana trade.

"Crop control is the most cost-effective means of cutting supply," 
according to the 2007 International Narcotics Control Strategy 
Report, issued by the U.S. State Department. Last year, Colombia 
reported it had destroyed more than half a million acres of coca plants.

But growers have responded to the fumigation by breaking up their 
crops into smaller areas in an apparently successful hide-and-seek 
strategy. U.S. officials estimate that as much as 800 tons of cocaine 
still was exported from Colombia.

Patrick Ward, deputy director of the Office of National Drug Control 
Policy, said the Colombia eradication program kept 350 tons of 
cocaine from being produced.

But critics say that availability of cocaine in most U.S. cities is 
evidence of failure.

"In 2005, more coca was grown in Colombia than they had in 2000, when 
Plan Colombia started," said Adam Isacson, a Colombia analyst for the 
Center for International Policy, a Washington think tank. "They can 
say, 'Look how much more coke we'd have without fumigation,' but that 
sounds pretty lame."

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe traveled to Washington this week to 
lobby for continued U.S. support amid allegations of ties between his 
government and illegal paramilitary groups. Colombia has received 
$4.7 billion since 2000.

The continued high production in Colombia is also troubling news for 
Mexico, which reaps the cocaine trade's greatest profits and bears 
the brunt of its costs. More than 2,000 deaths last year were 
attributed to an ongoing battle among rival drug gangs for control of 
smuggling routes.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon in December deployed the army to 
stem the bloodshed. But the killings continue at or ahead of last 
year's pace. In January, Mexico extradited several key drug 
trafficking figures to face trial in U.S. courts, including the 
alleged head of the country's east coast-based cartel. More 
extraditions are expected.

But continuing violence and a steady supply of cocaine crossing into 
the U.S. from Mexico have many questioning Calderon's strategy as 
well as Washington's.

"The standard that economists would use on extradition would be that 
it frees up the market," said Peter Reuter, an economist and drug 
policy expert at Rand Corp. "If you're Mexico, you care about 
reducing the capability of these organizations to execute people in 
large numbers. But the idea that it will stop cocaine is wrong."

Mexico's army operations, historically, have been effective only in 
the short term, said Jose Luis Pineyro, a military affairs expert in 
Mexico City. "After the military leaves, the narcos come back." 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake