Loosening Cocaine's Grip on Colombia

Loosening Cocaine's Grip on Colombia
Posted by FoM on September 18, 2000 at 09:59:38 PT
By E.A. Torriero & Pedro Ruz Guierrez
Source: Sun Sentinel
 He is a God-fearing Catholic who tries to live right. But it is not his conscience nudging him out of the drug-growing business in the most productive region for cocaine on Earth.  It is the anticipation of war.  Jairo Rodriguez, 20, fears this verdant land of coca plants will become a battlefield where U.S.-made choppers will lead aerial assaults on the drug farms, and heavily armed guerrillas will fire back to protect their lucrative cash crop. So Rodriguez has become a reluctant ally in Colombia's war on drugs.
 In the months ahead, he will join hundreds of neighbors in voluntarily yanking his green coca stalks in hopes that the Colombian government will make good on its promise of help with alternative crops.  "You have no choice but to join the plan," Rodriguez said one day recently as he stood on a slope dotted with coca that he has grown since he was in high school. "So let's see what the government does."  This sprawling maze of jungle, swampland and fertile fields is ground zero in the U.S.-led campaign to loosen cocaine's stranglehold on Colombia. Here in the Putumayo region, an area roughly the size of Maryland, much of the $1.3 billion U.S. aid package approved by Congress this summer will be spent in a dual effort of eradication and assault against the drug trade's protectors.  It is a controversial game plan that has a chorus of critics from the United States to Latin America predicting that Uncle Sam's money will fuel an already explosive civil war and trigger an expansion of the drug trade in the neighboring Andean nations.  "We believe our strategy will work," said Jaime Ruiz, the Colombianpresidential aide who helped devise the international aid package known as Plan Colombia. "We're not going to let this expand any longer."  Top Colombian officials like Ruiz swear they can cut cocaine production in half in the next six years. Today, Colombia produces 80 percent of the world's cocaine.  But how will the understaffed and poorly trained Colombian army wage this war? How well will it repel insurgent forces who reportedly are training peasants in the jungles and forcing young recruits into their folds?  Will farmers who depend on the income from cocaine willingly switch to less lucrative crops? Will they be targeted by rebels if they go along with eradication?  How much environmental damage will be done by herbicides sprayed on plantations that refuse to stop growing coca? And who will care for the thousands of expected refugees fleeing the fighting, fumigation and uncertainty?  "Rather than reducing coca cultivation and calming Colombia, this is going to unleash Armageddon," Bruce Bagley, a University of Miami professor of international studies and critic of the Colombia aid package, said recently.  The Battleground:  For as far as the eye can see, there are coca plants in Putumayo.  You can stop on the side of almost any road and pick a few leaves. You can take a short hike and walk into a valley of coca plants as tall as a professional basketball player. You can float down a river and pass rail-thin canoes loaded with burlap bags of refined coca.  Almost 300 tons of coca are grown annually here, enough to produce an astounding 1.3 billion grams of pure cocaine and get roughly 13 billion people high, Colombian officials say.  Most coca is grown on small farms of a few acres, but some areon large plantations of 250 acres or more that are in the jungles and mountains. In all, more than 100,000 residents work an estimated 150,000 acres that yield more than half of Colombia's total annual cocaine harvest of about 600 tons.  Many farms have on-site "kitchens" -- the crude labs where coca leaves are crushed, cooked in gasoline, washed and mashed to produce the coca paste that is shipped to clandestine markets.  For an average farmer who has five acres of coca plants, an annual yield produces roughly eight kilos of paste and nets roughly $4,700.  But by the time just one of those kilos reaches the streets of Europe or the United States, it may be worth more than $100,000.  "There are a lot of people who think because you grow coca you are rich," said Rodriguez, who like most peasants cultivates cocaine because it is the region's staple crop. "But it is the middle men who are making all the profits."  And in Putumayo, feuding factions will do anything to get their slice of the cocaine windfall.  Villages south of the Putumayo River are under control of the leftist guerrillas, known by their Spanish acronym FARC.  North of the river is government territory, where right-wing paramilitaries with close ties to the Colombian military are active.  Both sides forcibly recruit teens for their forces. They levy unofficial taxes on farmers and merchants. They rule by intimidation and threats.  In Puerto Asis, the regional capital, four of the last five mayors were assassinated by the forces jockeying for control of the drug trade. The sole surviving ex-mayor is in prison for corruption.  For many years, Puerto Asis was controlled by the guerrillas. Then, in 1998, the paramilitaries arrived. Dozens of suspected guerrilla sympathizers were murdered by paramilitaries, townspeople and government agencies say.  Today, while Colombian soldiers patrol the town's outskirts, Puerto Asis is ruled from behind the scenes by paramilitaries who occupy a fortified encampment outside of town.  "The paramilitaries go around town without anybody bothering them," says Manuel Alzate, Puerto Asis' current mayor, who keeps armed bodyguards with him. "And the army and the police do nothing."  Colombian officials swear their soldiers are not linked to paramilitaries. But residents fear a wave of reprisals as farmers flee escalating violence in rural areas controlled by the rebels.  Paramilitaries will likely finger some refugees as rebel sympathizers.  "You don't know who to trust around here," said Lilia De Gaitan, whose family has lived in Puerto Asis for more than a decade.  The Battle Plan:  The Colombian government has made no secret of its two-pronged strategy to be unleashed in the coming months.  On the military side, a combined Colombian force of 15,000 soldiers, police, sailors and air corps will attack drug-producing labs and attempt to drive the rebels from the region.  With 60 U.S.-made helicopters, a 3,000-strong anti-narcotics battalion trained by U.S. Green Berets will support police units as they fumigate huge swaths of coca fields and force the big producers out of business.  In the social and economic arena, the government will offer more than $300 million in incentives to farmers to replace cocaine with yucca, African palms and assorted food crops.  The aim, Colombian officials insist, is not to fuel the civil war that has ravaged Colombia for more than 40 years.  Rather, it is to stem the cocaine trade and bring rebels back to the bargaining table where negotiations have sputtered in recent months.  "The most important part is the peace process with the rebels," said Ruiz, the Colombian government's point man for the plan.  But people who depend on cocaine for their livelihoods say the government plan has huge pitfalls. The rebels are a potent force, more than 20,000 strong. They are well-armed and have millions of dollars from protecting the cocaine trade and imposing illegal taxes on growers.  Coca growers have reported being threatened by rebels. The message: continue growing coca or face death. Those independent farmers who have mounted a campaign to join the government's cause have seen at least a half dozen of their leaders assassinated in recent months.  "Right now we are being eliminated one by one," said Benedicto Caicedo, a former coca grower who is leading an effort to persuade farmers to stop growing coca.  Rebels reportedly are making plans to move their coca-growing trade to neighboring fields of Ecuador, Bolivia and Brazil. Alarmed leaders of the nearby nations are planning to send troops to the borders. That could lead to an expansion of the fighting outside of Colombia, critics say.  And coca growers within Colombia find themselves in a bind: Either go against the rebels and risk death or go against the government and risk having their crops destroyed and their soil spoiled by herbicides. More than 500,000 acres have been sprayed with herbicides in the past six years.  The Castro family, who operated a coca-growing farm in rebel-run territory, knows the fallout from fumigation. A few yearsback, they tried switching to other crops, including squash. They also tried raising cattle. But the profits were not nearly as hefty as from cocaine production.  Then about six months ago, the Castro coca crops were fumigated.  Today, the coca leaves are still falling. The coca paste lab sits idle with the burnt leaves from the last production an eerie testimony to its demise. The farmland will no longer grow coca -- or anything else, the Castros say.  "The ground is damaged," said Elver Andres Castro, 15, who worked the land for his father. "It is useless."  The family still owes the bank money for loans it received to try new crops.  "We are finished," said Bolivar Castro, the family patriarch. "I know we have to finish with this coca thing. But what do we do next? We will suffer."  Colombian officials acknowledge that in the short run, the people of Putumayo will bear a heavy burden. The United Nations is already making plans to deal with as many as 10,000 refugees.  The Colombian government plans to send 35 people into the region to explain the plans for crop alternatives.  The intention is to fumigate mostly large tracts, government officials say, and not destroy the lands of the small farmers. But farmers are fleeing the countryside, saying fumigation has ruined their crops and also poses health risks.  Hospitals frequently report cases of skin rashes and breathing problems after people drink from polluted streams.  The U.S. State Department, which oversees the spraying program, contends that pesticides are supposed to break down and peasants are poisoning their surroundings by spraying their own toxic fertilizers and pesticides.  The government brushes aside criticisms from environmentalist who say the spraying will pollute rivers, destroy jungles and wildlife, damage rain forests and make people sick.  "This is not going to be a razed-earth policy," said Gonzalo de Francisco, the Colombian official in charge of the social programs planned for the Putumayo.  Last month, 489 farmers in Santa Ana signed up for a government pilot program to eradicate about 1,400 acres of coca plants by hand.  Rodriguez, the young coca grower, plans to hire a crew to destroy his crop. He is skeptical, though, of the government's will to help farmers. "But we have to pull the coca so the government doesn't come and destroy our land," he said.  Colombian officials vow they will be vindicated. Putumayo will be purged of coca, and a new generation will grow up without dependence on cocaine production, they claim.  "People in Putumayo think there is an invasion coming," said de Francisco, whose formal title is "presidential adviser for togetherness and citizen security."  "People feel abandoned and that something dark and obscure is heading toward them," he said. "We have to work hard to show them this is not the case."  Information from The Associated Press was used to supplement this report.  E.A. Torriero can be reached at etorriero Pedro Ruz Gutierrez can be reached at: pruz or 407-420-5620.Complete Title: Loosening Cocaine's Grip on Colombia: $1.3 Billion Campaign Uses Farmer's Fear as WeaponColombia: The War on Drugs Series: Part 1 of 4 Published: September 17, 2000Source: Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel (FL) Copyright: 2000 Sun-Sentinel Company Contact: letters Website: Forum: CannabisNews Articles - Colombia
Home Comment Email Register Recent Comments Help

Comment #1 posted by Dan Hillman on September 18, 2000 at 13:14:37 PT
Ring up another sale!
The defoliation of non-coca crops is not something that's *going* to happen, it's something that already *has* happened. I was in Chile a couple of years ago and met a couple from Colombia who had a story to tell: the woman's mother had an orchard unmistakeably different than a coca field. One day helicopters came and dropped defoliant and that was the end of the orchard!By the way, the fiction in the above article which paints coca growing as something that rebels (and rebels only) are directing is a fantasy so ludicrous that the DEA itself felt compelled to discredit it a couple of years back. What a difference a couple of appropriations make!Make no mistake: the idea with the herbicidal helicopters is not to stop coca from growing. The idea is to support US defense contractors by buying their goods and using them any way possible. If that means flying and spraying over any land that's convenient, well, the sale of hebicide and helicopter was made, wasn't it?  Joe-Bob still has his job at the hebicide plant, right?
[ Post Comment ]

Post Comment

Name: Optional Password: 
Comment: [Please refrain from using profanity in your message]
Link URL: 
Link Title: