Coca Production Increases in Colombia

The Associated Press
Tuesday, June 20, 2006; 4:55 PM

BOGOTA, Colombia -- A key component of the U.S.-backed war on drugs appears to be failing.

Despite record drug seizures and spraying of herbicides, production of the plant used to make cocaine increased by 8 percent in Colombia, to 330 square miles, the United Nations said Tuesday _ even as authorities sprayed coca fields totaling 25 times the size of Manhattan

The findings come on the heels of a similar report in April by the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, which showed Colombia's coca production skyrocketed 26 percent from 2004 to 2005, in part due to a near-doubling of the area surveyed.

The two reports are the strongest evidence yet that a cornerstone of the U.S.-led war on drugs _ the aerial fumigation of coca fields _ is failing to meet its goal of halving coca production in the Andes.

The results may hamper efforts by President Alvaro Uribe to win additional U.S. backing for Plan Colombia, the anti-drug strategy that has cost American taxpayers $4 billion since 2000.

The report by the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime said Colombian coca production expanded for the first time in five years, by 23 square miles.

"If this is the start of a return to much higher levels of coca, then it will be a problem," the U.N. agency's executive director Antonio Maria Costa told a news conference in Bogota.

"But I don't think that will happen. The government has every intention to continue its eradication efforts at the same high level as the past few years."

Partially offsetting the rise in Colombian production were declines in the world's two other coca-producing countries, Bolivia and Peru.

Overall, coca production in the Andean region rose 1 percent, to 616 square miles from 2004, according to the U.N.'s Andean coca survey.

In Colombia, the world's largest cocaine producer, the biggest increases were in the lawless, largely uninhabited jungles near its borders with Venezuela and Ecuador.

The spread of the coca frontier eastward toward Venezuela is in line with comments by U.S. anti-drug officials who have alleged that corruption within the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez may be converting Colombia's neighbor into a major drug route.

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