- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 27, 2003

WASHINGTON, Feb. 27 (UPI) — Tallies show cultivation of Colombia's coca crops has actually decreased for the first time since the United States began an intensive program in 2000 to eradicate the crop in the world's leading cocaine exporter.

At the same time, total coca cultivation has increased slightly for Colombia's neighbors — Bolivia and Peru and regions of Colombia that were not targeted in a U.S.-funded spraying campaign. Despite these slight increases, the total coca cultivation for the Andean region of South America decreased by 8 percent for 2002, the first time that number has declined since the launch of a multibillion-dollar U.S. program to eliminate coca production for Colombia and her neighbors in 2000.

"Our anti-drug efforts in Colombia are now paying off, and we believe that this represents a turning point," John Walters, director of National Drug Control Policy, said in a statement released Thursday.

An annual U.S. estimate of coca cultivation in the Andean region released Thursday found that Colombia as a whole decreased its production of coca by 15 percent to 144,000 hectares where the plant is grown in 2002. This figure is down from just under 170,000 hectares in 2001, an increase from the 2000 levels. Colombia exports over 90 percent of the world's cocaine, according to the State Department's annual report on drug exports.

Spraying under Plan Colombia started in December 2000, which gave $1.3 billion in modern equipment, armored crop dusters and military transport helicopters to the Colombian national police and the Colombian armed forces for 2001. Under a commitment from Bogota the previous year, Colombian national authorities began spraying Glyphosate, an herbicide sold in American under the brand name Round Up, intensively in the largest coca-growing regions of the country, the Putumayo and the Caqueta.

These efforts have appeared to pay off. In the last four months of 2002, Colombian authorities sprayed 40,000 hectares in the Putumayo. In the last year alone, coca cultivation in that region of the country decreased from 42,000 hectares to 8,000. A senior State Department official pointed to estimates that many farmers had left their plots in large numbers in the last year in the Putumayo as evidence that the spray campaign was having an effect.

The migration of coca growers from the Putumayo has raised concern for some human rights activists. Robin Kirk, a senior researcher on Colombia for Human Rights Watch, told United Press International Thursday, "These people are being forced out, and the Colombian government is offering them no alternatives and neither is the United States. A lot of the families who live off of the Putumayo are innocent people, kids and grandmas."

But coca growers large and small may have gone to other parts of the country. "Satellite imagery and other data has shown that we and the Colombian government are squeezing coca growth and production into ever more remote areas of the country," Tom Riley, the spokesman for the White House drug policy office, told UPI Thursday. State Department officials Thursday confirmed that in fact more coca was likely being grown in the eastern part of Colombia that has not been targeted by the spraying campaign.

The U.S. government estimate on coca cultivation released to Congress Thursday also showed that cultivation increased in Bolivia between 2001 and 2002 from 19,900 to 24,400 hectares. Coca cultivation in Peru increased from 34,000 to 36,000 hectares in the same period.

The decrease in coca cultivation in the Andes has so far not affected the street price of cocaine in the United States, according to figures from the Drug Enforcement Administration. Nonetheless, the purity of most street cocaine is declining. According to the DEA, between 2000 and 2001, cocaine purity decreased from 82 percent to 78 percent. Preliminary indications are that the purity continued to decrease in 2002, according to one U.S. official familiar with the latest figures.

"When there are problems in the cocaine distribution chain," Riley said, "they do not raise the price. They dilute the product; that is the way the retail end of it works."

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