Aerial spraying of illegal, drug producing crops in Colombia -- an expensive linchpin of the US-backed war on drugs -- is failing, according to key members of the US Congress and drug experts.
Despite a record fumigation last year of almost 140,000 hectares of coca, the latest US government survey found 26 percent more land dedicated to the plant used to make cocaine.
The White House attributed the meteoric rise from 2004 to an 81 percent increase in the satellite sampling area, which skewed an otherwise 8 percent drop in coca production in areas previously surveyed.
But the nuanced report largely fell on deaf ears.
From the halls of Congress to the editorial page of Bogota's main newspaper, criticism of the US-backed anti-drug effort known as Plan Colombia -- which has cost US taxpayers US$4 billion since 2000 -- is getting louder.
Republican Senator Charles Grassley, who chairs the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, called on US President George W. Bush last week to fire the nation's drug czar, John Walters.
In a letter to Walters, Grassley called the drug czar's touting of the drug war's achievements as ``premature and perhaps even unfounded.'' His comments came as Congress prepares to consider Bush's request for a one-year, US$700 million extension to Plan Colombia.
The letter took particular aim at Walters' November claims that Plan Colombia had helped reap a 19 percent increase in price and 15 percent decrease in the purity of cocaine found on US streets, data Grassley called misleading and based on a six-month snapshot.
"Plan Colombia has been an important part of our strategy to stop illegal drugs from entering the United States and we need to know if it's really working," Grassley said in an e-mail.
"We're seeing information being released by the ONDCP [Office of National Drug Control Policy] that just doesn't add up. I hope ONDCP stops spinning the numbers," he said.
A spokesman said on Tuesday that Walters was traveling and unavailable for comment.
In the report Grassley questioned, the ONDCP estimated that Colombia, the world's largest cocaine producer, had 144,000 hectares under cultivation last year -- an area 25 times the size of Manhattan.
The amount exceeds by 17 percent the coca measured in 1999, the year before Congress funded Plan Colombia to stamp out the drug trade, which has fueled Colombia's civil bloodletting.