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Coca land diminishing, U.S. says

The Land Used to Cultivate Coca in Colombia Dropped 21 Percent In 2003, a State Department Report Says.

BOGOTA – The amount of Colombian land used to cultivate coca dropped another 21 percent last year, a figure U.S. officials call “stunning.”

But the dramatic decline in the plant from which cocaine is made had no impact where it counts most: on the streets of America.

The State Department annual report on coca cultivation, issued Monday, showed there were some 280,542 acres of coca plants through 2003, down from 356,791 the year before.

Including other coca-producing nations like Bolivia and Peru, the decline was 15 percent, according to the Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.

The latest Colombian figures show that in this country alone the coca acreage dropped by a third since 2001, after Washington had begun delivering some $2 billion in counter narcotics aid as part of Plan Colombia.

“A big decline a second year in a row is excellent news,” said Deborah McCarthy, the bureau’s deputy assistant secretary for narcotics. “The squeeze is being put on.”

The latest crop figures were announced as the Bush administration works on a proposal to double the legal limit of military personnel and contractors permitted to work in Colombia.

Congress capped the number of American personnel that can be in Colombia at any given time at 400 military and 400 contractors, but Bush wants it raised to 800 military and 600 contractors, a State Department official confirmed. Among other duties, they train Colombian soldiers and police and run the program that uses crop dusters to spray herbicides on coca fields.

Critics warn that raising the cap would be further proof of Washington’s increasingly murky role in Colombia’s drug-fueled civil war. Plan Colombia, some argue, has not shown progress.

“If a product becomes scarce, the price goes up,” said Adam Isacson, an analyst at the Washington-based Center for International Policy. “Stable prices shows cocaine is as plentiful as ever.”

Isacson argues that because the price, purity and availability of cocaine on U.S. streets have not wavered, traffickers are winning the drug war.

“It’s been stable since the mid ’90s. How can that be?” He said in a telephone interview. “Maybe the satellite pictures are not getting the new crops? Are growers going deeper into the Amazon region where we aren’t looking? Are they using smaller plots? Growing in the shade? Getting higher yields?”

McCarthy said the challenge is to hit the Colombian drug trade at all levels, such as financing and exports, which should soon translate into lower purity.

Credit for the strides in drug eradication has been largely given to President Alvaro Uribe, who enthusiastically endorsed American fumigation programs despite protests from farmers and environmentalists. Uribe is in Washington this week meeting at the White House today.

Sandro Calvani, head of the U.N. Drug Control Program here, said the steady declines in cultivation prove that the alternative development programs offered to peasants to abandon coca do work.

“Narco-traffickers are going to defend this as much as they can,” he said. “But this shows it’s possible to reach out to people and get them to grow alternative crops.

“The peasants are investing in their future.”

Miami Herald, 23 Mar 2004

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