- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 6, 2005

LIMA, Peru — Peruvian drug-fighting officials and the United Nations say coca production in Peru is rising again after years of decline, directly contradicting U.S. narcotics officials who say it is still receding.

The contradictory reports come after the United States spent five years and almost $5.4 billion fighting the drug trade in the seven South American countries that produce almost all of the world’s cocaine. Of that, about $3 billion has gone to fund Colombia’s anti-drug effort called Plan Colombia.

Many analysts worry that the concentration of interdiction and eradication efforts in Colombia has pushed coca production into other Andean countries, particularly Peru.

Peruvian drug-fighting czar Nils Ericsson worries about an escalation to the levels of the mid-1980s, when Peru led the world in cultivation of coca.

“We have to take action on every front now because the trend will be more difficult and expensive to deal with later on,” said Mr. Ericsson, head of the National Commission for Development and Life Without Drugs, known by its Spanish acronym DEVIDA.

Mr. Ericsson’s concerns are supported by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which reported in June that rising coca production in Peru and Bolivia more than offset a sharp drop in Colombian production last year.

“In 2004, Peru’s coca surface grew by 14 percent,” said the agency, which also reported a 17 percent increase in Bolivia alongside a 7 percent drop in Colombia. Although regionwide levels were still down from historic highs in 2000, the agency described the trends in Peru and Bolivia as “worrisome.”

The U.N. assessment runs counter to that of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, which in March released figures based on metric tons of coca produced rather than acreage under cultivation.

That evaluation said, “Small increases in cultivation in Bolivia [in 2004] were offset by a comparable decline in cultivation in Peru” as well as continuing reductions in Colombia.

The U.N. report said acreage under cultivation for the region was up 3 percent last year, while the U.S. report said total tonnage in the region was down 5 percent.

“The basic fact is that crop cultivation is down,” said David Murray, a special assistant to U.S. drug czar John Walters. “And you can’t just squeeze cocaine out of the air.”

The argument isn’t academic because U.S. funding for the war on drugs hangs on which numbers are used.

Since 2000, Peru’s portion of the Andean Counterdrug Initiative has steadily declined and is slated to be slashed almost 17 percent in fiscal 2006 — to $97 million. Colombia, in contrast, is set to receive the same amount as last year, about $463 million.

Whatever the figures, U.N. anti-drug officials in Peru see a threat to Peru’s political stability.

“I am afraid with the current threat this situation poses that the next president will inherit a country that, in terms of drugs and crime, is even worse than what this one initially faced,” said Aldo Lale-Demoz, the head of UNODC in Peru.

A new president will be elected in April to replace the term-limited President Alejandro Toledo, who took office in 2001 after the scandal-plagued administration of Alberto Fujimori.

Until the mid-1990s, Peru was the world’s largest producer of coca leaf, the raw material from which cocaine is derived. Although Colombia was the center for processing the drug, the majority of the base material was flown from Peru.

Beginning in 1995, Peru began an interdiction program funded and supported by the United States that sought to break that connection by shooting down the traffickers’ planes. What followed was a surge in cultivation of coca in Colombia, essentially consolidating the trade in that country.

The interdiction program, known as “air bridge denial,” came to an abrupt end on April 20, 2001, when a missionary’s plane was mistakenly shot down, killing an American woman and her daughter.

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