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Thursday, March 1, 2001

State Dept. Issues Drug Report

By GEORGE GEDDA

For Release 3 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The State Department said Wednesday there are "unprecedented opportunities" for U.S.-Mexican counterdrug cooperation but that success depends on Mexico' s ability to combat institutional corruption.

In a report on the illicit drug situation worldwide, the State Department said Mexican drug cartels remain powerful despite extensive counternarcotics efforts.

"Corruption of the law enforcement sector by drug trafficking organizations remains a serious institutional problem, " it said.

On the plus side, the report said an aggressive eradication program coupled with drought in the principal drug cultivation areas of Mexico resulted in record low levels of opium poppy production.

In addition, the report said, commitments by President Vicente Fox, who took office three months ago, " offer unprecedented opportunities for greater cooperation and mutual assistance with the United States."

On Colombia, the world' s largest producer of cocaine, the report said the U.S.-backed aerial eradication program was successful last year, treating some 47, 000 hectares of coca and 9, 000 hectares of opium poppy. A hectare is about 2.5 acres.

The report added that the eradication program appeared to be having an impact, noting that coca cultivation growth rates have slowed substantially. Between 1997 and 1999, coca cultivation increased by 19 percent, 28 percent and 20 percent, respectively, but the increase was down to 11 percent last year, the report said.

Meanwhile, the State Department was preparing to release its annual " report card" evaluating the drug fighting performance of some two dozen countries.

The State Department' s top counternarcotics official, Rand Beers, was due to release the evaluations before a congressional hearing. But officials said the White House failed to make final decisions in time for the hearing and that Beers went to Capitol Hill empty-handed.

Countries graded as fully cooperative in the counterdrug effort are " certified" for their good behavior, while subpar performers are " decertified" and can face economic penalties.

Fox has been an outspoken critic of the process.

"Certification is more than an affront to Mexico and to other countries. It is a sham that should be denounced and canceled," Fox said last year.

He wants an alternative process that would end the U.S. "unilateral approach" and substitute a cooperative process involving producers and consumers, the largest of which is the United States.

The overwhelming majority of countries on the list are expected to be certified, including Mexico and the world' s largest cocaine source, Colombia. Both are closely allied politically with the United States.

Beers told a Senate panel Wednesday that Colombian coca production increased last year ahead of a U.S-funded crackdown, but the rise wasn' t as sharp as in previous years.

"This estimate may -- may -- indicate that the explosion of coca that has ravaged Colombia recently is finally peaking," Beers said.

President Bush has given Fox his blessing for Mexico' s counterdrug policy. He said during a visit to Mexico on Feb. 16 that he planned to tell U.S. lawmakers that Fox " will do everything in his power to root out the drug lords and to halt drug trafficking as best as he possibly can."

Bush, hoping to please Fox, endorsed a move in Congress to set aside the certification process, but the lawmakers failed to act ahead of Thursday' s deadline. Proponents hope to take action before the March 2002 deadline.

Among countries that have been decertified for years is Afghanistan. But two weeks ago, U.N. drug control officers said the Taliban religious militia had virtually wiped out opium production in Afghanistan -- once the world' s largest producer -- since banning poppy cultivation in July.

Heroin trafficking has put Myanmar on the decertified list for many years -- and subjected it, with Afghanistan, to economic penalties. In 2000, Cambodia, Haiti, Nigeria and Paraguay also did not meet the criteria for certification, but they were not penalized because all are considered politically important.


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