Pubdate: Sat, 18 Nov 2000
Source: Business Week (US)
Copyright: 2000 The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
Contact:  1221 Avenue of the Americas, 43rd Floor, New York, NY 10020
Fax: (212) 512-6458
Author: Suzanne Tommmons


BOGOTA -- Life in the southern Colombian province of Putumayo has never been
easy. But for the 350,000 residents of this coca-growing outpost on the
border with Ecuador, it's hard to see how it could get any worse. For seven
weeks now, left-wing rebels and right-wing paramilitaries have been waging a
pitched battle for control of the province, which is home to half of
Colombia's 300,000 acres of coca fields. A guerrilla-organized blockade has
reduced supplies of fuel and food to a trickle. Hundreds of people have
already crossed over into Ecuador. Those who remain are bracing for more

That's because the crisis in Putumayo is expected to intensify in December
once a new 950-man antidrug brigade is deployed in the area. The brigade is
part of Colombia's campaign to halve the country's coca output by 2006, and
the U.S. is contributing $ 1.3 billion over two years toward the effort.
Besides footing the bill for -- and overseeing -- the training of three
antidrug brigades, Washington is throwing in some 60 helicopters. ''As we
see it, it's only going to escalate the conflict in Colombia,'' says a U.N.

The final tab for Washington may be a lot bigger than U.S. lawmakers

Colombian President Andres Pastrana had originally wanted $ 450 million more
from the U.S. to support Plan Colombia, an ambitious $ 7.5 billion program
that encompasses everything from democratic reform to measures designed to
fortify an anemic economy. So Bogota is likely to lobby for even more U.S.
money. Ecuador, meanwhile, wants Washington to help boost development in
border areas that could see a flood of Colombian refugees. According to the
U.S. General Accounting Office, the State Dept. has already acknowledged
that ''substantial funding'' will be needed to support U.S. goals in

There is a real danger that the latest offensive in Colombia could aggravate
tensions in the politically unstable Andes. The coca trade is the main
source of financing for guerrilla groups that have fought a four-decade-long
battle against the government. The fighting has claimed 30,000 lives in the
past decade.

Colombia's neighbors fear that the campaign will cause the conflict to spill
over into their own countries. That's why Panama, Brazil, Peru, and Ecuador
are all now beefing up border security. Ecuador is particularly vulnerable
since it shares a frontier with Putumayo, and the country has already
received $ 2 million from the U.N. to cope with an expected inflow of 5,000
Colombian refugees. In October, Ecuador's foreign minister, Heinz Moeller,
traveled to Washington to ask for $ 300 million in fresh funds. A State
Dept. official says Moeller's request will be carefully considered. If
Ecuador succeeds in its quest, other countries may be inspired to follow
suit. ADAMANT. Despite the potential escalation in cost, there is no sign
that Pastrana and his allies in Washington are prepared to rethink their
antidrug strategy. The Colombian government believes that attacking the coca
trade is its best chance of extracting concessions from the guerrillas at
the negotiating table.

Talks between the government and Colombia's largest rebel group, the
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), have been under way since
January, 1999, with little result. ''Coca is the biggest enemy of peace,''
says Jaime Ruiz, a top aide to Pastrana.

U.S. officials, meanwhile, are adamant that the policy will bring stability
not just for Colombia but for the entire region. ''Everyone reaps the
benefits when the drug trade is reduced,'' says Robert Weiner, spokesman for
U.S. drug czar General Barry R. McCaffrey.

The guerrillas won't give up their cash crop without a stiff fight, though.
Indeed, with coca fields in Putumayo under threat, FARC is seeking other
strongholds. In mid-October, the rebels laid siege to two northern towns,
killing more than 50 soldiers in one and taking 30 civilians hostage in the
other. The price of peace in Colombia will be high. And Washington may have
to pick up the tab.
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MAP posted-by: Don Beck