Criticism of Colombia's Drug War Looms

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  1. By Mike Williams - Staff
    Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

    School wasn't in session the day the crop-dusters bolted out of the morning sky.
    But the coca, which the U.S. government is paying Colombia more than $1 billion to wipe out, grows right up to the borders of the schoolyard here. It surrounds the tin-roofed homes and fills a large field behind the church. It lines the roads and blankets the rolling hills as far as the eye can see.

    The hillsides --- and the school's soccer field --- are dead brown now, a stark contrast to the vivid greens of the nearby tropical forest.

    "The effects of the fumigation here have been catastrophic," said Miriam Teresa Rodriguez, a teacher at La Concordia's 150-student primary school. "The spraying killed the coca, but it killed the food crops, too. Some of our children would eat mangos and bananas from the trees around the schoolyard for their lunch, but now those are dead."

    As President Andres Pastrana travels to Washington this week to meet with President Bush, his ambitious program to break the back of the Colombian drug trade has kicked into high gear.

    U.S. and Colombian officials are proclaiming the program's first punch, a massive aerial fumigation assault, a success so far, with more than 70,000 acres of coca destroyed.

    After securing a $1.3 billion commitment last year from the Clinton administration, Pastrana may ask Bush at his Tuesday meeting for trade preferences aimed at kick-starting Colombia's faltering economy.

    Pastrana's program, Plan Colombia, has garnered strong support in Congress, where backers believe it will slow the flow of cocaine into America while choking off a lucrative resource for Colombia's Marxist guerrillas, who earn millions by taxing coca farmers and drug traffickers.

    But Plan Colombia has plenty of critics, too.

    The European Parliament has been critical, raising concerns over the environmental effects of aerial fumigation, as well as the messy record of human rights violations by Colombia's military and right-wing paramilitary groups, which reportedly work closely with the army.

    A minority in Congress echoes those concerns, while others who generally back the plan worry that the United States may be stumbling into a deeper involvement in Colombia's nasty 37-year-old civil war. They also fear the conflict over the drug trade will spread to Colombia's neighbors, creating regional instability.

    Colombia supplies an estimated 80 percent to 90 percent of the world's cocaine, with much of the raw ingredient --- coca --- grown in a jungle-covered swath of territory along its southern border.

    In the past two years, a few hundred U.S. military advisers have trained two special anti-narcotics battalions of the Colombian military and are now supplying satellite maps to target fields for fumigation. A shipment of U.S. Blackhawk helicopters scheduled to arrive this year will provide security for the small fumigation planes, which in the past have been harried by ground fire from guerrilla forces.

    But Plan Colombia's strongest critics come from within Colombia itself, especially in the province of Putumayo, an isolated terrain of muddy rivers and low hills where the bright green bush flourishes in the blistering tropical sun.

    Leaders here say local governments were not consulted as Plan Colombia was formulated. Fumigation has decimated the rural economy, while the government has so far failed to deliver significant emergency aid or extensive alternative development programs, they say.

    "Two months after the fumigation, the national government has done nothing to help the peasants," said Alfonso Martinez, former mayor of La Hormiga, a small commercial hub in the Guamuez River valley near La Concordia. "The peasants grow coca because there is no other way to make a living. Now they have nothing to eat because the spraying has destroyed their food crops as well as their coca."

    La Hormiga officials have taken 800 complaints from peasants since the spraying began in late December. Along with food crops, the fumigation has killed cattle, pigs, chicken and commercially raised fish, as well as sickened children and adults with skin rashes and lung problems, they say.

    Rigoberto Rosero, a peasant whose five acres of coca border the La Concordia school, said he grows coca because it's the only crop that makes money. He claims he has been trying to get out of the coca business, raising other crops and pooling resources with neighbors to grow guinea pigs, which are sold for food here.

    "Everything was killed," he said. "My bananas, sugar cane, corn and 80 guinea pigs," he said. "My son has been ill with asthma and skin rashes, and I've spent the money I saved for a new house on his medical treatment. I've been trying to raise other crops, and I would've signed up to cut down my own coca, but they never gave me the chance."

    Otoniel Urrea, who lives nearby, said his food crops were wiped out when the planes spread large coca fields nearby.

    "I won't lie," he said. "I had a little coca. But now we have nothing, and the government has sent no help. A friend is giving us bananas to eat, but soon there won't be any."

    Colombian officials insist local governments were given the chance to sign up for voluntary eradication programs that would have exempted them from fumigation. An example is Puerto Asis, about 30 miles from La Hormiga, where there has been no spraying because hundreds of peasants promised to cut down their coca in exchange for about $1,000 each.

    As for claims of sickness, officials say the herbicide being used --- Roundup --- is not harmful to humans, although labels on the product in the United States warn against user contact. They also insist the planes have targeted "industrial crops" --- large plantations raised under contract to Marxist guerrillas.

    "What was fumigated was where there were zones of industrial crops," said Gonzalo de Francisco, head of Plan Colombia's social programs. "These people are angry because their coca was destroyed. Maybe some of them thought they would never be sprayed."

    Francisco admitted some food crops have been destroyed but said the peasants can seek reimbursement through the official complaint system. He also said that if aid and alternative programs have been slow to reach the villages, it's because the effort is so massive.

    "We're setting up a social program that is unprecedented in Colombia," he said. "Obviously, we need to make a huge effort in institutional cooperation. But we really believe it will solve the problem."

    That confidence isn't shared in coca country.

    Luis Carlos Gonzalez is head of a tribe of Cofan Indians who live near La Concordia. The group claims it raised only a small patch of coca but watched in disbelief as herbicide sprayed on nearby fields spread over their chicken barn and fish pond, both funded by the Colombian government.

    "We had 180 chickens and 1,400 fish die," Gonzalez said. "It's a crazy government that could do this. We're all living off bananas and fish caught from the river now. Let the government come here so we can tell them we aren't cockroaches to be fumigated."

    Complete Title: Criticism of Colombia's Drug War Looms as U.S. Talks Near

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    Information on Colombia from the CIA World Factbook

    La Concordia, Colombia

    Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution (GA)
    Author: Mike Williams - Staff
    Published: Sunday, February 25, 2001
    Address: 72 Marietta Street, NW, Atlanta, Ga. 30303
    Copyright: 2001 Cox Interactive Media.

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