The Miami Herald
Mar. 18, 2003

Colombia's coca growth down

U.S.-backed program working


  BOGOTA - The number of acres devoted to growing illegal coca crops in Colombia dropped by nearly a third last year, for the first time offering substantial results of a U.S.-backed fumigation program, United Nations officials said Monday.

  The U.N. figures were even more significant because, for the first time, they match the tendency shown by U.S. coca growth estimates. The numbers don't precisely match, but still agree that less cocaine is coming out of Colombia.

  ''It's historic,'' White House drug czar John Walters said in a telephone interview with The Herald. ``It shows that when you put pressure, the balloon doesn't just slide from one place to another. You can actually shrink it.''

  The results of the gains in the drug war have yet to be seen on the U.S. market, Walters said. Generally, the price remains the same but purity declines. Last year, purity dropped 9 percent, he said.

  ''This shows the cocaine business is now in recession,'' Walters said. ''Our goal is to destroy that business.'' A joint U.N.-Colombia study shows there were 252,115 acres of coca fields in 2002, down 105,557 from the year before. The 29.5 percent drop is a huge advance in a nation that saw its cocaine production steadily rise for a decade.

  This year's CIA figures show a 15 percent drop in the number of coca fields.

  In the past, coca growth calculations prepared by the CIA contrasted sharply with U.N. figures. Last year, U.N. measurements showed an 11 percent drop in the number of coca fields here -- and the CIA showed it up slightly. Even the U.S. embassy flatly discounted those CIA figures.

  The discrepancy is attributed to different counting methods and surveys that took place at different times. CIA satellites measure parts of the country; the final figure is an extrapolation. The U.N.'s satellite images have lower resolution, but cover the nation's entire territory.

  U.S. officials were quick to stress that the reductions prove Colombia's commitment to eradicating drug crops is genuine.

  Since his inauguration in August, President Alvaro Uribe has become a strong Washington ally. Although the $2 billion U.S. anti-drug program here was brokered under his predecessor, Uribe is credited with a more aggressive approach toward eradication.

  From the moment he took office, Uribe vowed to spray the fields every day, regardless of local political pressures.

  ''We will end this nightmare for the Colombian people,'' Colombian Interior Minister Fernando Londoño Hoyos told reporters Monday. ``These numbers show this is perfectly possible.''

  Progress was particularly strong in Putumayo and Caquetá, traditionally the heart of Colombia's drug production. Putumayo dropped 70 percent, and Caquetá 42 percent.

  Other Colombian departments outside the fumigation program saw big increases in coca crops. In Nariño, for example, the number of acres doubled to 37,373. The government estimates about 450 tons of cocaine are coming out of the country each year, supplying 90 percent of the U.S. market.

  But each time a nation makes strides in cutting back production, increases are shown in neighboring countries, said Sanho Tree, drug policy project director at the Institute for Policy Studies.

  ''The bottom line is that this is pushing coca production to other nations,'' Tree said, adding that fumigation drives up prices. ``Coca leaf prices are at record highs in

  Klaus Nyholm, head of the U.N.'s drug control project in Bogotá, said prices have remained constant, and that coca growth increases in Peru and Bolivia have been marginal. The region-wide drop was 18 to 19 percent, Nyholm said. The U.S. estimate is 8 percent.

  Nyholm said that higher sugar cane and cacao prices also helped lure some peasant farmers from the coca crops.