Image: Antonio Maria Costa
William Fernando Martinez  /  AP
Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, speaks Tuesday with journalists during a news conference in Bogota, Colombia. Colombia is the largest producer of coca, totalling about 90 percent of the U.S.’s supply.
updated 6/21/2006 9:55:15 PM ET 2006-06-22T01:55:15

Colombia’s interior minister said Wednesday his country should double its coca eradication effort, a day after a U.N. report said cultivation of the plant used to make cocaine jumped 8 percent last year.

Aerial fumigation of coca fields already reached a record high last year in Colombia as authorities used 20 U.S.-supplied airplanes to spray nearly 345,000 acres.

Despite the anti-coca effort, the United Nations estimated that cultivation rose in 2005 for the first time in five years, to 330 square miles.

Interior Minister Sabas Pretelt tried to downplay the impact of the U.N.’s findings, telling W Radio that “if we didn’t fumigate as much as we did, Colombia today would be submerged in a sea of coca.”

“We must double the aerial fumigation efforts,” Pretelt said.

His comments were aimed at growing numbers of critics, including members of the U.S. Congress, who see the increase in coca production as evidence that the strategy of aerial spraying, a cornerstone of the war on drugs, is failing.

Pretelt said that to more effectively battle coca cultivation, recently re-elected President Alvaro Uribe — Washington’s staunchest ally in the region — would ask the United States to help it add a fourth military base dedicated to coca fumigation.

Main supplier
In Colombia, the world’s largest cocaine producer, the biggest increases were in the lawless, largely uninhabited jungles near its borders with Venezuela and Ecuador.

The spread of the coca frontier eastward toward Venezuela is in line with comments by U.S. anti-drug officials who have alleged that corruption within the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez may be converting Colombia’s neighbor into a major drug route.

Colombia is believed to be the source of 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States.

Last year, the government eradicated a record 656 square miles of coca, mainly through aerial spraying of the herbicide glyphosate, up from 529 square miles in 2004.

But with drug traffickers developing techniques to better camouflage illegal crops and increase yields, Uribe has asked the Bush administration to boost financing for fumigation efforts.

Pursuing a new plan?
However, key members of the U.S. Congress and growing numbers of Colombians have suggested it may be time to give up the potentially environmentally harmful practice in favor of alternative economic programs for the poor farmers who grow coca on behalf of the country’s cartels.

Currently about a third of the roughly $700 million in annual U.S. aid to Colombia funds economic and social development programs.

Although production is on the rise in Colombia, the U.N. said it declined in Peru and Bolivia.

Coca production in Bolivia fell by 8 percent last year, according to the U.N. The United States, however, is concerned Bolivia’s leftist, coca-growing President Evo Morales — who took office in January — could relax his country’s drug-fighting efforts.

In Peru, the world’s second-largest cocaine producer, the coca crop declined by 4 percent.

The apparent declines differ widely from findings by the United States, based more heavily on satellite imagery, which estimated coca plantings grew by 38 percent in Peru and nearly 10 percent in Bolivia last year.

For anti-drug efforts to be successful, Costa said the United States and Europe must curb cocaine consumption and support alternative crop development programs in South America.

“Our aid efforts need to be multiplied at least tenfold in order to reach all impoverished farmers who need support,” he said in a statement.

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