HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Drug War In Colombia -- Is There Any Progress?
Pubdate: Wed, 22 Jun 2005
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 2005 Houston Chronicle Publishing Company Division, Hearst Newspaper
Author: John Otis
Bookmark: (Cocaine)
Bookmark: (Walters, John)


White House Says Cocaine Levels Are Down, But Some Analysts Disagree

Estimates on last year's cocaine trade:

South American production* White House drug office: 640 metric tons United 
Nations: 670 metric tons U.S. task force: 1,390 metric tons

Seizures State Department: 373 metric tons

Consumption White House drug office: 300 metric tons in U.S. alone.

* South America provides virtually the world supply of cocaine. By U.S. and 
Latin American authorities.

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA - As proof that the U.S.-backed drug war in South America 
is paying off, the Bush administration says cocaine production has 
plummeted by nearly 30 percent over the past three years.

But some American counternarcotics officials and drug-trade analysts call 
such triumphal pronouncements misleading.

A U.S. government task force, they note, estimated that cartels last year 
produced more than twice the amount of cocaine claimed by the White House. 
A report released last week by the United Nations maintained that cocaine 
output is actually on the rise.

The debate over drug numbers matters because Congress uses the White House 
figures as a measuring stick when determining the best way to spend nearly 
$1 billion annually in counternarcotics programs in South America.

Bewildered by the conflicting data, two Republican lawmakers have asked the 
General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, to evaluate 
the Bush administration's anti-drug policies and to double-check its 
cocaine-production estimates.

"We need the most credible information possible if members are going to .. 
continue to support" current drug-enforcement efforts in South America, 
said David Marin, a spokesman for the House Government Reform Committee. 
The panel is chaired by Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, who requested the GAO 
review along with Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley.

Virtually the entire world supply of cocaine comes from Colombia, Peru and 
Bolivia. Much of the drug reaching the United States flows through Mexico, 
where rivalries over smuggling routes have fueled a wave of killings along 
the border with Texas.

The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy announced in March 
that cocaine production last year in the three Andean nations totaled 640 
metric tons, down from 900 metric tons in 2001.

Touting these numbers at a recent congressional hearing on Colombia which 
provides 90 percent of the cocaine sold in the United States John Walters, 
the head of the White House drug office, said: "We are heading in the right 
direction, and we are winning."

Contradictory figures

But the White House figures contradict other tallies and strike some as 
funny math.

According to the State Department, U.S. and Latin American security forces 
seized a record 373 metric tons of cocaine last year. Walters' office 
thinks annual consumption of the narcotic in the United States alone is 
about 300 metric tons. Taken together, the two figures exceed the White 
House estimate of the total produced in 2004.

Speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons, a U.S. official 
familiar with anti-drug operations insisted that South America "could 
easily be producing well over 800 metric tons of cocaine per year."

The Florida-based Joint Interagency Task Force South, which includes Air 
Force, Coast Guard and Drug Enforcement Administration officials, put the 
figure even higher. The task force, which has seized huge caches of cocaine 
on the high seas, estimated 2004 production at 1,390 metric tons.

But David Murray, a special assistant to drug czar Walters, vigorously 
defended the White House figures, which are based on the size of the coca 
crop that provides the raw material for cocaine.

He insisted that U.S.-backed anti-drug efforts, such as an 
aerial-eradication program to wipe out coca crops in Colombia, are working 
but said there will be a time lag before cocaine supplies are affected.

"There's an enormous amount of cocaine in the pipeline, but it's production 
from previous years," he said.

Like the White House estimates, U.N. surveys reported a downward trend in 
cocaine production each year between 2001 and 2003.

But last week's United Nations' estimate had cartels producing 670 metric 
tons in 2004, up from 655 tons the previous year.

"The trend in the Andean region has not been good," said Sandro Calvani, 
who heads the Colombian bureau of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.

For many experts, the most telling numbers come from U.S. streets.

By eradicating coca plants and seizing cocaine shipments, U.S. officials 
aim to create a shortage that will drive up prices, drive down purity and 
convince Americans that they should stop using the drug.

Since mid-2003, Walters, the drug czar, has been predicting an imminent 
squeeze on U.S. cocaine supplies and a resulting price jump.

But a Justice Department "drug threat assessment" released in February 
stated that the availability of cheap, potent cocaine in the United States 
is on the rise.

Mix of science, guessing Measuring the clandestine drug trade has always 
required a mix of science and educated guessing. A recent report by the 
Washington Office on Latin America, a liberal think tank, cautioned that 
any results could be off by 25 percent or more.

Yet critics say that the Bush administration has presented its 2004 
estimates as irrefutable evidence that its anti-drug strategy in South 
America has traffickers on the run.

"You don't stop midstream on something that has been very effective," 
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said during an April visit to Bogota.

The U.N. survey and the huge cocaine estimate from the Florida task force, 
however, hint at a drug-war quagmire.

The task force refused to discuss the methodology behind its estimate. But 
Adam Isacson, an analyst at the Center for International Policy who met 
with the task force earlier this year, said its members were "dismissive" 
of White House claims that cocaine production is falling.

"They told me: 'We haven't seen any reduction in cocaine leaving the 
region,' " Isacson said.

According to Murray, of the drug czar's office, the task force probably 
based its estimate on the amount of cocaine confiscated in 2004. But while 
huge seizures could indicate that more cocaine is being produced, he said, 
it could also mean that authorities are doing a better job confiscating the 

Peter Reuter, director of the Rand Corporation's Drug Policy Research 
Center, thinks the task-force numbers are too high. But considering global 
demand and the number of seizures, Reuter said White House cocaine 
estimates for the past three years have been "implausibly low."

The White House numbers are compiled by the CIA, which examines satellite 
images from a sampling of South American coca fields. After calculating 
total acreage, analysts take into account weather, production techniques 
and other factors to arrive at a cocaine estimate.

"It's far from guesswork," said Jonathan Farrar, the deputy assistant 
secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs.

But cloud cover, the expansion of the crop into new regions and even the 
number of analysts available in Washington to scrutinize satellite images 
can obscure the true picture on the ground, said the U.S. official familiar 
with counterdrug operations.

"We have a very low confidence that the satellites see all of the coca 
cultivation," the official said.

Some South American officials also have their doubts. Between 2003 and 
2004, for example, the CIA numbers show Peru's coca crop shrinking by 13 
percent. But Peruvian drug czar Nils Ericcson claims that coca acreage 
increased by 36 percent.

In a 2002 cable, the U.S. Embassy in Bogota complained that CIA estimates 
were "very wide of the mark and the apparent result of years of chronic 
underestimation of the amount of coca being cultivated in Colombia."

In fact, new information prompted the CIA in 2001 to nearly triple its 
original estimate of Colombian cocaine production during the late 1990s.

Cocaine production in South America is falling, the U.S. official said, but 
overall numbers remain a mystery.

"It's like climbing a mountain without knowing how high it is," he said.
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