State Department says Colombia coca production continues to rise

Thursday, March 1st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON - Colombian coca production increased last year ahead of a U.S-funded crackdown, but the rise wasn't as sharp as in previous years, the State Department's top counternarcotics official told a Senate panel Wednesday.

``This estimate may _ may _ indicate that the explosion of coca that has ravaged Colombia recently is finally peaking,'' Rand Beers told the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control.

Production of coca _ the raw material for cocaine _ rose 11 percent last year, compared with a 20 percent increase in 1999. The 2000 figures don't reflect eradication efforts in southern Colombia that began in December under the $1.3 billion U.S. anti-drug package, he said.

The 33,850 acre increase in Colombian production more than offset the combined 28,900 acre decreases previously reported for neighboring Peru and Bolivia last year.

For years, Peru and Bolivia had been the leading supplier of coca for Colombian traffickers. But the success of eradication and interdiction efforts there in the early 1990s pushed production into Colombia. Last year marked the eighth straight year of coca production increases in Colombia, according to State Department statistics.

Much of the coca production is in territory defended by leftist guerrillas, who partly finance their 37-year-old insurgency by protecting coca growers and traffickers.

Under the $1.3 billion U.S. aid package, Colombia's military is receiving helicopters and training to provide security for eradication missions in territory protected by the guerrillas.

Beers said eradication has been going well, with 62,000 acres sprayed in the first seven weeks.

But the efforts in Colombia have raised concerns that coca growth may shift back to Peru, Bolivia or other neighboring countries.

``I think we all agree it would be most unfortunate if this became like a balloon _ you squeeze it like a balloon and it pops out all over,'' said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Cal.

Beers said the State Department would focus more on neighboring countries when it proposes its Andean anti-drug aid for the next budget.

``I cannot tell you precisely what the number will be for this regional initiative,'' he said. ``I can tell you that there will be a far larger percent _ approaching 50 percent _ that will go to other states in the region.''

After the hearing, Beers told reporters he expected that social programs, such as crop substitution, would make up a bigger part of the new plan than it had last year.

Many Latin American nations have been concerned that the emphasis on military spending in last year's aid package could escalate the conflict and expand the fighting across borders.