Pubdate: Fri, 15 May 2015
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2015 The New York Times Company
Author: William Neuman


BOGOTA, Colombia - The government of Colombia on Thursday night 
rejected a major tool in the American-backed antidrug campaign - 
ordering a halt to the aerial spraying of the country's vast illegal 
plantings of coca, the crop used to make cocaine, citing concerns 
that the spray causes cancer.

The decision ends a program that has continued for more than two 
decades, raising questions about the viability of long-accepted 
strategies in the war on drugs in the region.

Colombia is one of the closest allies of the United States in Latin 
America and its most stalwart partner on antidrug policy, but the 
change of strategy has the potential to add a new element of tension 
to the relationship.

Just last week, American officials warned that the amount of land 
used to grow coca in Colombia grew by 39 percent last year as aerial 
spraying to kill or stunt the crop, already a contentious issue here, declined.

"The folks who run counternarcotics never want to give up any of 
their tools, and there are pockets of discontent inside the U.S. 
government with this decision," said Adam Isacson, a senior associate 
of the Washington Office on Latin America, a research group.

"Colombia and the United States have been in lock step on a hard-line 
approach" in how to fight drug trafficking, he added. "It's the first 
time there's been light between the two countries on what the 
strategy should be, in recent memory."

The decision to halt the spraying, which was backed by President Juan 
Manuel Santos, came after an agency of the World Health Organization 
declared in March that the herbicide used here, a chemical called 
glyphosate, probably causes cancer in humans.

The chemical, the active ingredient in the popular weedkiller 
Roundup, is the most widely used herbicide in the world. Colombian 
officials have said that a previous Supreme Court ruling in their 
country called for an end to the spraying if health concerns 
involving the chemical were found.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency has determined that 
there is a "lack of convincing evidence" to consider it a cancer risk 
to humans.

Before Thursday's decision, the United States had pressed the 
Colombian government to continue the spraying program. The American 
ambassador in Bogota, Kevin Whitaker, published an op-ed article in 
El Tiempo, one of the country's main newspapers, over the weekend, 
defending the program.

But he has also stressed that Colombia's decision would not harm 
diplomatic relations.

"This is their sovereign decision to make, and we will respect that 
and we will continue to use the tools that are available to us, as 
Colombia wishes us to do, to continue to be a partner with them in 
this fight," Mr. Whitaker said in an interview a day before the 
decision was taken.

"We have lots of tools to help Colombia address the problem of 
transnational crime and narco-trafficking."

He said that includes providing intelligence on drug traffickers, 
encouraging farmers to grow other crops, intercepting drug shipments, 
focusing on shutting down drug labs and supporting efforts to pull up 
and destroy coca plants by hand.

Thursday's decision involved only the use of the herbicide in the 
coca spraying program. The government has not moved to ban use of the 
herbicide by farmers who grow legal crops and use it to kill weeds.

The spraying program was steeped in controversy even before the 
declaration was made in March by the International Agency for 
Research on Cancer.

Colombia is the only coca-producing country that uses airplanes to 
spray and kill the crop. The other major producers, Peru and Bolivia, 
have shunned spraying.

Critics of spraying in Colombia said that it was harmful to the 
health of rural residents and that it caused environmental damage.

The spraying also alienated the poor farmers who have often felt that 
they had little choice but to grow coca to feed their families.

But opponents of the spraying ban have argued that ending spraying 
could lead to a boom in cocaine production and favor traffickers and 
rebel groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or 
FARC, which depends on the drug trade for much of its financing and 
has advocated an end to spraying.

They have also pointed out that one alternative, eradicating plants 
by hand, is dangerous because it involves sending troops and workers 
into areas controlled by traffickers and guerrilla troops. Many 
eradication workers have been killed and wounded by land mines or in 
armed confrontations in drug-growing areas.

Spraying with glyphosate began in the 1990s on a small scale and by 
the early 2000s it was established as a crucial aspect of Plan 
Colombia, a multibillion dollar push by the United States to aid in 
fighting rebel groups and drug traffickers in the country.

It reached its peak in 2006, when more than 405,000 acres were 
sprayed, according to data compiled for the White House Office of 
National Drug Control Policy.

But aerial spraying has fallen sharply over the last two years, even 
as coca plantings jumped. Last year, 137,000 acres were sprayed, 
while the amount of land planted with coca increased to 276,758 acres 
in Colombia, compared with 198,919 acres the previous year.

Daniel Mejia, the director of the Center for Security and Drug 
Studies, a research group in Bogota, said that spraying was 
inefficient and counterproductive.

"I would recommend attacking the links in the chain of drug 
trafficking, the labs where cocaine is processed, the large shipments 
of chemicals, which is really where the hard drug trafficking is, 
where organized crime is," Mr. Mejia said. "It has been shown that 
attacking the farmers doesn't work."

Rafael Nieto, a former vice-minister of justice, questioned the 
rationale behind halting spraying, saying that more eradication 
workers would be put at risk.

"If the spraying is stopped, the income of the drug traffickers, the 
criminal gangs and the guerrillas will go up substantially and so 
will the number of dead and wounded," Mr. Nieto said. "Coca and 
cocaine production would also go up, and there would be more addicts 
and more people will die."

The impact of the decision on the peace talks underway between the 
government and the FARC are uncertain. Some critics of the decision 
say that it removes a critical element of pressure on the group that 
could help push it toward a deal to lay down its arms.

The two sides have reached a preliminary deal on cooperating to fight 
drug trafficking, which would go into effect if an overall peace deal 
is reached. It calls for the government to work with rural 
communities to help them grow legal crops and increase government 
services in those areas. It says that spraying could be used only as 
a last resort.

On Monday, the government said that the armed forces had raided 63 
illegal mines operated by the FARC to extract gold and other 
minerals. It said shutting down the mines would take away millions of 
dollars in monthly income for the group.

Susan Abad contributed reporting.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom