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US: Peru overtakes Colombia as top cocaine producer

Ernesto Benavides / AFP - Getty Images, file

A police officer stands amid packages of cocaine seized along with other materials in anti-drug operations in Peru, during a presentation to the press in Lima on May 18, 2012. More than 1.5 tons of cocaine were confiscated.

Peru has again become the top producer of pure cocaine in the world, outpacing Colombia, where output fell by an estimated 25 percent in a year, according to a White House report issued Monday.

Drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said Monday that potential cocaine production in Colombia was down by 72 percent since 2001. Colombia now ranks third, behind Bolivia in addition to Peru.

"Potential production of pure cocaine in Colombia is down to 195 metric tons (in 2011) from 700 metric tons in 2001, the lowest production potential level since 1994 and the first time since 1995 that Colombia is producing less cocaine than either Peru or Bolivia," Kerlikowske said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies

In the 1980s and 1990s, Peru was the leading producer of cocaine. 

The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime released an estimate last week that Colombia could produce 345 metric tons of cocaine in 2011. 

Kerlikowske' s office said the drop in Colombia cocaine production has coincided with a decline in U.S. cocaine overdose deaths, positive workplace drug tests, the purity of cocaine available for street purchase and domestic cocaine seizures. 

All of Mexico’s presidential candidates, including Enrique Pena Nieto, the clear front-runner, are vowing to reduce violence, but that could mean easing up on the drug cartels. NBC’s Mark Potter reports.

"Let me add some context to these results. They didn't happen overnight, there was a sustained effort requiring nearly a decade of steady, strategic pressure across more than one administration in both the United States and Colombia." 

But while he called the decrease in production in South America was encouraging, he said the fight against Mexico's drug cartels "pose a significant challenge."

Steve McCraw, the Texas Director of Public Safety, says that there is a significant criminal threat from Mexico drug cartels that are smuggling drugs throughout his state and the nation.

"These numbers are certainly heartening, but they should not distract us from the fact that the transnational criminal organizations that supply cocaine are a threat to civil society everywhere, as we've seen with our southern neighbor Mexico," he added. "This Administration condemns the gruesome drug-related violence and is committed to partnering with the Mexican government to disrupt the cartels that commit such brutality."

Mexico's drug war: No sign of 'light at the end of the tunnel'

Plan Colombia
Kerlikowske said the decline in Colombian cocaine production is largely the result of Plan Colombia, a $7.5 billion U.S.-backed effort launched in 1999 to help the South American government crack down on a left-wing insurgency and drug organizations. 

"The results are historic and have tremendous implications, not just for the United States and the Western Hemisphere, really globally," Kerlikowske said. 

Mariana Bazo / Reuters, file

An anti-narcotics worker burns a bag containing cocaine during a drug incineration in Lima, Peru, on June 27, 2012.

"We don't just have a far safer Colombia, we have a vibrant Colombia that is an active partner in helping with the drug and criminal issue in the region," he added.

Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos said the decline is part of his country's overall strategy of cutting off funding sources for drug traffickers. Speaking in the town of Rio Negro, north of Bogota, Colombia, he said it was good news that Colombia is now third in cocaine production. 

Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon said the government is also making strides in seizing cocaine, pointing to the confiscation of about 300 tons of the drug in the last two years. 

Mexican drug cartels are increasingly recruiting American kids, some as young as 12, to smuggle drugs into the United States. The U.S. Border Patrol aims to deter kids from smuggling with anti-drug trafficking programs in school, but despite those efforts, law enforcement along the border says the problem is growing.

U.S. Ambassador Michael McKinley told El Tiempo newspaper that "the numbers demonstrate historic advances in ending the fight against drugs in Colombia." 

Speaking Monday, Kerlikowske said while the decline in Colombian production is a positive development, it is not a sign that powerful and deadly drug cartels are going out of business. Instead, he said, these groups, including those waging a drug war against each other and the government in Mexico, will "turn to anything illegal that makes money."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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