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Program to battle Colombian drug trafficking gets fresh scrutiny

BOGOTA, Colombia—The six puppies looked fine at first. But when Colombian police gave them a closer look they found fresh scars on their bellies that told a different story.

The tiny Labradors and Rottweilers had been surgically converted into drug couriers: cut open with several plastic packets of heroin stitched into their abdomens.

Even the hardened Colombian police, who discovered the puppies at an abandoned house in a rural area outside of Medellin, had never seen anything like it. Traffickers were apparently going to ship the dogs to the United States saying they were pets. It's almost certain they would have been discarded as soon as their valuable cargo was removed.

"The better we get at catching them the more creative they get," said Mark Styron, supervisor of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Heroin Group in Bogota. "That's always the problem."

Much of the cocaine and heroin that ends up for sale on the street corners of the United States begins in the rich soil of this conflict-ridden South American country. And staying ahead of the smugglers is expensive. Since 2000, the United States has sent $4.5 billion to Colombia to help battle drug trafficking.

That six-year program, known as Plan Colombia, is set to expire at the end of this year.

Although the Bush administration and Congress have signaled a willingness to continue funding at current levels for at least another year, some are questioning whether the money has been effective in stemming the tide of drugs to the United States.

The Colombians point with pride to the hundreds of thousands of acres of coca and poppy fields they've destroyed and the tons of drugs seized at their airports and borders. Kidnappings and murders are down.

But a report from the United Nations showed that while coca cultivation in Colombia is down, it has risen in neighboring Peru and Bolivia.

And the efforts in Colombia seem to have had little measurable effect on the drug supply in the United States. The Justice Department's National Drug Threat Assessment for 2005 found that heroin and cocaine were still readily available throughout the United States. Data from the Drug Enforcement Administration shows that the purity of wholesale cocaine being smuggled in from South America has actually increased slightly.

But, at least with heroin, there is some evidence that a crackdown begun in 2002 is showing results. DEA tests show that purity has dipped 14.5 percent since 2000.

It is generally believed that if a drug is in short supply purity decreases, and prices increase.

Colombia remains the world's largest producer of cocaine and the nation's image remains closely linked to the drug.

Yet in America concern is running high about heroin. Although the opiate is not used with the frequency of cocaine or marijuana, it's highly addictive and leads to a disproportionately high number of overdoses and deaths, according to emergency room data.

Colombia produces only 2 percent of the world's heroin but it's generally believed to be among the best, often so pure that users can snort it, rather than injecting it. And almost all Colombian heroin flows into the United States. Ninety percent of the heroin on the East Coast is Colombian, according to the DEA.

The Justice Department reports that heroin use was up among American college students in 2003, the most recent year for which data was available, after several years of steady decline.

Evidence of the problem's reach came recently when a delegation of 10 American police officers arrived in Bogota to study the heroin problem at its source. The narcotics cops from Pennsylvania and Maryland are battling a rising heroin trade on the street corners at home.

They soon learned that, in Colombia, the war on drugs is not just a figure of speech. Hustling through Bogota in armored SUVs, they were surrounded by their Colombian counterparts, who cradled M-15s and dressed more like commandos than cops.

At a hospital in Bogota—set up by the government just for the nation's police—they met Carlos Mira. The 30-year-old had his leg shattered in an ambush by guerrillas armed with rifles and hand grenades. His doctors say he may never walk normally again. He's the lucky one. His partner was killed.

"Tell the Americans that this is what the drugs do," he said simply, no malice in his voice.

Fifteen Colombian police officers on patrol in a remote area near the border with Venezuela were killed by a bomb just days before the Americans arrived, bringing the total police deaths so far this year to 120. In the early 1990s some 600 police officers were killed each year by heavily armed guerrilla and paramilitary groups.

Plan Colombia was launched under the Clinton administration as a way to fight drugs. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Congress said the funding could be used for counterterrorism as well.

In Colombia, the two are inseparable, officials say.

"The drugs are the terrorists' juice," said William Wood, U.S. ambassador to Colombia.

The drug pipeline to the United States often begins in the camps of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Known the by its Spanish acronym, the FARC controls swaths of rural coca and poppy growing territory. Colombian police and intelligence officials say the FARC supports itself and its insurgency against the government with millions of dollars from the drug trade.

One FARC defector, "Jose," said in an interview with Knight Ridder that he abandoned the group because of its brutality. Leaders in his front ordered his brother to kill his girlfriend after she violated the rules and killed a civilian. Jose, who declined to use his real name out of fear of retaliation, said he grew up in the FARC, and that drugs were a constant presence.

"To end the drug war you have to end the guerrillas. As long as there are guerrillas there are drugs. They exist together," he said.

The FARC is believed to have recently executed 14 peasants who were growing coca and selling it to their right-wing paramilitary foes. The ongoing fighting in remote regions means that Colombia has the third highest number of displaced people in the world, trailing only the African nations of the Sudan and the Congo.

The Mineros Block of the United Self Defense Force—or AUC—a right-wing paramilitary group, is disbanding as part of an ongoing peace process with the government. That has helped drive down violence in Colombia.

But in Washington, some lawmakers are hesitant about funding demobilization efforts because of concerns that those who have committed human rights will escape punishment.

Everywhere in Colombia there is evidence of American money and influence: Blackhawk and Huey helicopters, twin-engine Otter police planes, fixed wing fumigation planes. At a rural training site southwest of Bogota, American Special Forces help the Colombians train for dangerous raids to destroy drug labs.

"It would be much worse without the U.S.," said Gen. Jorge Daniel Castro, chief of the Colombian National Police. "This is a long and difficult battle and the United States has been our strongest ally."

But over the last 10 years Colombia has lost 40 U.S.-supplied aircraft battling the FARC and AUC. The additional aid is needed to keep the fleet operating, the Colombians say.

Colombian and American officials agree that drug seizures reached record levels last year and the eradication of coca and poppy plants through herbicide spraying is at an all-time high.

Col. Jamil Moreno, who heads up tactical anti-drug operations for the Colombian National Police, said poppy plants, in particular, are difficult to spray because they are able to grow at high elevations, nestled into the sides of mountains. Moreno said police pilots have sustained bullet holes to the canopies on top of their planes.

"The guerrillas are above us on the mountains. It is very dangerous," he said.

Moreno's experience fighting poppy crops in Colombia has put him in demand. Negotiations are underway to have the Colombian travel to Afghanistan to help develop a strategy for battling poppy crops there.

U.S. Ambassador Wood said that more people die every year in the United States from Colombian drugs than in the Sept. 11 attacks. U.S. aid will eventually decline as the situation stabilizes, he said. But the drug problem will never go away entirely and the United States—as the primary consumer of American drugs—will likely always have a role in Colombia.

"It's like asking when is crime over. It's never going to be over," Wood said.

Still the continuing costs of the war in Iraq and the huge budget deficit have caused the aid to Colombia to come under more than the usual scrutiny this year. And the foreign policy landscape has changed since the Sept. 11 attacks so that the Middle East has consumed most of America's attention.

A telling symbol of that comes in real estate. The fortresslike U.S. Embassy in Bogota is the largest in the world. But it will eventually be surpassed by an even more massive new facility planned for Iraq.


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): COLOMBIA

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050915 COLOMBIA

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