Antidrug efforts fall short

Times Staff Writer

The United States and its Latin American allies are losing a major battle in the war on drugs, according to indicators that show cocaine prices dipped for most of 2006 and U.S. users were getting more bang for their buck.

Despite billions of dollars in U.S. antidrug spending and record seizures, statistics recently released by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy suggest that cocaine is as available as ever.

Cocaine users and law enforcement officials both care about price and purity. Authorities work to choke off supply, driving up cost and dampening street sales. Users want better coke at cheaper prices.


In 2005, John P. Walters, the head of the drug policy office, made headlines touting a surge in cocaine prices and falling levels of quality. Those figures indicated that U.S. drug control policies were working, he said.

But the new numbers issued by his office indicate that any victory was short-lived. Retail cocaine prices last year fell more than 12% from January to October, while average purity of cocaine seized by authorities rose from about 68% to 73%. And this time, the drug policy office did little to publicize the figures, releasing them in a letter to U.S. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa).

The new statistics emboldened critics who say the Bush administration’s antidrug strategies need to change.

“You can spin this any way you want, but when prices go down and supply goes up, the fact of the matter is that this policy is not working,” said U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), a longtime critic who supports spending more on economic development.

Since the Iraq war began more than four years ago, the Pentagon has sharply reduced spending on air and sea surveillance of trafficking routes in the Pacific and Caribbean. The centerpiece of the U.S. strategy against cocaine has shifted to Plan Colombia, which funds aerial fumigation of coca plants. Colombian growers supply 90% of U.S. users through Mexican smuggling rings that control the cocaine and marijuana trade.

“Crop control is the most cost-effective means of cutting supply,” according to the 2007 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, issued by the U.S. State Department. Last year, Colombia reported it had destroyed more than half a million acres of coca plants.


But growers have responded to the fumigation by breaking up their crops into smaller areas in an apparently successful hide-and-seek strategy. U.S. officials estimate that as much as 800 tons of cocaine still was exported from Colombia.

Patrick Ward, deputy director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said the Colombia eradication program kept 350 tons of cocaine from being produced.

But critics say that availability of cocaine in most U.S. cities is evidence of failure.

“In 2005, more coca was grown in Colombia than they had in 2000, when Plan Colombia started,” said Adam Isacson, a Colombia analyst for the Center for International Policy, a Washington think tank. “They can say, ‘Look how much more coke we’d have without fumigation,’ but that sounds pretty lame.”

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe traveled to Washington this week to lobby for continued U.S. support amid allegations of ties between his government and illegal paramilitary groups. Colombia has received $4.7 billion since 2000.

The continued high production in Colombia is also troubling news for Mexico, which reaps the cocaine trade’s greatest profits and bears the brunt of its costs. More than 2,000 deaths last year were attributed to an ongoing battle among rival drug gangs for control of smuggling routes.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon in December deployed the army to stem the bloodshed. But the killings continue at or ahead of last year’s pace. In January, Mexico extradited several key drug trafficking figures to face trial in U.S. courts, including the alleged head of the country’s east coast-based cartel. More extraditions are expected.


But continuing violence and a steady supply of cocaine crossing into the U.S. from Mexico have many questioning Calderon’s strategy as well as Washington’s.

“The standard that economists would use on extradition would be that it frees up the market,” said Peter Reuter, an economist and drug policy expert at Rand Corp. “If you’re Mexico, you care about reducing the capability of these organizations to execute people in large numbers. But the idea that it will stop cocaine is wrong.”

Mexico’s army operations, historically, have been effective only in the short term, said Jose Luis Pineyro, a military affairs expert in Mexico City. “After the military leaves, the narcos come back.”

Times staff writers Hector Tobar and Carlos Martinez contributed to this report.