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Central America next drug hot spot

Efforts in Mexico, Colombia said to be working for U.S.

- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 21, 2012

A State Department official this week compared the war on drugs in Latin America to baseball games, in which the United States is winning in Colombia, leading in Mexico and just coming to bat in Central America, where there are too many umpires.

"In Colombia, we are in the ninth inning," said William R. Brownfield, head of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. "The score is 10-to-1, the Colombian government is winning. The game isn't over yet, but they're already starting to celebrate in the stands."

"In Mexico, we're in the sixth inning. The Mexican government has taken the lead," he said. "It's still a very tight game."

He said the Mexican government, with strong U.S. aid, has "steady pitching" and a "deep and powerful bullpen."

However, the drug war is just beginning in Central America, and the United States is facing new challenges dealing with seven different governments in that region, he said.

Mr. Brownfield's analogy reflects what some believe to be a tough game in which U.S. authorities shift funding and resources to new areas of an elusive and evolving drug war in Latin America.

Funding for programs in Colombia and Mexico is on the decline.

In Central America, the State Department, Pentagon and Justice Department are ramping up spending for everything from base construction and police and prosecutor training programs to direct drug-trafficking interdiction efforts.

The State Department's annual budget for a program known as the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) has more than doubled during the past five years.

Roberta A. Jacobson, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, who appeared with Mr. Brownfield at a special briefing on the initiative, said CARSI funding likely will reach $135 million in 2012.

That is still less than a third of the $1.6 billion spent on programs in Mexico during the same period. But Mrs. Jacobson said lessons learned in Mexico and Colombia are making the implementation of the initiative in Central America more effective and cost-efficient.

"We ensure that the U.S. taxpayers in some respects get even more support for their buck having invested so much in Colombia and now in Mexico," she said.

"Seeing those lessons and experience transfer to the rest of the hemisphere is [a] huge benefit of our investment in those countries."

Analysts, meanwhile, are not convinced that success has been achieved in Colombia or Mexico.

U.S.-backed crackdowns on drug smugglers appear to have helped stem the flow of U.S.-bound cocaine. Total seizures in the U.S. fell from 221.5 tons in 2005 to 120 tons in 2009, suggesting "the availability of cocaine in the United States has stabilized at a reduced level," according to the U.N.'s 2011 World Drug Report.

But the same period saw violence and murder rates soar in Mexico, turning entire regions of the nation into havens of unchecked criminal activity.

Drug production appears to be on the rise.

Marijuana and opium cultivation in rural Mexico has expanded "significantly," according to an August 2011 report by the Congressional Research Service.

"In 2009, estimated marijuana production in Mexico rose to [43,000 acres], a 45 percent increase over 2008 and the highest level recorded since 1992," the report said.

Similar statistics hang over Colombia, where the United States spent about $7 billion supporting a drug war during the early 2000s that included widespread aerial crop-eradication campaigns.

In Latin America, Colombia remains the No. 1 cultivator of coca, the essential ingredient in cocaine, according to a 2011 report by the International Narcotics Control Board, an independent monitoring organization tied the United Nations.

Coca production also has increased in neighboring Peru.

"If you're defining your game as reducing cocaine in Colombia, you're probably still in the sixth inning, and you may be playing the wrong game," said Adam Isacson, senior associate for regional security policy at the Washington Office on Latin America.

Mr. Brownfield's optimism toward Mexico may also be premature, said Michael Shifter, who heads the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

"Hopefully we are in the sixth inning and one could point to signs that lead to an optimistic view," Mr. Shifter said. "But it's by no means certain or assured.

"The successes we've seen haven't lead to a real overall improvement that's sustainable," he said.

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