Plan Colombia Fails to Stem Cocaine Supply


The flow of drugs to the U.S. raises questions about the two nations' war against narcotics.


By Henry Chu
Times Staff Writer

September 18, 2005

CARTAGENA, Colombia — Every few days or so, a speedboat laden with a ton or two of cocaine launches from somewhere along this country's jagged Caribbean coastline, headed for a rendezvous in deeper waters.

There, the precious cargo gets transferred to a nondescript fishing vessel, which smuggles it into a port in Mexico, Haiti or elsewhere. Then the shipment hitches another ride, by sea or land, to its final destination: the streets of Los Angeles, New York and other U.S. cities, where it fetches about $100 per gram.

At times, Colombian and U.S. authorities are tipped off to a speedboat's departure by radar or other intelligence, and a joint operation to nab it can be mounted. But as often as not, under cover of darkness, fog or choppy waves, the boat slips through — another battle lost in the government's war on drugs.

After several years and billions of American tax dollars spent fighting drug trafficking, cocaine is still making its way from Colombia to the U.S. in what appear to be hardly diminished quantities, throwing into question the efficacy of counter-narcotics efforts by both countries.

Drug runners have proved adaptable and clever in finding new routes for their shipments, the majority of which now go out by sea rather than by air or land, authorities say.

At the same time, a program that began five years ago to fumigate coca crops in Colombia, hailed by the Bush administration as a major success, appears to have had little effect on overall supply, judging by the availability and price of cocaine on the street. U.S. officials acknowledge that access to cocaine, its purity level and its street price remain virtually unchanged.

The dismaying results come as President Bush is requesting an extension for aid to Plan Colombia, a five-year strategy to combat narco-trafficking set to expire at the end of this year. The U.S. has already poured about $3 billion into the project, primarily to augment Colombia's fleet of military aircraft and ships and to train soldiers and police.

"The plan is producing results," Bush told reporters last month during a visit to his Texas ranch by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who asked for more money and support for Plan Colombia during a visit to Washington last week.

Officials from both countries cite the number of seizures of cocaine shipments as proof that Plan Colombia is bearing fruit. This year, U.S. and Colombian forces netted 45 tons of the drug in joint maritime stings through August, up from 33 tons for all of last year, said Adm. Alfonso Diaz, commanding officer of Colombia's naval base here in Cartagena, on the Caribbean coast. Separately, the Colombian navy had seized an additional 23 tons by the end of August.

But Diaz acknowledged that about 420 tons would probably elude authorities at sea this year, half of it destined for the U.S. That alone would satisfy two-thirds of estimated American demand, which has risen over the last decade, according to a national drug-use study published by the U.S. government last year. Colombia, where 75% of the world's coca is grown, remains the United States' largest source of cocaine.

The beefed-up efforts have also failed to translate into higher prices on the street, as would be expected if supply were declining. Instead, a gram of cocaine now costs less, not more, than it did before Plan Colombia was introduced in 2000, according to the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy.

U.S. drug czar John P. Walters said in an Aug. 31 speech that a campaign to eradicate opium poppies had given Plan Colombia some success in its effort to reduce the purity and increase the price of heroin, another drug that comes out of Colombia.

But he acknowledged that, with regard to cocaine, "we haven't seen yet the same changes."

The stability of supply and price presents a conundrum for officials and experts in light of the trumpeted achievements of the coca fumigation program, which the U.S. has heavily funded and promoted.

In June, the United Nations reported that aerial spraying had halved the area of land dedicated to coca cultivation in Colombia, from 400,000 acres in 1999 to about 200,000 acres in 2004. (The U.S. estimates that 280,000 acres remain.) Small planes dropping glyphosate, a common herbicide, routinely buzz over fields in states such as Putumayo in southern Colombia, where much of the coca fields are concentrated.

In an ominous development, however, the report noted that coca was now being grown in 23 of 32 states, or departments, in Colombia, a country the size of California and Texas combined, making eradication and accurate monitoring more difficult.

"They spray heavily in a department like Putumayo or Guaviare, but you keep seeing it pop up in new departments like Meta," said Adam Isacson, an analyst at the Center for International Policy in Washington. "A lot of the new coca-growing in new areas is not being detected."

Farmers may have modified their methods to outsmart fumigators, Isacson said, adding that sketchy reports had surfaced of a new strain of coca that offered a higher yield in making cocaine.

"Satellites are totally useless at finding plots of about two-thirds of an acre or less, and nobody's so stupid in a place like Putumayo these days to grow coca in massive, easy-to-find plots," Isacson said.

"There's a lot more scattering of small plots. There's a lot more growing in shade, among tall weeds — places where it's harder to find."

In addition, coca growers are planting more of their crops in national parks, which have been exempt from fumigation because of environmental concerns. But the Colombian government said Friday that it now planned to spray inside parks as well.

The Senate Appropriations Committee, considering Bush's request for more aid for Colombia, expressed concern in June that "the aerial eradication program is falling far short of predictions and that coca cultivation is shifting to new locations…. There is no indication that the quantity of cocaine entering the United States has decreased."

David Murray, special assistant to Walters, said he was convinced that the coca-spraying and stronger interdiction had delivered a blow to the cocaine industry. But he confirmed that the key indices of price and purity had held steady.

"We anticipate a gradual impact," Murray said. He counseled patience but said he did not know when changes in price and purity would finally begin to emerge.

Colombian officials offer another explanation for the continued availability of cocaine on U.S. streets: Traffickers are now dipping into a surplus that they had stashed away.

"In my opinion, they have accumulated some quantities of drugs and are shipping them out to accommodate the demand before they are beaten once and for all," Diaz, the admiral, said of the drug runners, many of whom are combatants in Colombia's 41-year war between left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups.

But Francisco Thoumi, an internationally recognized drug expert based in Bogota, scoffed at the idea of hoarding.

World demand for cocaine has risen in recent years, he said, which would encourage dealers to sell as much as possible, not to stockpile it. And with the Uribe government's aggressive efforts to combat the guerrillas and dismantle the paramilitaries, building up huge hoards would be too dangerous.

"I know of no business venture that would have less incentive than this one to keep stocks," Thoumi said. "The risks are just too high."

In spite of all the cocaine seizures reported by U.S. and Colombian authorities, Thoumi said, the proliferation of small drug-trafficking outfits — most of the large cartels have collapsed — has made going after them much harder.

"It's become a lot more difficult to interdict," he said. "Different routes are open."

According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, about two-thirds of the cocaine shipped to the United States arrives via the Central America-Mexico corridor.

In years past, the favored route was the Pacific Ocean. But this year, drug runners have shifted more of their operations over to the Caribbean, with shipments now about evenly divided between the two bodies of water, said Diaz, the Colombian admiral.

The vessels of choice are so-called go-fast boats equipped with several motors that give the launches speeds of up to 60 knots. Each can carry up to 3 tons of cocaine and travel nearly 350 miles on a full tank. Typically, the go-fast then offloads its contraband to a waiting fishing trawler or refuels and hauls the stuff to transshipment points such as Mexico, Haiti, Puerto Rico and, increasingly, Jamaica.

The speedboats have proved to be a major headache for authorities — tiny, fast-moving specks lost in immense expanses of ocean and hard to stop even if they get spotted, which in itself is no small feat.

Colombian navy officials complain about not having enough radar systems to detect the go-fasts or enough helicopters to track and interdict them by air. For 1,000 miles of coastal border in the Caribbean, the naval base here in Cartagena has just eight patrol vessels, supplied by the U.S., whose speeds can match the go-fasts. There are four choppers.

Seizing a single go-fast is a complicated operation that can take as long as eight hours and requires the joint efforts of two boats, two helicopters and two other light aircraft. Drug runners have been known to throw themselves over the motors to prevent sharpshooters from disabling them or to toss their cargo overboard when capture seems imminent. Wrapping the cocaine tightly in coffee is a popular measure so that little scent is left behind for sniffer dogs.

"These guys change their tactics very quickly," Diaz said.

He is confident that Colombian and U.S. forces are prevailing in their drive to put narco-traffickers out of business, even if evidence of that on American streets is scant. But Diaz acknowledged that the law of supply and demand would continue to work against them.

"You will have traffic in drugs as long as there are consumers," he said.