WASHINGTON -- With Congress in recess, the chairman of the House International Relations Committee issued a two-paragraph statement containing a startling allegation. Rep. Henry Hyde contended opium production in Colombia has revived. It supplies, he continued, "more than 60 percent of U.S. heroin."
Hyde followed with this mandate: "We must eliminate all of the small, deadly opium crop in Colombia sooner rather than later to provide protection for our young people and to maximize use of U.S. aid in Colombia." For the veteran congressman from the Chicago suburbs to go public signified that his previous private appeals to high levels of the Colombian and U.S. governments fell on deaf ears.
Talk about needing to "maximize" U.S. aid suggests the $2.5 billion Plan Colombia, while keeping leftist guerrillas at bay, has failed in its original anti-drug mission. Hyde is implying that while the Colombian operation is a great success, the patient is dying. The poisonous export of heroin flows into middle-class suburbs to be ingested by America's youth.
The problem, as seen by Hyde and his experienced staff, is the neglect of the small, extremely profitable, twice-a-year opium crops grown in Colombia's high Andes. U.S. and Colombian officials have made an unannounced decision to concentrate on eradicating coca plants as the larger source of financing guerrillas. However, drug traffickers are happy selling heroin with a U.S. street value six times higher than cocaine.
The result is a serious U.S. setback in the war against drugs, seemingly unnoticed by a Bush administration committed to the war against terrorism. America is awash with heroin, flowing from east coast to west coast. The refined heroin is so pure that it need not be mainlined with a needle, and middle-class youths think they are safe by smoking or snorting it.
Henry Hyde early this year started demanding action. In a Feb. 3 letter to Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe, he contended that it is possible to attack coca and opium at the same time. He pointed out that the Colombian National Police, then commanded by the fabled Gen. Jose Serrano (now ambassador to Austria), in 1999 and 2000 eradicated 80 to 90 percent of the opium crop. "It is our hope," Hyde told Uribe, that the eradication effort will return to Serrano's level -- "eventually eliminating the entire opium crop."
Hyde did not receive much of a response from Colombia, and four months later turned to the U.S. drug czar -- John Walters, director of national drug control policy. Meeting with the congressman on June 3, Walters echoed the State Department. He called it next to impossible to locate opium fields in the remote Andes.
That did not satisfy Hyde. On June 10, he wrote Walters complaining that only 1,658 hectares of opium production have been eradicated -- less than 20 percent of the 10,000 hectares promised by the State Department. Hyde noted that New York Times reporters, in a June 8 dispatch, experienced no difficulty in finding opium fields (and photographing them in color). "I urge your support for a full scale DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency)-led program to pay Colombian farmers and villagers for information on the location of opium fields," Hyde urged Walters.
On July 8, the Colombian embassy in Washington relayed to Hyde's staff the Colombian National Police's up-to-the-minute tabulation on opium eradication. It was still 1,658 hectares. It still is, as far as anybody knows. That is the reason for Hyde's public statement of Aug. 8. Just why U.S. and Colombian authorities are nonchalant about the opium-heroin epidemic defies rational explanation. Drug czar Walters, in response to Hyde's statement, told me, "There was a 25 percent reduction in opium last year. We are not reducing coca production at the expense of opium production."
In the seven years I have been writing about Colombia's narco-guerrillas, U.S. policy has seemed circular. When I was in Bogota in 1996, U.S. officials disavowed any interest in anti-guerrilla activity unless connected to narcotics suppression. The visit to Colombia Aug. 12 by Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, symbolized the change of emphasis from anti-drug to anti-guerrilla. The bottom line is that despite stalwart leadership from President Uribe and some military success, more and more heroin is pouring out of Colombia into America's streets.