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Miami Herald, Nov. 18, 2005
by Pablo Bachelet
WASHINGTON - Declaring a key victory Thursday, U.S. drug czar John Walters said cocaine has become more expensive and less pure on U.S. streets this year -- the first sign that billions of dollars in counter-drug aid to Colombia may be having an impact.
Walters' aides said the new data reverses three years of steadily declining cocaine prices, which had perplexed policymakers as Washington poured more than $4 billion into Colombia since 2000 as part of an effort to increase Bogotá's ability to curb drug production and trafficking.
Many critics of Plan Colombia have been saying that the sagging prices -- a sign of ample supplies -- showed the drug war could not be won because traffickers would always stay one step ahead of law enforcement.
Walters, head of the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), said the critics have been proven wrong.
''We've shown that what some people thought is impossible, is possible,'' he told The Herald in an interview after announcing the new data.
While a gram of cocaine cost just over $120 this April, the price rose steadily to more than $170 in September, according to the ONDCP data. And cocaine purity -- another key indicator of availability -- fell 15 percent between February and September. The data showed similar trends in the price and purity of Colombian heroin reaching U.S. streets.
The data showed, however, that in a longer-range comparison -- June 2003 to October 2005 -- current prices are only a shade lower and current purity is only a bit higher. The data is a nationwide average based on U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration seizures and undercover purchases, according to ONDCP officials.
Plan Colombia took time to achieve an impact, Walters said, because it was only in 2002 that newly elected Colombian President Alvaro Uribe ordered a more aggressive campaign to spray coca crops with herbicides. And ''it takes 12-24 months for [coca] leaves to become consumable cocaine,'' he added.
Colombian government officials seemed to breathe a sigh of relief with the ONDCP figures because Plan Colombia is set to expire at the end of this year, and some Congress members have been asking whether it has been effective.
''Plan Colombia is starting to show results,'' said Colombia's ambassador to the United States, Andrés Pastrana. The former Colombian president helped craft Plan Colombia with the Clinton administration in the late 1990s.
Congress has agreed to extend counter-drug aid to Colombia for another year and appropriated $735 million, but opponents of the funding have been growing stronger in recent votes. Pastrana said his country will soon present a new proposal to succeed Plan Colombia to the State Department.
But some analysts remained skeptical of Walters' data.
''This cocaine graph only shows price and purity returning to the levels they were at in late 2003 and early 2004,'' said Adam Isacson, the director of programs at the Center for International Policy, a left-wing think tank generally critical of the Bush administration. ``Plan Colombia began in 2000.''
John Walsh, with the left-of-center Washington Office on Latin America, also said it was still too soon to draw conclusions. ``History suggests it is unwise to make too much of a fluctuation.''
Isacson did note, however, that the Colombian military and police have become more effective as a result of the massive U.S. aid. ''If I had to credit it to anything, it would have to be increased interdiction,'' he said.
Colombia's navy has reported more than 100 tons of cocaine seized this year, compared with 85 tons in all of 2004. Isacson said the police are doing a better job at patroling the country's rivers, which are used to transport drugs.
U.S. officials say aggressive aerial spraying has cut the planted coca acreage from 420,000 to 280,000 and that cocaine production has dropped 39 percent.
''2005 is the year when output could no longer keep up with the seizure and consumption rates,'' Walters boasted.
But in the past drug traffickers have often stumped law enforcement by changing their tactics.
There's evidence that coca growers are scattering their fields into smaller plots that are harder to spot and spray from the air. Traffickers now use boats to transport their cargo instead of planes, as radar and other surveillance improved aerial interdiction.
Instead of flying aircraft directly into the United States, they now transport the drugs to Central America and Mexico, from where they are taken overland to the United States. And higher prices in U.S. streets may attract more smugglers.