TheScotsman: Drug war ravages Colombia

by Jeremy McDermott In Putumayo Wednesday, Mar. 28, 2001 at 11:15 AM

A Colombian guerrilla of the FARC, which is fighting the US scorched earth policy against drugs, surveys a scene of devastation. Picture: AP

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"The US is attacking the Colombian peasant who makes nothing from the drug trade, while the huge profits are made by gringo [American] drug dealers and stashed in gringo banks. The Colombian people are paying for gringo drug addiction. We are paying with our blood."

Drug war ravages Colombia

Jeremy McDermott In Putumayo

SWATHES of southern Colombia look like desert: crops withered, the ground parched and brown. The biggest aerial drug eradication in the world is well under way, destroying every plant that grows on more than 30,000 hectares of fragile Amazonian ecosystem.

"This is a carefully planned campaign," said James Mack, United States deputy assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement. "Crop-dusting aircraft guided by satellite positioning systems are spraying areas plotted by aerial photographs," added Washingtons point man for Plan Colombia, the almost 1 billion anti-drugs initiative.

However, there is little evidence of this scientific planning on the ground. Many Colombian peasants have planted legal crops amid the coca, the raw material for cocaine, to hide the targeted bushes and so have lost everything. However, charred fields of plantain are also apparent, with the nearest coca crop almost a mile away.

While the fumigation campaign has been going on since the end of last year, the other component of Plan Colombia, some 50 million in aid to help coca farmers to switch to legal crops has not arrived. "What are we supposed to do?" asked Cecilia Amaya, who heads a peasant association based in Puerto Asis, the largest town in the province of Putamayo. "None of this can be achieved overnight. They have fumigated the crops anyway and the promised help has not arrived, and we suspect it never will. Corrupt politicians have already pocketed it."

The other concern is the effect of the chemicals. Mr Mack insists the glyphosate being sprayed is safe and is used by millions of Americans as weedkiller. In the US, however, it is not sprayed on people tending their fields and Americans are not drinking from streams and lakes dusted with the chemical.

The US Environmental Protection Agency says glyphosate products should be handled with caution and could cause vomiting, swelling of the lungs, pneumonia, mental confusion and tissue damage. Clinics in Putumayo have seen widespread cases of skin irritations and respiratory and eye problems, particularly in children. "We are getting cases of mild poisoning every week after the planes have dropped their loads," said a nurse at San Francisco Hospital in Puerto Asis.

Environmentalists have also expressed concern. "The situation is alarming," said Ricardo Vargas, an environmentalist and author of a book on coca eradication. "Forests have been destroyed, birds sprayed as well as food eaten by monkeys, in a region with great biodiversity."

At least 10,000 peasants have fled Putumayo in the last six months, leaving behind barren fields and escalating violence. Those that have stayed have sought virgin forest to clear for land to sow crops, among them coca; others have joined the guerrillas, strengthening the force the campaign is designed to undermine.

Many insist that the problem is not going away, just shifting location, most immediately to the neighbouring province of Nario. Evidence shows that coca fields in Peru, dormant since US action drove plantations into Colombia, are being resown and drug fields are appearing in northern Ecuador, which borders Putamayo.

But the most obvious result is the explosion of new coca crops: not the large fields that attract the crop-dusters, but small plots behind peasant shacks. Coca growing is becoming the new cottage industry and no aerial eradication programme will be able to destroy it.

Few Colombians believe the US strategy has any chance of success. The street price of cocaine has not changed. Farmers make 600 for a kilogram of coca base, which is then refined into cocaine worth 30,000 in the United States and 40,000 in Britain. Most Colombians believe that as long as demand remains, the supply will feed it.

Colonel Roberto Trujillo, head of the anti-narcotics brigade, is a small, energetic man, carrying out his mission to attack crops and laboratories with efficiency; but he has some doubt about the effectiveness of the overall strategy. "There does seem to be a gap between the fumigation of the fields and the delivery of alternative aid," he said. "Many of the peasants have little alternative to coca."

For the countrys largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which controls much of Putumayo and profits from the drug trade, Plan Colombia has reinforced their propaganda as well as their ranks. Comandante Simn Trinidad, a FARC spokesman, insisted: "The US is attacking the Colombian peasant who makes nothing from the drug trade, while the huge profits are made by gringo [American] drug dealers and stashed in gringo banks. The Colombian people are paying for gringo drug addiction. We are paying with our blood."