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Quietly, the war on drugs gains ground

Monday, President Bush meets with Colombia's leader to discuss funding of antidrug measures.

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Before Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, or the war on terror, the US was waging another global battle: the war on drugs. The main front in that conflict was South America - and Colombia specifically, the origin of most of the world's cocaine supply.

Lately, the drug war has taken a back seat to conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it's still being fought, and statistically, at least, it's being won. Yet behind the numbers, the drug war is changing - into a terror war of its own. And the success of that fight is harder to quantify.

When President Bush visits the seaside city of Cartagena Monday, he and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe are sure to tick off the latest figures: crops of coca, the main ingredient in cocaine, were reduced in Colombia by 16 percent in 2003, to 213,000 acres, according to the United Nations. That's a 47 percent decline over three years, from a high of 403,000 acres in 2000. US figures, which rely on different methodology, are slightly less optimistic but still significant - a 33 percent decline since 2001. Production of poppies, the source of heroin, is down by 33 percent in the past two years, the US government says. With US help - to the tune of $3.3 billion - Colombia in recent months has seized record amounts of cocaine headed to US ports, approved the extradition of infamous drug barons like Cali cartel chief Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela, and confiscated scores of luxurious properties belonging to notorious narcotraffickers.

Also, under the hard-charging Mr. Uribe - perhaps the firmest US ally in Latin America and a strong supporter of the Iraq war - Colombia has launched an unprecedented military drive called Plan Patriot against the leftist rebels known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). And Uribe is in peace negotiations with the right-wing paramilitaries, who are heavily involved in the drug business. Up to 3,000 troops in the 20,000-man army are expected to demobilize by year's end.

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