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Major Cocaine Source Wanes

The U.S.-backed effort to eradicate Colombian coca plants is working, killing 38% of the crop. Farmers and guerrillas are feeling the pinch.

June 08, 2003|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

EL TOPACIO, Colombia — For the first time in at least a decade, the amount of coca grown in Colombia is falling sharply, largely the result of an aggressive, U.S.-backed aerial fumigation campaign.

Repeated spraying by crop-dusters plus government programs to encourage farmers to pull up coca plants have reduced Colombia's coca, the source of cocaine, by 38% to 252,000 acres in the past three years, according to a United Nations study released this year.

What's more, coca cultivation appears not to have simply moved elsewhere from Colombia, for years the source of 90% of the cocaine on U.S. streets, as it has in the past. While both Bolivia and Peru have reported slight increases, the rise has not been enough to offset the decline in Colombia. The U.N. study found that throughout South America, the number of acres devoted to coca dropped 22% in the past three years.

The program has not yet affected the street price of cocaine in the United States, and some congressional critics have complained that it focuses too much on coca and not enough on Colombia's expanding crop of the poppies used to make heroin. But fumigation is working, according to interviews and visits conducted during a weeklong trip in the region around this small coca-growing town.

"The fumigation has blasted everything," said Javier Yepes, a 40-year-old coca farmer who was rushing to harvest his plants after spray planes wiped out his neighbors' farm in a village in southern Colombia.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, elected last year on a promise to crack down on the drug business and the leftist guerrillas it helps fund, has pledged to continue fumigating until there are no coca bushes left in Colombia.

U.S. officials are also publicly acknowledging what had long been private information: that the U.S. spraying operations have become a key weapon in Colombia's 40-year-old internal conflict, which pits the army and an illegal paramilitary force against leftist rebels. Both the paramilitaries and the rebels rely on the coca trade for financing.

"We're seeing a little bit of the money dry up," said Gen. James T. Hill, in charge of U.S. military operations in Latin America, during a congressional hearing last week. "The eradication effort is beginning to make some inroads in their ability to fund themselves."

But the success of the U.S. State Department's effort to halve coca production here by 2005, which has cost $2 billion to date, has also ruined the lives of thousands of people in southern Colombia, where migrants and dirt-poor farmers seized on coca as a steady, if illegal, source of income. Local farmers are suddenly caught in the cross-fire of a vicious and unpredictable war between rebels and paramilitaries fighting over the remains of the cocaine trade.

And tens of thousands have fled the region, a vast exodus of poor, uneducated people looking for money to feed themselves in an economy in which unemployment hovers at 15%.

"Yes, the spraying has been a success," said Jose Efren Villota, 48, as he surveyed the ruins of his once-profitable coca farm. "But it has come at a high cost."

The idea behind Plan Colombia was simple: By cutting back on coca supply, State Department narcotics experts hoped to drive up street prices so high that addicts would cease using the drug and seek treatment.

Instead, the price in the U.S. remains steady at anywhere between $20 and $200 per gram, depending on location and market conditions, according to recent congressional testimony from Drug Enforcement Administration officials.

There are varying explanations for why the price hasn't gone up.

U.S. officials say they believe the market is starting to change. State Department officials confidently predict that prices will increase soon as cocaine in the pipeline between Colombia and the U.S. is used up. DEA officials say the program is cutting into an oversupply of cocaine at the street level, and that dealers are cutting the purity of the cocaine they sell.

"Our years of effort, and the money that we have invested in Colombia, are beginning to pay off," said Paul Simons, the acting assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, during a congressional hearing last week. "We believe we have turned a corner, particularly with the coca crop."

Critics of the plan say that cutting into cocaine production is simply forcing nimble drug traffickers to adjust. Users who cannot find cocaine are choosing other drugs, such as Ecstasy, to satisfy their needs, reducing demand and therefore keeping the price stable. Coke dealers have switched to selling cheaper, easier-to-obtain drugs such as methamphetamine.

"We have been forcing the drug economy to evolve," said Sanho Tree, a researcher at the Institute for Policy Studies who has been sharply critical of the war on drugs. "For decades, we have been selectively breeding super traffickers who adapt to market conditions very quickly with new substitutes."

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