Page last updated at 11:31 GMT, Tuesday, 18 November 2008

UK drug users 'damaging Colombia'

By Ben Ando
Crime correspondent, BBC News

X-ray showing drugs inside a body (pic: HMRC)
More people in Colombia are becoming 'mules', carrying drugs in their bodies

Drug users in the UK are causing an environmental catastrophe in Colombia, the country's vice-president has told a meeting of police chiefs.

Speaking in Belfast, Francisco Santos Calderon said that 200,000 hectares of forest were being destroyed each year to produce the cocaine crop, coca.

And he added that landmines used by drug gangs to protect crops are maiming large numbers of Colombian civilians.

The scale of landmine use has been described as "similar to a war zone".

Mr Santos addressed the Association of Chief Police Officers' (Acpo) 2008 drugs conference in Belfast.

The vice-president wants consumer nations to take responsibility for the shocking price of drugs being paid by the people of his country.


Before giving his speech, Mr Santos told BBC News: "Colombia has lost more than two million hectares of rainforest in the last 15 years to plant coca.

"If you snort a gram of cocaine you are destroying four square metres of pristine rainforest.

"That rainforest is not just Colombian. It belongs to all of us who live on this planet, so we should all be worried about it.

He added: "Not only that, the money that you use to buy the cocaine goes into the hands of illegal groups that plant mines, kidnap, kill, use terrorism to protect their business."

'Share initiative'

Mr Santos also met a class of Belfast school children to try to explain to them why drugs bought in the UK have an impact on children in South America.

A Colombian embassy spokesman told the BBC: "This is not just a problem for the countries that produce the drugs, it's a problem for the countries that consume the drugs, that use the drugs.

Landmines are creating amputees on a scale not recognised
Bill Hughes

"In Colombia now, society, the government, the people, even the journalists are fighting the drug trafficking problem, but the countries that use these drugs need to share this initiative."

Two years ago, Mr Santos launched the Shared Responsibility Initiative - designed to encourage user countries such as the UK to do more to help the authorities in Colombia battle the drugs trade.

Today, officers from the UK's Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) are working alongside their counterparts in Colombia.

'Mule' risk

Soca's director Bill Hughes wants people in the UK to think about the true impact of the drugs they are buying.

"Not only is cocaine ripping the country apart through deforestation, landmines are creating amputees on a scale not recognised," he said.

Ordinary people are also suffering in Latin America because they are being drawn into drug trafficking, putting their lives at risk by becoming "mules", transporting substances inside their bodies.

Paradoxically, one of the factors exacerbating this problem is the success that the police and other agencies have had in intercepting cocaine bound for the UK.

Because supply is scarce, the price of the drug goes up, prompting more people to try trafficking.

Soca has released images of an x-ray of one "mule" showing that when arrested their abdomen was stuffed with a long string of cocaine wraps.

Drug impurities

Mr Hughes told the conference that cocaine and heroin use was costing the UK 15bn a year in health and crime bills.

He said: "The UK is a very attractive market, there is still a lot of disposable income, the risks compared to the US if you are caught are felt to be much less."

Mr Hughes added: "It reduces the money available for a considerable number of schools as well as teachers and dare I say it police officers."

He said the drugs trade was fuelling theft, firearm use and prostitution.

Meanwhile, a recent poll for the Observer newspaper found that in the UK, 32% of people who were considering trying an illegal drug would be most likely to choose cocaine.

That was nearly three times as many as cannabis, which was cited by just 12% of respondents.

But the cocaine being bought in the UK is also the most impure it has ever been.

As reported by the BBC recently, the purity of street cocaine can be as low as 10% and the drug is often cut with carcinogenic pharmaceutical compounds or in some cases animal worming powder.

Mr Hughes said: "This is being put together by seriously bad organised criminals; they don't care what they are giving to people."

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