Pubdate: Thu, 08 Feb 2001
Source: Miami Herald (FL)
Copyright: 2001 The Miami Herald
Contact:  One Herald Plaza, Miami FL 33132-1693
Fax: (305) 376-8950


Colombian Coca Crop Hard Hit, But Opium Poppies Untargeted

BOGOTA, Colombia -- U.S.-owned airplanes have sprayed herbicides on more 
than 55,000 acres of coca fields -- 16 percent of Colombia's estimated 
total -- in the first eight weeks of a campaign to eradicate half the 
country's cocaine trade by the year 2005.

But massing the crop dusters in the southern state of Putumayo forced a 
halt in the fumigation elsewhere of opium poppies, the raw material for 
heroin, Colombian police and U.S. counter-narcotics officials acknowledged.

The twin developments highlighted the ambitions and limitations of Plan 
Colombia, a Bogota government counter-narcotics and nation-building plan 
backed by a controversial $1.3 billion U.S. aid package.

Critics say the U.S. aid focuses too much on the military side of the war 
on drugs in Colombia, which produces 90 percent of the cocaine and 
two-thirds of the heroin reaching American streets. The plan aims to 
eliminate 50 percent of the country's narcotics industry in five years.

The coca fields sprayed in Putumayo with the herbicide plyphosate since 
Dec. 12 are one-sixth of the officially estimated 334,280 acres in Colombia 
- -- although other estimates go as high as 500,000 acres. The herbicide is 
certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a low-level toxic 
herbicide that does not cause significant harm to humans or animals.

"It is surprising that we did as much as we did as quickly as we did,'' 
said one U.S. counter-narcotics official, who asked to remain anonymous, of 
the Putumayo campaign that ended around Feb. 2.

The 10 crop dusters used in Putumayo, flying up to five missions per day, 
took a relatively low 20 bullet impacts from ground fire, but no planes 
were forced down and no pilots were injured, the U.S. official added.

The planes and 1,800 army troops trained by U.S. Special Forces to secure 
the areas before the planes arrive focused the campaign in the Guamuez 
Valley, a western Putumayo region estimated to hold 154,000 acres of coca, 
nearly one-third Colombia's total.

Part of the reason for the scarcity of groundfire was an offensive launched 
in the valley in September by right-wing paramilitary units known as 
Self-Defense Forces, that drove off leftist guerrillas from the 
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, who had dominated the 
region for decades.

The crop dusters are owned by the U.S. State Department's Air Wing but 
operated by the National Police using civilian American, Colombian and 
other Latin American pilots contracted by the police and the Virginia-based 
Dyncorp, a military sub-contracting firm.

At least initially, the Guamuez campaign appears to have had an impact on 
the local cocaine industry. Coca prices have risen in the valley and half 
the itinerant coca leaf pickers did not return after Christmas trips home, 
knowing there would be little work for them in the withered fields, the 
U.S. official said.

Thousands of area coca farmers, scared by the fumigation, suddenly signed 
up for a program under which they promise to uproot their bushes in return 
for government aid with alternative crops and development projects.

"One of the purposes of this [the Putumayo campaign] is to give people the 
incentive to sign up for the voluntary eradication program,'' said the U.S. 

Guamuez farmers, meanwhile, are complaining bitterly that indiscriminate 
spraying also killed legal food crops such as plantains, corn and yucca, 
threatening widespread hunger in the valley.

But the real impact of the offensive won't be felt for some time, and will 
depend heavily on the Colombian military and police's ability to control 
the ground after the spray airplanes have moved on to other regions.

"It is important that the government leave behind a presence to deter 
re-planting,'' said the U.S. official. Coca bushes can be harvested six 
months after seedlings are planted, then 3-4 times per year.

Colombian security forces are severely undermanned and under-equipped, 
however, with only 146,000 soldiers and some 120,000 policemen spread 
thinly though a country seven times the size of Florida.

The equipment shortage was underlined by the need to deploy virtually the 
entire fleet of spray aircraft in the country for the Putumayo campaign -- 
10 of the 12 OV-10 "Broncos'' and T-65 "Turbo-Thrushes.''

National Police officials said that concentration forced them to suspend 
spray operations against the estimated 25,000 acres of opium poppies, 
usually high in the Andean mountains, since Dec. 19.

"It's like trying to plug a dike. We have 10 fingers, and a thousand 
leaks,'' said one police official who also asked for anonymity. "We need a 
lot more planes and pilots to bring this thing under real control.''

The U.S. aid package approved by Congress last summer includes money for 
nine more Turbo-Thrushes. The State Department's International Narcotics 
and Law Enforcement Bureau has signed contracts to buy five, with options 
to buy four more later.

Police officials said they expect to resume spraying poppy fields within a 
few weeks, after the planes and security helicopters used so heavily in the 
Putumayo campaign undergo mandatory maintenance checks.

Next on the crop dusters' target list is the state of Caqueta north of 
Putumayo, an area of 55,000 acres of coca and part of the FARC-controlled 
demilitarized zone that President Andres Pastrana gave to the guerrillas in 
1998 as a safe haven for peace talks.

Police officials said they won't spray in the so-called ``distension 
zone,'' where Pastrana is to meet today with FARC leader Manuel "Sureshot'' 
Marulanda in an attempt to revive the stalled two-year-old peace talks.
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MAP posted-by: Larry Stevens