The Miami Herald
March 15, 1999
Colombia challenges CIA report on drugs
Coca crop monitors at center of dispute

             TIM JOHNSON
             Herald Staff Writer

             BOGOTA, Colombia -- Colombia's police are challenging recent U.S. Central
             Intelligence Agency assessments that coca crops expanded wildly last year,
             making Colombia by far the world's biggest producer of cocaine. They say CIA
             analysts can't always tell a dead coca bush from a productive one.

             In a recent meeting, National Police Chief Rosso Jose Serrano bristled when two
             CIA analysts and other U.S. officials asserted that coca crops expanded 28
             percent in 1998 in Colombia.

             Check your satellite images again, Serrano retorted.

             At stake in the dispute is not only the wounded pride of the Colombian police,
             whose fumigation pilots constantly brave enemy gunfire, but also methods for
             keeping tabs on a narcotics industry that Washington has portrayed as growing
             unmanageably in Colombia while declining in Peru and Bolivia.

             While the CIA's word might reign supreme in Washington, Colombians have won
             the latest round: The worldwide chief of the U.N. Drug Control Program said he
             sides with Colombia. The U.N. official, Pino Arlacchi, said CIA methods fall short
             because the agency relies almost exclusively on satellite images, rarely checking on
             the ground to see if coca plants are, indeed, dead.

             ``Satellite observation alone is not enough. You must also have ground observation
             and aerial photography,'' Arlacchi said.

             ``We are very sorry about this discrepancy of data. The national police have very
             good data, very good expertise, and we entirely trust this data,'' he added.

             In dispute is how much of the coca fumigated with herbicide by Colombian police
             actually has been killed. Police say they sprayed 160,615 acres of coca crops in
             1998, killing 85 percent of coca bushes. With the aggressive spraying, they say the
             amount of coca in Colombia has remained constant in the past two years.

             But CIA analysts, in a meeting with Serrano and other senior police officials
             March 2, disputed Colombia's ``kill ratios.'' They said barely 25 percent of the
             aerial fumigation effectively killed coca bushes.

             ``[The Colombians] were indignant,'' said a participant at the meeting.

             They whipped out aerial photos and their own satellite images -- obtained in a $1
             million contract from a subsidiary of the French space agency -- to show why they
             think CIA analysts counted fields littered with dead coca bushes as unaffected by
             the spraying.

             ``When coca is killed, the jungle regenerates quickly,'' said Luis Eduardo Parra,
             the environmental auditor retained by the police, as he gave a visitor a slide show
             of dead coca fields. ``See this. This isn't coca. It is grass, herbaceous plants,

             Two months after coca plants are killed, jungle vegetation crops up anew, and
             optical satellite images can be fooled, he said. Ground checks must be made to
             see if the vegetation is grass or coca.

             State Department officials, who finance much of Colombia's coca spraying
             program, are keeping a low profile in the dispute.

             ``I am trying to stay out of . . . this controversy,'' said a senior department official
             in Washington, who spoke on condition of anonymity. ``I'm trying to resolve it. I'm
             not in a position to disavow the CIA estimate.''

             On Feb. 11, White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey released CIA figures during
             a speech at the University of Miami showing that coca production in Colombia had
             ``skyrocketed,'' by 26 percent in 1998. According to his CIA-supplied figures, the
             total area of coca cultivation in Colombia is 251,500 acres.

             ``They spent a lot of time and effort to give their process as high a level of
             confidence as possible. I'm not going to argue with that estimate,'' said the State
             Department official.

             The CIA keeps its satellite images secret, and the agency declined to offer details
             about how it reaches its estimates.

             A U.N. drug control program official based in Colombia, Klaus Nyholm, said he
             suspects the CIA began to assess new areas of Colombia last year, finding coca
             that had actually existed before -- but had not been counted.

             ``It has dawned upon them that there is coca in more departments that the usual
             four or five,'' Nyholm said.

             What especially raised Colombian suspicions over the CIA estimates was a north
             central mountainous region known as the Sierrania de San Lucas, which has never
             been subject to aerial fumigation. In 1991, the CIA spotted around 12,600 acres
             of coca there, Parra said, but now reports only about half that acreage.

             ``How can that be? How do you explain that?'' Parra asked. ``The figures can't go
             down if there hasn't been a plague or disease in the coca bushes.''

             He said coca growers never voluntarily cut back on their acreage, given the
             profitability of coca, unless they come under pressure from the police.


                               Copyright © 1999 The Miami Herald