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
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
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
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
and aerial photography,'' Arlacchi said.
``We are very sorry about this discrepancy of data. The national police
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
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
``When coca is killed, the jungle regenerates quickly,'' said Luis Eduardo
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,
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
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
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
confidence as possible. I'm not going to argue with that estimate,'' said the State
The CIA keeps its satellite images secret, and the agency declined to offer
about how it reaches its estimates.
A U.N. drug control program official based in Colombia, Klaus Nyholm, said
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
four or five,'' Nyholm said.
What especially raised Colombian suspicions over the CIA estimates was
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
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
profitability of coca, unless they come under pressure from the police.
Copyright © 1999 The Miami Herald