GOP Senator Questions White House Data on Coca Growth in Colombia
He says recent figures don't show progress is being made in the drug eradication program.

By Chris Kraul, Times Staff Writer
May 2, 2006

BOGOTA, Colombia — A prominent Republican senator has raised questions about the statistics offered by the Bush administration to show progress in fighting drugs in Colombia, as Congress prepares to debate hundreds of millions of dollars in additional aid to the strife-torn nation.

Writing to the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) asked for an explanation of apparent inconsistencies between positive numbers released last fall and figures released last month that indicated ground was being lost.

The letter, which tacitly upbraided the White House for insufficient or possibly manipulated figures, comes as Congress prepares to consider President Bush's request for a one-year extension of Plan Colombia. The six-year effort, which has already cost $4 billion, is the largest U.S. aid program outside of the Mideast and Afghanistan.

"The numbers being released out of the Office of National Drug Control Policy just don't add up, and I hope ONDCP takes the opportunity to respond to my letter in a forthright and transparent manner," Grassley said in a statement to The Times.

In November, the White House announced that the street price of cocaine had risen significantly and that the purity of the drug had declined, indications that supplies had been reduced. But in the data released last month, the White House said total acreage of coca cultivated in Colombia measured by satellite image monitoring had increased 26% from 2004 to 2005.

In the letter, which was addressed to White House drug office director John P. Walters, Grassley asked for an explanation of the apparent discrepancy.

The White House has said the year-on-year comparisons of coca cultivation are not relevant because 81% more terrain in Colombia was surveyed in 2005. In an interview, James O'Gara, deputy director for supply reduction at the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said the eradication program was having its desired effect. Satellite imaging and the software used to assess the potency of the plants indicated that cultivation and production were down, he said.

"Despite casting the wider net in terms of the terrain that it surveys, aerial monitoring shows Colombia's productive capacity is down 21% since the peak year of 2001," O'Gara said.

Critics of Plan Colombia say monitoring should have been expanded long ago to include the so-called balloon effect of the aerial spraying program — the movement of growers from "industrial" coca farms to more remote areas.

Grassley, who is the chairman of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, said he suspected that the figures were being manipulated to "provide a rosier but not necessarily more accurate picture of the current situation."

"While I am very hopeful that the tide is turning in our efforts to combat cocaine and heroin production and exportation from Colombia, I believe that these assumptions may be premature and even unfounded," Grassley wrote.

John Walsh of the Washington Office on Latin America said the new figures for cultivation cast doubt on November's cocaine street sales statistics, which he said were poorly documented.

"The [White House's] claim that Plan Colombia drove up the U.S. street price of cocaine in 2005 has never been substantiated," Walsh said. "And glaring discrepancies with the well-documented price estimates published … earlier in 2005 make full disclosure of the methods behind the new data even more crucial."

Ricardo Vargas, a drug-policy analyst at Bogota-based Accion Andina, said Grassley's criticisms were legitimate because the new figures showed that despite the spraying, the Colombian government had not been able to "control the replanting and relocation to new zones by coca growers."

"The army would need three or four times the soldiers it has to control the vast areas such as the Amazon, where much of the growing has relocated to," Vargas said.

Although the five-year foreign aid program formally ended in September, the Bush administration extended the $600 million-plus in annual funding this year, and Bush has requested a similar appropriation for fiscal 2007.

Aid for Colombia is widely supported in the U.S. Congress, where President Alvaro Uribe is generally perceived as a strong leader who has reduced crime and extradited more than 400 drug-trafficking suspects.

Backers of Plan Colombia say that success in the anti-drug program should be measured by more than just the number of acres cultivated. Also important, said a senior staffer on the U.S. House International Relations Committee, is improved security in Colombia.

"Colombia is in a different place than it was five or six years ago," said the senior staff member, who asked not to be named. "You can drive around the country, the Colombian government is asserting itself in all its municipalities, and kidnappings and terrorist attacks are down. To focus the debate on how many hectares of coca or opium is grown in Colombia is off the mark."

At the same time, Walsh said that official figures showed that total Colombian acreage of coca cultivation was now 6% more than before Plan Colombia began in 2000.

Grassley said, "As Congress begins debate on appropriations in an especially tight budget, it's important we know the real facts and figures on Plan Colombia. We need to know if it's really working."