HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Blowback (Part 1 of 2)
Pubdate: Thu, 09 May 2002
Source: Rolling Stone (US)
Copyright: 2002 Straight Arrow Publishers Company, L.P.
Author: T.D. Allman
Note: Posted to map in two parts due to size; both parts constitute the 
first of a two-part series

BLOWBACK (Part 1 of 2)

PHOTO. Full page photo of three helicopters in air captioned: "Black Hawks 
transport troops in southern Colombia: The country now supplies up to 80% 
of the world's cocaine."

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Three years ago, President Clinton Announced a Scheme to Save Colombia From 
Itself and Get America Off Drugs. Now There's More Cocaine Than Ever in the 
U.S., Colombia's Violence is Spiraling and Bush is Making Things Worse.

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PHOTO. Guerrillas in formation with heavily armed young woman in foreground 
facing camera, captioned "FARC guerrillas: The oldest, largest rebel group 
in Colombia"

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Two nations that had always brought out the worst in each other's natures 
were now going to bring out the best. Bill Clinton, nearing the end of his 
White House tenure, knew that he had to be seen doing something to help end 
drug abuse in America. And Colombia's incoming president, Andre's Pastrana, 
knew that Colombia would not win the world's respect unless he could 
transform the nation into something other than the most agile and 
productive drug exporter in the global marketplace.

Pastrana had a master plan -- or at least a name for one: "Plan Colombia." 
And the U.S. supposedly, had the know-how, money and resolve to help make 
it work. The payoff for Colombia would be a new economic and social 
foundation for a future free of drugs and civil violence. The payoff  for 
the United States would be meaningful and measurable progress in the War on 

Today nearly four years later, Plan Colombia is dead. You don't need 
classified information to know this. According to CIA findings, Colombian 
coca cultivation is up by nearly twenty-five percent, possibly the greatest 
one-year increase in the three decades since Richard Nixon declared war on 
drugs. And now we are about to get in even deeper. During his recent trip 
to Latin America, President Bush called for big increases in U.S. military 
involvement. And in April, President Pastrana was scheduled to reappear in 
Washington -- not with a plan this time, but with a plea for direct U.S. 
military help fighting Colombia's guerrillas. Before our eyes, a failed 
"war on drugs" is turning into an open-ended "war on terrorism."

Last year, I spent nearly two months traveling to every part of Colombia. 
While I was there, I talked with human-rights heroes and I supped with 
murderers. I talked with peasants, guerrilla leaders and billionaires. I 
flew with President Pastrana in his official jet and wound up in a 
no-blinking contest with "Ivan" -- the guerrilla commander, and drug 
warlord, of the Putumayo region.

Everywhere I went, I found a country that simply wasn't like the one we 
imagine Colombia to be. The first discovery was simply how big it is. 
Colombia looks so manageable on our maps, so compact in comparison with 
gigantic neighboring Brazil, but it's bigger than California and Texas 
combined. Of all the people I met, no one made better sense of Colombia 
than Lee Miles, an American chandler and emerald trader, who has lived 
there for decades. "There's the Colombia with roads. And the Colombia with 
no roads," he told me one afternoon, sailing in Cartagena's harbor. "Once 
the Colombia without roads counted for nothing. But drugs and the airplane 
have revolutionized Colombia. Go out beyond the roads. Grow some coca. Make 
some cocaine. You don't even have to get it to market. just clear a landing 
strip -- and they fly right in for it with suitcases full of money." He 
goes on: "Drugs and airplanes have revolutionized power relationships 
because the Colombia without roads now can get ahold of lots of money, and 
with money you can buy anything: guns, equipment, people."

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PHOTO, Close-up of coca leaves being sorted by hand, captioned "Raw coca 
leaves. These will be processed to supply 5.5 million U.S. users."

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At the rough little city of Puerto Asis, in the Putumayo region of southern 
Colombia, the two Colombias meet. Amazonian near-wilderness encroaches from 
every direction. But Puerto Asis has its soccer stadium, its ATMs and its 
passenger-jet airport where, almost since dawn, high-ranking local 
Colombians have been waiting for the American congressional delegation to 
fly in.

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PHOTO of helicopter landing and small burning structure in background 
captioned, "One Cocaine Lab Ruined: With the help of a U.S.-suppplied Black 
Hawk helicopter, Colombian police destroy a lab for processing coca in 
Tibu, near the northeastern border with Venezuela."

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Back when Plan Colombia was being slammed together in seated offices in 
Washington, D.C., Putumayo and the rest of southern Colombia were thought 
to account for as much as eighty percent of the coca produced in Colombia. 
That figure was never anything more than a guess. Even so, Putumayo has 
become the scene of the biggest U.S. attempt to eradicate Colombian cocaine 
production by spraying chemical defoliants on coca fields from airplanes. 
There are a number of reasons for this --- chief among them is the fact 
that much of Putumayo and its expanding drug business wound up under the 
control of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest 
of Colombia's two main insurgent groups (the other is called the National 
Liberation Army, or ELN). So right from the beginning, a war against drugs 
in Putumayo was also a campaign to expand the influence of the Colombian 
government and deprive the guerrillas of land and narco-profits.

According to the State Department, in the initial fumigation campaign, 
begun more than a year ago, defoliants --- a compound of herbicidal 
chemicals sold commercially in the U.S. under the brand name Roundup --- 
were sprayed on more than 30,000 hectares in Putumayo (and 94,000 hectares 
in the entire country in 2001). That explains why, on this breezy morning, 
the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, two members of Congress, and a score or so 
of congressional staffers, embassy aides and representatives of American 
nongovernmental organizations are exiting the plastic cool of the charter 
jet that flew them down here from Bogota and are descending into the hot 
glare and vegetal damp of the Puerto Asis airport tarmac.

Reps. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, the 
closest that Plan Colombia has in Congress to critics, are trying to find 
an answer to a question that often gets obscured in the debates over drug 
policy: Will U.S. efforts here do anything to stop Colombian drugs from 
coming into the United States? In addition to the members of Congress, two 
other Americans getting off the plane need to be identified from the start. 
One is David Becker, who, at the time of our visit, is deputy director of 
the Narcotics Affairs Section of the U.S. Embassy in Bogota. Standing 
nearby is a young American woman named Winifred Tate, who, as of this trip, 
works for an NGO called the Washington Office on Latin America, or WOLA.

Dave Becker, in, his forties, looks like he's a car-pool commuter, not a 
frontline veteran of low-intensity conflicts in places such as Honduras, El 
Salvador, Burkina Faso, and Guatemala. As for Winnie Tate, she could be 
just another perpetual grad student in third-world studies, but Becker and 
Tate together merit a closer took, for they embody an old, deep split in 
our American national personality.

Except for Vietnam, we tend to forget how frequently our country's crusades 
have divided us. Is it our duty to police the world or to redeem it? Back 
in 1849, Henry David Thoreau wrote "Civil Disobedience," his account of how 
he was imprisoned for protesting the U.S. war of aggression against Mexico. 
Yet supporters of that war Mexico called it a war to "extend of freedom," 
in this case an extension of their freedom to practice slavery in conquered 

A war to extend freedom: That's how Dave Becker still remembers U.S. 
involvement in the slaughter in Central America, which, among other things, 
launched his own State Department career in counterinsurgency. "We were 
really there to ensure that violent change -- at the point of a gun -- did 
not win," Becker told his college-alumni magazine just as Plan Colombia was 

Becker was educated at Reed College, in Portland, Oregon. In one of our 
talks, Becker said that he got into counterinsurgency because he wanted to 
do something in the world. As he tells his story, it's clear Becker doesn't 
consider it odd or questionable that his origins should entitle him to 
decide what democracy is in El Salvador, or whose crops get defoliated in 
Colombia. So sure is he of his own virtue, he tends to assume that those 
opposing him are bad as well as wrong, as becomes evident during our visit 
to Puerto Asis.

And Tate? If Becker looks like a 4-H alumnus, Tate calls to mind one of 
those classic marble effigies of "Justice" or "Agriculture" you find 
adorning state capitols all over the U.S. She is statuesque and belongs to 
that school of thought which holds that the wretched of the earth are by 
definition virtuous and that being American in itself is almost invariably 
a sin.

The Drug War is Becker's war, but today's meeting turns out to be Tate's 
teach-in. The two visiting members of Congress wanted something more than 
the usual embassy briefings, so they asked Tate and WOLA, not the embassy 
handlers who normally arrange such visits, to organize this trip. It turns 
out to have been a smart move. This will be the first time that U.S. 
officials involved in the anti-drug campaign in Colombia actually meet face 
to face with people directly affected by aerial defoliation.

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PICTORIAL. Map of northwestern South America, with Colombia at center 
showing areas of Colombia under the influence of  FARC, ELN and the 
Colombian government, also showing the extent of Paramilitaries' influence 
in each of these three areas.

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After getting off the plane, the American delegation is bused to the nearby 
municipal meeting hall. There is no tour of the area, no attempt to 
acquaint the visitors with local landmarks.

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PHOTO, captioned "an endless civil war: Colombian army soldiers prepare to 
shoot a mortar toward FARC rebels"

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Inside, there is no presiding officer. One by one, the Colombians get up to 
talk. It is, from the start, like the committee of blind men assessing an 
elephant. From the official U.S. perspective, raining down chemical 
defoliants on these people and their crops has something to do with trying 
to stop Americans from snuffling coke in distant U.S. suburbs and cities. 
It is all, indeed, part of a plan. For these Colombian farmers and 
community leaders, however, it all seems less of a plan and more of a plot: 
an impulsive, futile gringo plot to deprive them of all the good things of 
modern life --- boomboxes, motorbikes, antibiotics, VCRs --- and push them 
back into pre-Reeboks subsistence agriculture.

A teacher speaks. "Since the defoliation," she says, "some parents have 
stopped sending their children to school because they can't buy the textbooks."

She looks at the Americans and says, "Don't you understand? The coca crops 
are just going to move to another place." Now a man stands, addresses the 
visitors and politely says, "Unless you stop abusing it, coca will always 
be produced."

As they talk, the coca farmers make no effort to pretend they weren't 
growing coca. As one woman puts it, "How else can I support my family?" 
It's a question I hear repeated many times across Colombia.. It is a 
question to which I never get an answer, because no one has an answer to it 
- --- certainly not the creators and implementers of Plan Colombia.

As the Colombians bombard them with realities that do not comport with 
policy, the embassy Americans begin to zone out. Only two of the embassy 
officials remain engaged. One is Ambassador Anne Patterson, a professional 
diplomat of a certain age. While others flag, she keeps chugging along in 
her American-accented, though fluent, Spanish and her by now wrinkled and 
somewhat sweaty pastel linen suit. All day long she sits there, listening 
and taking notes.

The other U.S. official who continues to pay close attention is Dave 
Becker, who gradually becomes a portrait of agitated and, in the end, 
uncontainable vexation.

"You destroyed my chili peppers," one man says, while Becker stares back 
with a flinty look in his eyes.

A government official says, "Our pineapple project was fumigated." A 
community leader says, "We had a fence around our alternative-crop 
demonstration project and signs at the gate. There was no coca there, as 
anyone could see with his own eyes."

A farmer is describing how the defoliants destroyed his crops even though 
he was not growing any coca. He does this at great length, because 
describing things at length is what Colombians --- ranging from this farmer 
to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Colombia's Nobel laureate in literature --- do. 
It isn't the man's orotundity that vexes Becker, however; it is his version 
of reality. It contradicts Becker's reality and, therefore, in Becker's 
view, the man must be lying.

So Becker breaks in. That's not right," he announces.

The man directs a confused look at Becker. After all, they were his crops. 
He saw the planes appear overhead. He saw his crops die.

Ambassador Patterson glances at Becker and gives him a downstroke wave of 
her hand. Becker simmers down, but he does not let go of it. He 
periodically shakes his head in dismay and punches his palm in frustration.

Later on in the meeting, a Colombian community leader tries to explain that 
it would be more effective to rely on manual eradication --- to use people, 
instead of spy satellites, to find the coca and then to use people's hands 
and hoes, instead of airplanes and defoliants, to remove it.

Uprooting the coca plants by hand, he's trying to explain, would avoid the 
errors built into aerial defoliation. It would also create work and put 
money into the pockets of the people who need it most. "Millions of dollars 
could be saved... " the man is saying, but no one pays much attention, 
because at this potentially illuminating point the Americans can't take 
their eyes off a giant dark-brown spider. The spider, having emerged from 
under the chairs of the two members of Congress, starts heading toward the 

The Colombians no more notice the spider's intrusion than the Americans, in 
Washington, would let the wail of a car alarm distract them, but the 
Americans can't take their eyes off it. So no one explains to the community 
leader the reason why there's so little American enthusiasm for manual 
eradication, which is that while manual eradication may make sense here in 
Putumayo, it makes no political sense whatsoever in Washington.

Moments after the spider retreats to its hiding place, a man steps to the 
microphone and says, "My name is Roger Hernandez. We are victims of the 
drug consumers. We need help to break the circle." An old man is eager to 
speak --- "I am from the Farmers' Association," he says. "We need social 

Since anyone is free to speak, I raise my hand and ask, "Who in this 
meeting hall would like to get out of the coca business?" The farmers all 
raise their hands and cry out, "Yes!"

Then I ask, "Have any of you received aid of any kind to help you stop 
growing coca under Plan Colombia?"

They all shake their heads: No! They all say, Nada! Many of these people 
have traveled for up to thirteen hours to get here. Several have tried to 
learn enough English so they can be understood in the visitors' language. 
One man, referring to the aerial defoliation, speaks in an English he 
clearly has been practicing for this occasion. He says, "We never opposed 
eradication, but this is not the correct means. The peasants are keeping 
their side of the bargain, but they are caught. They can't see their coca 
or nothing to replace it."

Finally, Becker can't stand it anymore.

In a you-have-only-yourself-to-blame tone of voice, he interrupts one of 
the campesinos and says, "We offered you geosatellite equipment, but you 
wouldn't take it. You were afraid the guerrillas would kill you!"

It takes a moment for the meaning of what Becker has just said to sink in. 
Then I realize: Yes, I heard right. As part of America's anti-drug 
technowar, scrub farmers in equatorial Colombia have been offered satellite 
beacons so they can beam up to U.S. spy satellites in outer space the 
information that, yes, we have no coca, we have no coca today.

The Realm Of Little Green Dots

The theory behind the hightech targeting of coca cultivation --- which the 
U.S. does from outer space --- is simple. Everything that lives, including 
coca plants, emits radiation. Coca, therefore, has its own unique radiation 
signature. This telltale radiation can be recognized by orbiting satellites 
and then converted into data. Next, the data are represented visually or 
mathematically using the Multiple Digital Imaging System.

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IMAGE. Map of Colombia captioned "A high-tech illusion: U.S. maps showing 
Colombia's coca regions imply that the crops can simply be deleted"

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Up in Bogota, during the standard Plan Colombia briefings at the U.S. 
Embassy, the visual representations of the coca radiation data take the 
form of computer-generated little green dots. Each tiny square symbolizes 
an area of more than fifty acres where the radiation signature of the coca 
plant has been detected.

little green dots are very important when it comes to marshaling 
congressional support for Plan Colombia because when most U.S. senators and 
members of Congress visit Colombia on a "fact-finding" mission, they never 
get as far as the meeting hall in Puerto Asis. Many stay in Colombia for 
only a few hours, and the closest they get to reality is the darkened 
embassy briefing room in Bogota.

The visiting dignitaries enter this room, as I did the day I attended the 
Plan Colombia briefing, through the building's gigantic front door, a 
lofty, multi-ton, bombproof portal already turned bronze-green by the 
Colombian climate. The day I was there, deli sandwiches were served as the 
little green dots swarmed onto the map. Ambassador Patterson herself, 
holding a pointer, gave the signal for them to appear.

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IMAGE. Timeline -- since mid 1980s -- of two curves . One curve is the 
number of  hectares of coca under cultivation. The other, the number of 
paramilitary troops. Both seem to have increased about four-fold since 
1996. Caption reads "Civil Strife + drug profits = healthy paramilitaries: 
The vigilante armies that roam Colombia are fed by the cocaine industry"

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These bright-green dots produce a powerful psychological effect when 
projected onto the mural-size screen in the darkened room. They suggest 
that real-life coca cultivation can be eliminated the same way these 
computer images were generated in the first place: through the use of 
American technology. The little green dots are the problem? We'll delete 
them! This kind of imaging makes coca cultivation seem a dramatic problem 
but also one within the ambit of American know-how -- a danger to our 
national well-being that is also like a video game.

The problem is that Colombia is actually a messy human reality.

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PHOTO, captioned "SPRAYING THE FARMS: U.S. subcontractors and Colombian 
police are fumigating farms in coca-growing regions (including Jose 
Argoti's cornfields in Putumayo, above) with little result.

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"See? The satellite imaging doesn't lie," Becker tells me a few weeks 
later, on another excursion in southern Colombia. First from a light 
aircraft, then leaning out open-door combat helicopters, we overfly the 
coca fields of Putumayo and neighboring Caqueti.

Thousands of acres below us have been defoliated, but as Becker himself 
points out, "Look! There's new coca everywhere." Every time he looks 
outside the plane's window, Becker sees a target and -- he tells me he 
really believes this -- if only we hit enough of those targets, life will 
change for the better all over the United States. "We'll gain time to do 
something good," he says, "as we dry up the supply of drugs in the projects 
and ghettos."


The U.S. Has Awarded Lucrative Defoliation Projects To a Group Of Contracts:

Step 1: Congress appropriates millions for a "coca eradication' campaign, 
targeting the latest pockets of high-intensity coca cultivation.

Step 2: The State Department: contracts with DynCorp, a Virginia consulting 
firm used by the CIA and the Pentagon, to oversee the fumigation campaign.

Step 3: DynCorp subcontract. to Eagle Aviation Services and Technology, a 
company used for covert operations during the lran-Contra affair.

Step 4: EAST pays pilot crews in Colombia, who fumigate people and 
legitimate crops as well as coca.

. . . End SIDEBAR

Also on board is the State Department's chief official in managing the Drug 
War, Assistant Secretary of State R. Rand Beers. The next stop has been 
designed to show him how Plan Colombia is helping former coca farmers build 
new lives. However, the showcase project proves to be nothing more than 
some palm nuts hastily thrown onto an abandoned field of diseased coca 
plants. "My coca plants were already dying," the farmer tells me, "so this 
money is a help." Are there any healthy coca plants nearby, and is anything 
being done to help those farmers shift to legal crops?

"We're all growing coca," answers one woman in the crowd of Colombians who 
have gathered to watch the Americans disgorge from their helicopters and 
stand in this field, "to help our children."

On the way back to Bogota, Beers sits in his seat with his eyes closed 
during the entire flight. Seated across from him os President Pastrana's 
chief  official in charge of drug-crop substitution programs. She gives me 
her card, so I recognize her name a while later, when her son is arrested 
and charged with being part of a heroin-smuggling ring.

Since the U.S. aerial-defoliation campaign began in Colombia, at least 
three pilots have been killed. On the ground, churches, soccer fields, 
flowers and schoolchildren have been "defoliated."

Coca cultivation and subsistence agriculture in Colombia traditionally 
occur cheek by jowl. And you have to fly low and close-in if these messy 
chemicals are actually going to hit their targets. But the hired crews 
aren't flying these missions out of some altruistic urge to rid America of 
drugs. They do it for money. Once upon a time, these pilots and crews were 
called mercenaries. Today they're known as contract personnel. Many of 
these contract personnel come from countries with histories of heavy U.S. 
involvement in clandestine warfare, including Cuba and the nations of 
Central America.

I met one of these defoliation pilots at Larandia, a former plantation in 
Caqueta, which the U.S. Embassy has transformed into a military training 
base. The pilot, a Guatemalan, told me he had flown for the contras in 
Honduras back in the 1980s, as part of the operations that produced the 
Iran-Contra scandal during the Reagan administration.

In the past, operations such as the Colombia defoliation might also have 
been run by the CIA. But in the current age of downsizing and outsourcing, 
the U.S. has subcontracted a lot of the War on Drugs to DynCorp, a 
"consulting" firm with Virginia headquarters convenient to the CIA and the 
Pentagon. DynCorp in turn subcontracts many of the Colombia defoliation 
flights to Eagle Aviation Services and Technology Inc., another 
U.S.-incorporated company,

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PHOTOS juxtaposed of David Becker and Winifred Tate, captioned: David 
Becker wants U.S. technology to eradicate coca cultivation. Winifred Tate 
wants the U.S. to understand the peasants' predicament. Adversaries: 
Colombia's cocaine production provokes two opposite gut reactions; that the 
Colombians should stop growing it, or Americans should stop using.

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usually known by its acronym, EAST. During the Iran-Contra affair, EAST was 
used extensively for secret operations in Central America. It's convenient 
for the State Department to use such outfits as DynCorp and EAST today for 
the same reason they were useful in clandestine operations earlier. These 
private subcontractors are harder to scrutinize than government agencies; 
if there are casualties or foul-ups, they make smaller headlines.

So, technically speaking, the State Department doesn't pay the defoliation 
crews. The State Department pays DynCorp, which pays EAST to pay the 
defoliation crews. Whatever the accounting devices, the pilots defoliate 
coca for exactly the same reason the campesinos grow it: to get the yanqui 
- ---
MAP posted-by: Larry Stevens