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Bush Administration: US Committed to Fight Drug Production, Trafficking in South America - 2004-03-03

Bush administration officials have told a congressional committee the United States is committed to fighting the production and trafficking of narcotics in and from Colombia and other countries in South America. Testimony on Capitol Hill coincided with the release of the administration's annual report on drug control.

The administration has requested $731 million in the fiscal year beginning next October for what is called the Andean Counterdrug Initiative (ACI), a broad effort to support opium and coca eradication, interdiction and institution-building in seven South American and one Central American countries.

The program covers Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil, Venezuela and Panama. However the bulk of the money, about 463 million dollars, goes to Colombia, where the government has made strides in eliminating opium cultivation, but faces challenges from "narco-terrorist" groups using cocaine and heroin profits to support their activities.

John Walters, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, says an aggressive aerial spraying campaign began to show results in 2002, reducing the number of hectares devoted to coca and opium production. Results for 2003 are still being evaluated, but he says additional progress is expected.

Mr. Walters credits Colombian President Alvaro Uribe for the progress, and he says the budget for 2005 reflects the administration's determination to support him. And he says any slowing of the effort would be risky:

"We do not want to go to "stasis" [status quo] because that will encourage a ballooning. It will encourage what we have seen before, if we let this cancer continue, it metastasizes into other areas, and establishes itself, so when we kill it in one place it simply moves around," he said. "Our goal is not to chase this around like mercury on the top of this desk. Our goal is to shrink it and crush it and crush it at various stages so it can't re-generate the supporting loop of production and consumption."

Mr. Walters says so far, it appears there has not been a resurgence of coca production in Peru and Bolivia even as Colombian authorities with U.S. assistance make progress in that country.

However, the chairman of the House subcommittee, Republican Congressman Mark Souder, is concerned about what he calls a 13 percent reduction in funds for the Andean initiative since 2003.

Congressman Souder says Americans are impatient that more results aren't being seen in the form of reduced flows of cocaine and heroin into U.S. cities.

"We have been spending a lot of money in the Andean region, and we all agree that [Colombian President] Uribe seems to be our best hope, that it appears that it hasn't spread as much as we had feared into the other countries," he said. "It's perplexing to try to almost figure out why if our interdiction is up and our eradication is up, that we haven't moved the price and supply up. We're all trying to figure out whether there are stockpiles or whatever. And it's a great goal to have democratization that is in our region, stability in Colombia, we have been putting a lot into their legal system, but ultimately the reason the American taxpayers have supported this is to see some reduction in the United States."

Another official says the link between terrorism and drug money is incontrovertible. Robert Charles, Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, describes what he calls an "end game" that will require full support from Congress to achieve.

"The end game is a hemisphere free of drug-funded terrorism, free from drug-funded corruption in young and old democracies, subject to less drug violence, and increasingly free from the scourge of drug abuse," he said. "That end game, or goal, applies as plainly to [U.S. city] Baltimore as to Bogota."

Mr. Charles said the battle against narcotics trafficking and terrorist groups it supports is a "steep climb," but real progress is being made.