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AFTER spending five years and $3bn on one of the most aggressive anti-drugs operations ever seen, American and Colombian officials say they have eradicated a record-breaking million acres of coca plants.
But cocaine remains as available as ever on American streets, with some saying it is even more prevalent.
"It’s very disturbing," said a senior State Department official travelling to South America with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on a five-day tour of the area.
Colombian traffickers still provide 90% of the cocaine used in the United States and 50% of the heroin, just as they did five years ago, the US 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. Several senior officials said they were perplexed and disappointed.
Over the past five-and-a-half years, the US has spent nearly $3bn fighting drug trafficking by training 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 centrepiece of this effort has been the use of 82 small aircraft to spray herbicide on coca plants grown on small plots and large plantations across the country.
Over five years, more than a million acres of coca plants and 52,000 acres of opium poppy have been destroyed. Traffickers have shot down at least five of the planes and three lives have been lost.
Theories abound on the reason for the disparity between the eradication figures and the availability estimates - and on how to deal with it.
Luis Alberto Moreno, the Colombian ambassador to the US, said he believed 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. Indiana Republican Dan Burton said he thought the Colombians should be using a more powerful herbicide, and the White House drug policy office suggests the government’s data on drug cultivation may be inaccurate.
General Jorge Daniel Castro, director of the Colombian national police and one of Colombia’s primary experts on the issue, described the Plan Colombia paradox as "a complex phenomenon", but added that he believed the traffickers were simply replanting the coca and opium plants almost as soon as the spray planes left. 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.
A State Department official involved in the Colombia initiative said: "Give us another year or so and see if there is any effect."
Rice said last week that Washington had no intention of reassessing the programme, adding that such a move would most likely take a long time to see results in the US.
Moreno, who is lobbying Congress to renew the financing, said the traffickers had "improved their productivity, but I think we are getting close to the tipping point".
Meanwhile, a congressional delegation was in Colombia this week to ask whether Plan Colombia was producing results commensurate with its cost.
"We want to make sure the money we are spending is well spent," said Burton, whose sub-committee will consider the State Department budget request.
New York Democrat Gregory Meeks is another sub-committee member who was on the trip and he, too, said he wanted to evaluate how the money was being spent - particularly because "in the neighbourhoods where I live we are just not seeing any effect at all".
Plan Colombia was born at the end of the Clinton administration, after a decade during which drug trafficking from Colombia grew exponentially.
As the Plan Colombia bill reached his desk in 2000, President Clinton said: "With this funding we will be able to support the courageous anti-drug efforts of Colombia which can, in turn, help curb the flow of drugs in our nation."
That first year, Colombians, with American help, eradicated 116,000 acres of an estimated 336,000 acres of coca under cultivation - one-third of the crop.
Each mission is a complex operation involving a former military plane converted to crop duster and five or six other aircraft, including helicopter gunships providing protection.
Earlier this year, the State Department reported that 2004 had seen spray planes eradicate 336,248 acres of coca plants.
At about the same time, the White House drug policy office reported that 281,000 acres of coca plants remained, an area "statistically unchanged" from the previous year.
The reason, American and Colombian officials said, was that the coca bush can grow from a seedling to a harvestable plant in only four months.
General Castro said a coca farmer could harvest leaves from a bush "three, maybe four times a year".