Pratfall Colombia


U.S. officials are scratching their heads over the abject failure of Plan Colombia, yet another in a series of unsuccessful efforts to stamp out cocaine at its source. The New York Times reports:

Five years and $3 billion into the most aggressive counternarcotics operation ever here, American and Colombian officials say they have eradicated a record-breaking million acres of coca plants, yet cocaine remains as available as ever on American streets, perhaps more so.

"It's very disturbing," said a senior State Department official traveling here with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is on a five-day tour of the region.

Colombian traffickers still provide 90 percent of the cocaine used in the United States and 50 percent of the heroin, just as they did five years ago, the government says. "Key indicators of domestic cocaine availability show stable or slightly increased availability in drug markets throughout the country," the White House drug policy office acknowledged in February. Officials added that prices have remained stable and purity has improved.

Possible explanations for this puzzle include replanting by coca farmers in the same or new locations, the use of more-productive coca varieties, and exaggeration by the Colombian government about the success of eradication efforts. More generally, as scholars such as Peter Reuter have been pointing out for years (most recently in an American Enterprise Institute report released last month), source control never has a measurable, lasting impact on retail prices or consumption because 1) there are plenty of places in the world to grow coca; 2) most of cocaine's markup occurs after it reaches the U.S., so lost crops or shipments are cheap to replace; and, most important, 3) black-market prices lure creative criminals, who switch to new sources and smuggling routes whenever there's a crackdown.

Despite these realities, drug warriors always seem surprised when efforts to cut off the supply of cocaine (or other drugs) do not work as advertised. They are determined not to learn from their mistakes:

Even with the contradictory results from the first five years, the Bush administration is asking Congress to extend Plan Colombia for at least one more year. The president's budget proposal asks for another $734 million next year on top of the $2.9 billion already spent.

A senior State Department official who is involved in the Colombia program said, "Give us another year or so and see if there is any effect."

At a news conference [in Bogota] on Tuesday, Ms. Rice said Washington had no intention of reassessing the program, adding that such a move would most likely take a long time to see results in the United States…

[Dan] Burton, the subcommittee chairman, said he was inclined to favor the president's request to renew Plan Colombia financing.