BOGOTA, Colombia -
A U.S. government report to be released next week raises serious questions
about the effectiveness of the multibillion-dollar U.S. anti-drug campaign in
Colombia, despite moves by the Bush administration to extend the program.
The 52-page report by the Government Accountability Office, an advance
copy of which has been obtained by The Chronicle, challenges administration
conclusions that the drug interdiction effort known as Plan Colombia -- a
five-year program that ends this year -- has reduced the amount of cocaine
available in the United States.
The report was skeptical of the statistics the government relied on for
its upbeat assessments, calling its information on cocaine production and use
problematic. It also said the Office of National Drug Control Policy had failed
to fully address previous "recommendations for improving illicit drug data
collection and analysis."
On Nov. 9 in Bogota, John Walters, director of the White House Office of
National Drug Control Policy, said Plan Colombia had been responsible for a
substantial increase in the street price of cocaine in the United States and a
drop in its quality from Colombia, which supplies an estimated 90 percent of
the world's cocaine, and an estimated $65 billion in illegal drugs to the U.S.
"There were those who did not believe it was possible to change the
availability of cocaine in the United States," Walters said. "What we're
announcing today is, there's no question that's happened."
But the GAO, the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, specifically
criticized those figures, saying that they reflected trends that "could reflect
law enforcement patterns rather than drug availability patterns" and that the
number of U.S. cocaine users remained constant at about 2 million. "Other
sources estimate the number of chronic and occasional cocaine users may be as
high as 6 million," the report stated.
The GAO also found the White House assessment of the amount of cocaine
entering the United States in 2004 -- 325 metric tons to 675 metric tons --
to be too varied to be "useful for assessing interdiction efforts."
In an interview, David Murray, a special assistant to Walters, downplayed
the report. "We have more data and more analysts working on this out of our
office than anyone," he said. "We feel we have some of the best information in
the world on the issue. We are trying to make sense of a business whose very
core element is hiding from plain view."
Since 2000, the United States has poured about $6 billion into Latin
America to fund antidrug efforts, more than half of it earmarked for Plan
Colombia. Its supporters in Colombia say the program is crucial not only for
battling the drug trade but also to combat left-wing guerrillas and right-wing
paramilitaries involved in the nation's four-decade armed conflict that depend
on financing from drug profits.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) -- the country's
largest rebel group -- raked in as much as $1.3 billion in 2003, of which an
estimated 45 percent came from cocaine, according to a report released earlier
this year by the Joint Intelligence Command, the Colombian equivalent of the
U.S. National Security Council. Plan Colombia "is essential for what we do,"
said Col. Yamlik Moreno of the National Police's antidrug division. "Without
the funding ... we would have to reduce our operations by 90 percent."
The U.S.-Colombia strategy, which targets cocaine production at its
source, is aimed at reducing supply and driving up prices and thereby
discouraging consumption in the United States. Military aid provided by
Washington over the years includes combat helicopters, light weapons ranging
from machine guns to rocket launchers and intelligence technology as well as
advisers, chemicals and fumigation planes to spray coca fields. Just last
month, Walters helped inaugurate a $12 million helicopter hanger just north of
Colombian officials also say they are winning the drug war and point to an
increase in the fumigation of coca fields and record seizures of cocaine. The
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says the amount of acreage devoted to
coca cultivation has been reduced by more than half in the past five years, to
about 200,000 acres from 403,551 acres in 2000, while production has fallen
more than 45 percent to 149 metric tons last year.
But critics say that spraying has merely pushed coca production into more
remote areas and that statistics do not adequately measure the amount of drug
each acre produces.
"These antidrug policies have failed to address the real causes, the real
structural reasons that Colombia produces drugs," said Francisco Thoumi, an
economist at Rosario University in Bogota who has followed the drug trade for
more than three decades. "They confront the problem in a short-term limited
way, and there is no reason to believe that will change with a new version of
Colombia will send its proposal for an extension of Plan Colombia to the
U.S. State Department, as required by international protocol, within the next
few months. Walters says he is confident the new plan will be accepted by both
countries. "We have been clear we intend to continue this policy," he told The
Congress recently approved $712 million in fiscal year 2005-06 for the
Andean Counter Drug Initiative, an antidrug aid package for South America.
Last summer, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va.,
requested the GAO study to review official statistics used to evaluate the
Grassley noted that GAO criticism was likely to hurt the administration's
push to extend the program, at least at its current funding levels.
"While we want to keep a multi-pronged approach with our efforts in
Central and South America, we need to ensure that the money that is being
provided, for both military and nonmilitary efforts, is being used
effectively," said Grassley in an e-mail message. "Basically, it (GAO report)
is saying it is very difficult to prove the policies are affecting the overall
In Bogota, government officials remain closemouthed about the follow-up to
Plan Colombia. President Alvaro Uribe, who has high approval ratings and is
expected to run for re-election next year, has been an enthusiastic supporter
of the program. But opposition candidates and even some members of the
government have started to voice criticisms, noting the lack of tangible
results in contrast to the program's high cost over the past six years.
"Under no circumstances are we saying we do not need the aid or that the
aid is not important," said Comptroller-General Antonio Hernandez. "The
question we have to ask is if this set of actions, efforts and sacrifices ...
requires a different path. We are asking if there is another way of approaching
the problem. "
Funding the drug war
Since 2000, the Andean Counterdrug Initiative has provided $7.4 billion
to seven South American countries: Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama,
Peru and Venezuela.
The program's centerpiece is Colombia, the source of 90 percent of all cocaine
and 70 percent of heroin reaching the United States.
Breakdown of U.S. funds spent fighting
the war on drugs in South
From 2000 to 2005, in millions of dollars
2000 - $960*
2001 - $210*
2002 - $645
*In its first two years, Plan Colombia financed antidrug efforts only in
Colombia, but since fiscal year 2002 the program has been expanded to more
South American nations.
©2005 San Francisco Chronicle