Courtesy Reuters

Climbing the Andes

By Robert B. Charles

To the Editor:

In "Breakdown in the Andes" (September/October 2004), Michael Shifter cites the key role that illicit drug production plays in the Andean region. Shifter wrongly asserts, however, that the results of counternarcotics efforts there have "been disappointing at best," and that we should not "expect major U.S. initiatives aimed at the southern Andes any time soon."

In fact, the United States is currently engaged in a major effort in the region focusing on seven countries, including Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador. Following several years of close cooperation and hard work in getting the right equipment, personnel, and training into place, the Andean Counterdrug Initiative has begun to pay large dividends.

Coca cultivation is down 33 percent in Colombia and 23 percent across the Andean region since 2001 -- falling to levels not seen since U.S. government estimates began in 1986. Colombia has witnessed an unprecedented decline in major violent crime: kidnapping is down 28 percent, homicide is down 20 percent, and terrorist incidents are down 48 percent. Drug traffickers are being arrested and extradited in greater numbers than ever before. And in 2003, interdiction efforts in the western hemisphere resulted in the seizure of 400 metric tons of cocaine -- representing 40 percent of the estimated flow from South America to the United States.

Less crime and fewer acts of terror, in turn, have led to increased confidence and willingness to invest in legitimate enterprises in the region. In addition, our assistance programs are helping to create legitimate employment, expand the rule of law, and strengthen social and political institutions.

Mindful of the impact that events in Colombia can have on the region, our programs are being used to mitigate the potential for movements of people or cultivation of drugs in response to aggressive counternarcotics efforts. For example, despite significant pressure by the Colombian army and police on the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia and its drug crops on Ecuador's northern border with Colombia, Colombian refugee movement into Ecuador has been limited, as has coca cultivation within Ecuador's borders.

Contrary to Shifter's argument, U.S. drug policy is not operating as a "hub and spoke" system. Rather, the system we have put in place is a complex, interwoven regional effort that addresses the balloon effect, factors in the link between terrorist financing and drugs, includes economic development and, with $726 million in current fiscal-year funding, provides sufficient resources to make a real impact in the region and beyond.

Indeed, our investments in the Andean region are also beginning to produce dramatic returns in the United States. Key indicators of drug consumption reflect a drop of 11 percent in drug use among American youth over the past two years. Moreover, estimates suggest that within 12 months we will be seeing changes in the availability of cocaine -- reflected first in changes in purity, and then in higher prices. A UN study indicates that the price of cocaine in Europe is already being affected by a reduction in the drug's flow.

Leaders throughout the hemisphere agree that as long as poverty and the twin scourges of drugs and terrorism exist, more will need to be done. Although some find it easy to overlook the transformation that is taking place in the Andean region, for the first time in a generation many citizens in those countries are able to -- as Luis Alberto Moreno, Colombia's ambassador to the United States, put it -- "envision the end of a dark period of history." Even the American journalist Carleton Beals, referenced in Shifter's article, would have to admit that is no small achievement.

Robert B. Charles

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs