U.S. officials say the Colombian government is succeeding in its battle against illegal narcotics and terrorism. U.S. assistance to Colombia and other Andean countries was examined Wednesday as lawmakers consider the Bush administration request to fund the Andean Counter-drug Initiative also known as Plan Colombia, which Congress must reauthorize this year.
In the view of many lawmakers and the Bush administration, Plan Colombia continues to be crucial to efforts to ensure the stability of a key U.S. ally in South America, and to the battle against narcotics production and trafficking.
This year, the administration has requested $735 million in aid for Colombia, aimed at helping the government of President Alvaro Uribe sustain the battle against narco-terrorist groups, and for anti-narcotics operations.
Congressman and Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, Dennis Hastert, says the continuation of the program is critical to the United States and to regional stability:
"Some might ask, why is Colombia so important to us? Today, Colombia produces 80 percent of the world's supply of cocaine, and is the source of over 90 percent of the cocaine and 50 percent of the heroin entering our nation," Mr. Hastert says. "The drug trade from Colombia is killing Americans and it is a major factor in the instability of our hemisphere."
U.S. government witnesses pointed to successes under Plan Colombia, which has cost about four billion dollars since its inception.
The Bush administration says it has contributed to professionalizing Colombia's military and police, and reducing human rights violations and kidnappings by groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC.
U.S. assistance has contributed to an increase in cultivation of crop alternatives to coca, more seizures of narcotics, and assisting other Andean countries such as Bolivia and Peru, in similar efforts.
John Walters is Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy:
"We have witnessed three successive years of declining production of both cocaine and heroin. At the same time, the regional security threat from narco-terrorist organizations has diminished. We are headed in the right direction, we are winning. Cocaine production is down a third in the Andes as a whole since 2001, and Colombia's opium crop was cut by half between 2003 and 2004," Mr. Walters says.
However, critics say Colombia's internal conflict continues for the most part unabated, while the government still has a long way to go in reducing coca cultivation.
Democratic Congressman Robert Menendez is among those who believe the program has not lived up to expectations:
"Colombia still has the highest kidnapping rate in the world. We have not yet achieved success in terms of decreasing the amount of cocaine on the streets of the United States or lowering the price of cocaine, we have not seen a reduction in the amount of acres used for cocaine production in the past year, and we have a de-mobilization law presently being offered in Colombia that gives us concern about the rule of law and ultimately about human rights abusers being held accountable for their actions," Mr. Menendez says.
Some lawmakers are not satisfied with steps taken so far in Colombia to de-mobilize members of insurgent groups and re-integrate them into society.
Adolfo Franco is assistant administrator for Latin America for the U.S. Agency for International Development:
"As experience with other demobilization efforts elsewhere has demonstrated, a strong reintegration program is necessary to prevent a backsliding of the demobilized ex-combatants into a life of crime and violence," Mr. Franco says.
U.S. drug control chief Walters responded to criticism that Plan Colombia has not led to reductions in the availability, price or quality of cocaine and heroin from the Andean region.
In testimony Wednesday, U.S. officials said narco-terrorist groups are attempting to counter-act aerial spraying of coca fields by planting in areas currently off limits to such efforts.