BOGOTÁ, Colombia, April 27 - 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.
Several senior officials said they were perplexed and disappointed. The White House report said, "There is little interagency consensus for this disparity."
Over the past five and a half years, the United States has spent nearly $3 billion on programs to fight drug trafficking, train the Colombian military to battle insurgents who control much of the drug trade, and improve institutions of government. The initiative is called Plan Colombia.
The centerpiece of this effort has been the use of a small air force, 82 aircraft, to spray herbicide on coca plants grown on small plots and large plantations across the country. Over five years, more than 1.3 million acres of coca plants and 52,000 acres of opium poppy have been destroyed at great cost. Traffickers have shot down at least five of the planes; three lives have been lost.
Theories abound on the reason for the disparity between the eradication numbers and the availability estimates, and on how to deal with it. Luis Alberto Moreno, the Colombian ambassador to the United States, said he believed the Colombian enforcement teams should be uprooting the coca plants instead of spraying them with herbicide.
The senior State Department official said he suspected traffickers were hoarding vast supplies of cocaine and doling it out slowly. Representative Dan Burton, the Indiana Republican who is chairman of the Western Hemisphere subcommittee, said he thought the Colombians should be using a more powerful herbicide. And the White House drug policy office hypothesizes that the government's data on drug cultivation may be inaccurate.