|US weighs costs of Plan Colombia|
By Elinor Shields
June 29, 2005
Since 2000 the US has spent about $3bn on programmes to fight drug trafficking, train the Colombian army to battle insurgents and improve the institutions of government.
The centrepiece of Plan Colombia has been the aerial spraying of coca plants, which yield the raw material for 80% of the world's cocaine and help to finance rebels and paramilitaries in the civil war.
But the controversial policy's fate is now up for debate.
A US Senate panel is considering the Bush administration's request to continue military assistance for one more year, after the proposal was passed by the House of Representatives.
Policymakers argue it is in the national interest to fight cocaine at its source, and to stabilise Colombia.
Critics agree - but say time is up for a policy that is ineffective, inhumane and worsens violence.
"There is... remarkable persistence in the face of failure," says Peter Andreas, assistant professor of political studies at Brown University and an expert on the regional drugs trade.
Under Plan Colombia, the US gives Alvaro Uribe's government roughly $600m a year.
Initially Congress specified that US money should only be used against drug lords, but since 2002 the Bush administration has indicated that some aid is being spent on counter-terrorism.
"There's been a much greater blurring than before," Mr Andreas says.
Advocates of the plan point to some improvements in security since 2000. Bogota figures show a drop in kidnappings and murders.
US and Colombian officials say they have eradicated a record-breaking million acres of coca plants.
However, United Nations numbers released this month show cultivation in the Andean region increased by 3% in 2004, as declines in Colombia were swamped by large rises in Peru and Bolivia.
Figures also show that the price and purity of the cocaine on sale in America has remained stable - suggesting that Plan Colombia is having little effect on supply.
US officials are perplexed by the disparity between the eradication numbers and the availability estimates.
They suggest that traffickers are hoarding supplies of cocaine and releasing it slowly, and that government data on drug cultivation may be inaccurate.
Mark Souder is one of four Congress members to have sent a letter requesting $150m in additional military aid, for new equipment to set up a drug eradication base.
The chairman of a House panel on drug policy, he believes it is easier to tackle narcotics at their source than in the US, and advocates a "carrot and stick approach".
"Alternative development doesn't work unless you let them know the crop will be eliminated," he says.
Critics contend that the stick is "unusually cruel" and the carrot is not forthcoming.
Peasant farmers have responded by planting more coca, hiding it and turning to varieties that produce a higher yield, the UN report said.
The Latin American Working Group (LAWG), an advocacy organisation that is lobbying Congress against Plan Colombia, says aerial spraying targets people "motivated by desperation".
Poor farmers have long complained that the chemicals kill all crops and ruin their livelihoods.
A coca grower's wife told the BBC that the "sticky," "itchy" herbicide made her children ill.
"We lost everything," she said.
Mr Souder rebuffs concerns about the effects of glyphosate on people and the environment.
"Scientifically, there is no risk," he says. "Emotionally it bothers people."
Call for diplomacy
The LAWG is also concerned that the reliance on military aid "pours fuel on the fire".
The group objects to support for a military whose human rights record has allegedly worsened since 2000. It cites reports of collaboration between the army and the paramilitaries, who are accused of civilian massacres.
The group is calling for a new focus on social aid and diplomatic efforts to promote human rights and encourage a negotiated end to the armed conflict.
"The US worsens Colombia's violence by our demand for drugs - therefore we have to be responsible," executive director Lisa Haugaard says.
The debate looks set to continue.
Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2005/06/29 15:04:48 GMT
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