WASHINGTON – Colombia's coca crop declined by about 15 percent in 2002 compared with the previous year as a result of an intensified eradication effort, a State Department official said Thursday.
The official said it was the first decline in a decade. There was a notable increase in coca eradication after President Alvaro Uribe took office last August, he said.
Coca cultivation covered 144,400 hectares in 2002 compared with 169,800 hectares in 2001, said the official, providing the information only on grounds of anonymity.
The United States has played a major role in the eradication effort, providing training, equipment and personnel for the effort.
According to the official, intense spraying in two southern provinces, Putumayo and Caqueta, was responsible for much of the decline. He said many coca farmers have left those provinces and resumed coca farming in areas to the east.
Uribe took office in early August with a pledge to confront the narco-trafficking scourge. The U.S. official said that about 50 percent of all coca eradication occurred during the last four months of the year.
Colombia's two leftist guerrilla groups and a rightist paramilitary operation all rely on narco-trafficking to fund their operations.
American involvement in coca eradication increased sharply in 2000. But plantings for the first two years of the program managed to outstrip eradication as farmers moved steadily southward to find new areas to cultivate.
The official said that Peru and Bolivia registered small coca production increases during 2002. The total for Peru was 36,600 hectares last year compared with 34,000 in 2001. In Bolivia, the figures were 24,400 in 2002 and 19,900 in 2001.
Meanwhile, White House drug control chief John Walters testified Thursday that the administration has an unprecedented opportunity to help bring about a long-term reduction in the supply of illegal drugs in the Western Hemisphere.
Testifying before a House International Relations subcommittee, Walters said his optimism is based on "the strong anti-drug positions taken by many countries in the region, including Colombia and Mexico.
"There is a broadening consensus among many nations in the hemisphere that illegal drug production inevitably leads to poverty, corruption and violence, and that no country is better off with drugs than without them," Walters said.
He also took note of a pledge by Uribe to spray 200,000 hectares of coca in Colombia this year.
If that goal is reached, there should be "a significant reduction in cocaine production, and it will be extremely difficult to motivate farmers to continue to plant coca because so few of them will see any profit from their efforts," Walters said.
"Our strategy calls for returning to previously sprayed areas to destroy any replanted crops before they can be harvested, and to further make coca farming unprofitable."