The Bush administration has defended its anti-narcotics efforts in Colombia in the face of congressional criticism. Local drug enforcement and police officials told a congressional panel Thursday that highly-addictive Colombian heroin is flooding into the United States.
Some lawmakers in the House of Representatives are upset that joint U.S.-Colombian eradication efforts have shifted recently to spraying of coca plants, the raw material for cocaine, rather than opium poppies which are used to make heroin.
Appearing before the House Government Reform Committee, officials from local police departments in several U.S. states, testified about what they called sharp increases in heroin use.
"This dire problem is the direct result of the Colombians intentionally flooding their established cocaine markets with stronger, cheaper heroin," said Scott Pelletier, a detective with the Portland, Maine police department. "We can no longer wonder if our children will be exposed to heroin. Now, we must wonder when will they be exposed and pray that they choose not to experiment with it."
Also testifying was Tony Marcocci, a detective in the District Attorney's Office for Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. Displaying small bags of heroin, he says local authorities now face what he calls a more urgent, deadly and addictive enemy.
"These bags contain very small quantities of heroin, usually between .01 grams and .03 grams," he said. "The reason that such a small amount of heroin can be placed in these bags is because the purity of this heroin is between 80 and 90 percent. We have never experienced heroin of this quality in our careers."
Under "Plan Colombia," the United States provides millions of dollars in anti-narcotics and logistical assistance, including helicopters and spraying in key coca and opium-producing regions.
However, congressional critics say spraying of opium dropped from 9,200 hectares in 2000 to only 1,800 in 2001. This, they say, resulted in an upsurge of heroin reaching the U.S. market.
Paul Simons, acting Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, blamed equipment delays and other problems for the decrease in spraying of opium in 2001. He says those problems have now been resolved, and predicts spraying of opium will recover to previous levels.
But Congressman Benjamin Gilman pressed Mr. Simons, and U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Anne Patterson, on why the focus had shifted away from opium eradication.
PATTERSON: "Mr. Chairman, we were also facing a crisis in coca. It was flooding, cheap coca, it was increasing at a rate of something like 20, 30 percent a year."
GILMAN: "But madam ambassador, isn't most of the coca production going to the European continent, and the vast majority of the illicit drugs coming from Colombia are opium drugs at the present time?"
PATTERSON: "Our estimate sir, is somewhere between half and one third of the coca production goes to Europe, but still a good half of it comes here."
GILMAN: "But we have about 60 percent of the opium crop coming to the United States, do we not?"PATTERSON: "Yes, sir."
The United States credits Colombian President Alvaro Uribe with making great progress in eradication efforts in the first months of his administration.
But lawmakers say more needs to be done to bring opium eradication back up to previous levels, and urge the Bush administration and State Department to make this a priority.