- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Cocaine production in Colombia dropped significantly last year, prompting President Bush and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe yesterday to discuss ways to intensify the war against narco-terrorists in that South American country.

Meeting at the White House for the third time in two years, the two leaders focused on “Plan Colombia,” a $2.5 billion program that provides training and military hardware, including helicopters and intelligence equipment, to authorities in that country to combat drugs.

Colombia wants Washington to provide funding for the program until at least 2009.

“I have found in President Bush a huge level of understanding that we cannot leave this fight halfway,” said Mr. Uribe, a staunch U.S. ally who was the only South American leader to join Mr. Bush’s war coalition in Iraq.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Mr. Bush reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to build on a “strong partnership” between the two nations, and commended Mr. Uribe “for efforts in standing firmly against terrorism and combating drug trafficking.”

“The two leaders discussed the importance of continuing to work together to combat terrorism and drug trafficking,” Mr. McClellan said.

After the White House meeting, Mr. Bush and Mr. Uribe also announced that free-trade negotiations between the two countries, and possibly other Andean countries, would begin May 19, aimed at expanding trade with Colombian officials and others.

In the war on drugs, Robert Charles, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement, credited Mr. Uribe’s leadership since he took office in August 2002 for much of a 21 percent decline in coca production in that country during 2003.

“Thanks to President Uribe’s superb leadership, substantially less coca is being grown in Colombia and real progress is being made against the scourge of cocaine,” said Mr. Charles, adding that net coca cultivation by producers in Colombia dropped from 355,347 acres in 2002 to 280, 071 acres last year in what he described as a “stunning” 33 percent decline in coca cultivation from the peak growing year of 2001.

“The two-year, double-digit decline in coca cultivation underscores the effectiveness of the State Department-supported Colombian National Police aerial eradication program, which has sprayed record amounts of coca in the past two years,” he said. “More broadly, these numbers show the American taxpayers’ investment is paying off.”

The Drug Enforcement Administration has said cocaine is the second-most commonly used illicit drug in the United States, and that 10 percent of Americans over 12 have tried it at least once, about 2 percent have tried crack, and nearly 1 percent is currently using cocaine.

The Mexico border is the primary point of entry for Colombian cocaine headed to the United States, the DEA said, and Colombian organized crime groups control the worldwide supply of cocaine which sells for between $12,000 to $35,000 a kilo or 2.2 pounds.

Mr. Charles said coca eradication, combined with interdiction, reduces profitability and economic incentives, which have brought the United States to the “tipping point” in efforts to deter coca cultivation and disrupt the work of the traffickers and the terrorists they feed.

“As our efforts continue and farmers abandon coca cultivation in favor of other, legitimate crops, we will continue to see the cultivation of coca fall, leading to a reduction in the amount of cocaine for sale in the United States and elsewhere,” Mr. Charles said.

The decline in coca cultivation in Colombia has not been offset by production in Peru and Bolivia, he said, adding that Andean regional coca production declined by more than 15 percent in 2003, almost double the 8 percent decline in 2002.

“We look forward to continuing our work with the government of Colombia in a common effort to rid the country of the affliction of narco-trafficking,” he said.

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