Bogota, Colombia -- A few weeks ago, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy was ballyhooing statistics showing that the price of cocaine on the streets of America was up 19 percent to $170 a gram and the quality was down 15 percent.
This was supposed to be good news for America's second-most-important and second-most-expensive war, the war on drugs, in which the United States has spent billions of dollars. If the price is up and the quality is down, it means the shippers aren't getting as much good junk into America.
Then last week, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the Government Accountability Office, Congress's nonpartisan investigative arm, had doubts about the White House figures.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican who requested the GAO evaluation, told the Chronicle that the GAO report "is saying it is very difficult to prove the policies are affecting the overall drug trade."
So goes the debate in Washington over whether the biggest foreign spending program outside of the Middle East and the war on terror is working. In this case, it's a bureaucratic wrangle over statistics that don't come close to reflecting the human tragedy spawned by illicit drugs in America, the largest consumer, or in Colombia, which supplies about 90 percent of the world's cocaine.
In the last five years, the United States has spent more than $3 billion in its support of what is known as Plan Colombia to eradicate the coca and poppy crops in Colombia and to strengthen the Colombian government's authority - military authority mostly - in a country whose people have been devastated by one of the world's longest-running civil wars.
If the White House figures are correct and one gram of lesser-quality dope is going for $170, that doesn't mean, of course, that fewer Americans are consuming cocaine. It means they are paying more and in many cases have to steal more to get the price of a fix. Meanwhile, murderous gangs and individuals working in the drug trade hold sway in just about any large American community.
In Colombia, the toll is different and the calamity is even greater. The civil war there began as a challenge to the authority of an economic and political elite that controlled the country's vast resources while the majority of Colombians lived in abject poverty. But what started as a social revolution transformed over the years into a vicious battle for turf, financed by drug money.
Colombia is one of the most beautiful countries in South America, richly endowed with agricultural and other resources. Yet the majority of its people still live below the poverty line. Tens of thousands of Colombians have been killed in the endless conflict; upward of 3 million people have been displaced from their homes and live in squalid shanty communities.
The oldest rebel force, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, depends on drug money to pay for the weapons to continue the war. So do the right-wing paramilitary forces arrayed against the FARC, which sometimes act in collusion with the Colombian army.
The FARC rebels kill people and destroy homes and infrastructure, as do the paramilitaries. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is committed to drug eradication, with massive aerial fumigation and all the collateral damage that entails, and to armed victory, which has eluded him and his predecessors for four decades.
A large part of the debate here is over the efficacy of that approach as opposed to social and peace-building programs that would strengthen democracy and public participation at all levels. But that takes patience, ingenuity and honest government, none of which is a hallmark of the Colombian condition today.
"Uribe's thinking is how to beat the rebels militarily, not how to make peace with them," says Monsignor Hector Fabio Henao, who directs Colombia's Caritas, the Catholic Church's development and social service organization.
People such as Monsignor Henao criticize the balance of U.S. assistance to Colombia - 80 percent of which goes to the eradication program and to the Colombian military, the rest to social and development programs.
So here's another statistic: The United States has spent between $3 billion and $4 billion fighting the drug war in Colombia while cutting social programs at home. Illicit drugs from Colombia earn about $65 billion a year in the United States. Somebody's winning the drug war, and it isn't the people of America or the vast majority of Colombians.
G. Jefferson Price is a former foreign correspondent and an editor at The Sun who has been traveling on behalf of Catholic Relief Services. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2005 Baltimore Sun