Worldwide, illicit cultivation of opium and coca - the raw materials for heroin and cocaine - is rising as militants in Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar consolidate their control of key drug-producing areas, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime warns in a new report.
"The explosion of narcotics in those areas is explained by their presence and the protection they offer," agency chief Antonio Maria Costa told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday.
"I believe that slowly these people, although politically motivated at the beginning, are becoming a kind of organized crime," he said. "Money tends to stick to fingers, and a big lump of money becomes very problematic."
In its World Drug Report 2008 being released Thursday, Costa's office calls the glut of opium and coca "a very recent surge" and draws a direct link to Taliban militants in Afghanistan, armed revolutionaries in Colombia and several ethnic insurgency groups in Myanmar.
Afghanistan had a record opium poppy harvest in 2007, nearly doubling worldwide illegal opium production. U.N. experts say 80 percent of the poppy was grown in five southern provinces where Taliban fighters profit from drugs.
"In the southern areas controlled by the Taliban, counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency must be fought together," Costa said.
Officials say the expanding role of insurgents in the global narcotics trade is especially worrisome because their drug profits are used to bribe police and government authorities and to help finance terrorists.
And insurgent activity is making it increasingly difficult for the U.S., Britain and others to deliver cash incentives to farmers as an enticement to not grow lucrative opium or coca, Costa told the AP.
Wherever the security situation slows down or thwarts efforts to distribute incentives, "cultivation gets out of control," he said.
In South America, where the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, is waging an insurgency, coca production shot up 27 percent last year, the report said. Most of that coca came from regions under the insurgents' control, "just like in Afghanistan," Costa said.
"Recent major increases in drug supply from Afghanistan and Colombia may drive addiction rates up because of lower prices and higher purity of doses," he warned.
Colombia's government has put the FARC on the defensive, driving the rebels deeper into the jungle and killing or capturing several top commanders. Signs that the group is in disarray have fueled hopes that officials may find it easier to control cultivation, Costa added.
But Southeast Asia poses a fresh challenge: Opium cultivation there rose in 2007, reversing six years of decline.
In Myanmar, also known as Burma, it increased 29 percent. The U.N. said most of the gains were in southern Shan state, where rebels seeking autonomy from Myanmar's ruling junta have clashed with the military.
"Some of the world's biggest drug-producing regions are out of control of the central government," Costa said.
Afghanistan remains the drug war's biggest problem because it now accounts for more than 90 percent of global opium production, the report said.
The U.S. has a record 33,000 troops in Afghanistan, part of an international force that has grown to almost 70,000 troops. NATO has urged alliance members to contribute up to another 10,000 forces.
Meanwhile, major smuggling routes for narcotics, especially cocaine, are shifting to West Africa, the report said, pointing to steady demand for cocaine in Europe and intensified law enforcement along traditional trafficking routes.
Despite the setbacks, the report highlights some key gains in a century of efforts to combat illicit drug production and trafficking. It says illicit drug use worldwide has largely stabilized over the past decade. Fewer than 5 percent of the world's people aged 15-64 have tried an illegal drug at least once in the past year, and only 0.6 percent of the world's population are addicted.
Even so, that still means a staggering 26 million people have a severe drug dependence.
"Drugs continue to destroy lives," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a message for Thursday's observance of the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking.
The Transnational Institute, an Amsterdam, Netherlands-based think tank, criticized the report as "an elaborate exercise of obscuring the failure of 10 years of international drug control policy."
"There is overwhelming evidence that the current approach to drug control has failed," said Martin Jelsma, coordinator of the group's drug program.
Ban and Costa both urged the world's nations to respect the rights of addicts and suspected traffickers alike, noting that 2008 marks the 60th anniversary of the U.N.'s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Ban called on the international community to ensure suspects get fair trials and addicts get treatment, and Costa condemned the use of the death penalty for drug-related crimes. Up to 60 nations, most in Asia and the Arab world, have capital punishment for drug offenses.
"Although drugs kill, we should not kill because of drugs," Costa said.