- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 25, 2003

The White House and the State Department allowed a flood of Colombian heroin to enter the country by significantly underestimating the amount of the drug smuggled in each year, according to senior congressional investigators.

The investigators, as well as federal law-enforcement authorities, discounted recent contentions by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and the State Department that Colombia’s anti-heroin efforts have been successful.

They also derided an eradication program that focused on cocaine and its source, coca, thereby allowing production of opium poppies and heroin to flourish.

“The new ONDCP numbers on the threat from Colombian heroin are deeply troubling and reflect a fundamental failure of the administration policy in Colombia that has been too coca-eradication heavy, when the trends in cocaine are more and more going to Europe, while most of Colombia’s more deadly and dependent heroin is headed to our nation,” said one senior Republican investigator.

“We need a major course correction here, sooner rather than later,” the investigator said.

Recent Drug Enforcement Administration intelligence reports show that heroin use in the country has increased substantially during the past decade, with more than a million people believed to be addicted — largely the result of increased opium poppy production in Colombia.

Rogelio E. Guevara, the DEA’s chief of operations, told a Senate committee recently that opium poppy cultivation and heroin production had become dominated by independent trafficking groups outside the control of Colombia’s major cocaine organizations.

He said Colombian traffickers had established themselves as major sources of heroin in the Northeast, including Washington and Baltimore.

Rep. Dan Burton, Indiana Republican and former chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, who held hearings in December on the government’s drug-eradication program, said he was concerned that such missions against Colombia’s opium poppy fields had been “drastically reduced” despite recommendations from U.S. and Colombian law-enforcement officials.

Mr. Burton said Colombian heroin was flooding communities all along the East Coast, dominating the market because of its high purity and cheaper cost.

He said the decision to focus the Colombian eradication program on coca fields “has clearly had consequences,” resulting in an increase in the availability of Colombian heroin here and “overdose deaths in nearly every big city and small town east of the Mississippi.”

“The staggering increase in Colombian heroin overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2001 and 2002 can be directly linked to an ill-advised decision to shift from poppy to coca eradication in 2001,” he said. “Despite assertions to the contrary, it is possible to simultaneously eradicate both poppy and coca without substantially impacting the effectiveness of the coca program, and the fact remains it is Colombian heroin that is killing Americans at an alarming rate.”

A top congressional narcotics investigator told The Washington Times that the government’s shift in 2001 from opium eradication to the spraying of coca fields was the “fatal strategic mistake” that allowed Colombian traffickers to increase their share of the heroin market.

The investigator said the government’s shift was based on erroneous information from the ONDCP and the State Department that Colombian traffickers controlled less than a third of the U.S. heroin market.

“That miscalculation resulted in one very clear fact: The Colombians sold a lot more heroin on the streets of America than anyone at ONDCP or the State Department ever imagined,” said another congressional investigator. “The best trend that I can see is that more than 60 percent of the U.S. market is controlled by the Colombians.”

In sworn testimony Dec. 12 before the House Government Reform Committee, Paul E. Simons, acting assistant secretary for international narcotics and law-enforcement affairs, had said that about 22 percent to 33 percent of the estimated 13 to 18 metric tons of heroin consumed annually in the country had come from Colombia.

The congressional investigators said the State Department had failed to meet its 2002 goal of eradicating more than 11,000 acres of Colombia’s opium poppy fields at a time when heroin from the South American country was flooding cities along the East Coast.

According to information sent by Colombian police officials to the House International Relations Committee, about 7,400 acres of Colombian opium poppy fields were eradicated last year.

Opium poppy-field eradication in Colombia in 2001 was down 80 percent from the year before.

“There is a direct link between opium production and the heroin in every city and town in the East Coast,” said one official close to the eradication program. “Police throughout the Northeast are finding Colombian heroin on every street corner and in every school, and overdose deaths have skyrocketed.

“If it hasn’t reached your street or your neighborhood, it will — and soon,” said the official, who asked not to be identified.

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