Battles Not Fought 

Battles Not Fought 
Posted by FoM on March 05, 2001 at 22:23:25 PT
By Scott Wilson
Source: Washington Post
A six-week aerial spraying campaign has left vast stretches of Colombia's coca heartland parched and withering. But the military has yet to establish a presence in the back country, suggesting the most dangerous work is yet to come for the U.S.-backed soldiers trying to rid the area of drug crops within a year.Much of the damage has been done here in western Putumayo, a southern province that accounts for more than half of Colombia's coca production. 
The herbicide spraying has killed more than 40,000 acres of coca crops in this area alone, according to Colombian military officials. But much of the terrain is still controlled by the country's largest left-wing guerrilla insurgency, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and by right-wing paramilitary forces who battle with the guerrillas for control of drug crops and strategic transportation corridors.In interviews around this village sitting between rebel and paramilitary areas eight miles northwest of Puerto Asis, the region's main town, farmers said many drug plantations remained untouched, protected from spray planes in hard-to-reach valleys by jungle cover and guerrilla troops. Valleys full of coca were evident from the main east-west highway. And on almost every farm hit by the herbicide since December, small tents protected young coca plants for future cultivation.Rooting out those remote fields will likely force Colombian troops to directly confront the FARC, an 18,000-member rebel army that taxes drug crops to help finance its war effort. By all accounts, the guerrillas have increased their numbers here in preparation for a ground attack and to blunt the growth of paramilitary forces, who municipal officials suggest are being used by the Colombian army as an effective if illegal advance guard.Plan Colombia, the anti-drug strategy backed by $1.3 billion in U.S. military and social aid, has so far unfolded exactly as southern Colombian farmers and European diplomats said it would: a fumigation campaign supported by U.S.-trained anti-narcotics battalions.From late December to early February, aerial spraying killed more than 60,000 acres of coca crops across Putumayo province, or almost half the country's estimated supply, according to government accounts. Colombia accounts for 90 percent of the world's cocaine, which is made from coca leaves, and recent U.S. government figures reported that coca cultivation in Colombia increased 11 percent last year.But two key components of Plan Colombia have yet to materialize, despite assurances from President Andres Pastrana's government to farmers and foreign governments. More than $80 million in U.S. aid to encourage farmers to pull up coca in favor of legal crops has yet to reach Putumayo, and the amount originally held out to farmers has shrunk by 75 percent since October.Moreover, the government has yet to honor its pledge to impose order in a region where the FARC controls the countryside and paramilitary forces reign in urban centers. "The government has abandoned us," said Alfonso Martinez, an aide to La Hormiga Mayor Flover Edmundo Meza, who runs the municipality of 35,000 residents."The army comes and then it quickly leaves," said a member of the FARC's 15th Front, which was sent in from neighboring Caqueta province, who gave his name as Christian.The army's scant presence also has alarmed leaders of neighboring countries, who have seen thousands of refugees pour across Colombia's border to escape conflict and aerial spraying."The presence of the Colombian army is, to put it mildly, infrequent," Ecuadoran Foreign Minister Heinz Moeller said last week during a visit to Washington, where he was seeking U.S. helicopters, speedboats and communications equipment to fortify the border roughly 30 miles from this village. "It is time to stop the diplomatic language and say clearly what is going on."Traveling west from Puerto Asis to this region required passage through at least three zones of control, none held by government forces. Rebel and paramilitary troops hid in plain sight: a dozen uniformed FARC soldiers drinking fruit juice in the town of Puerto Vega, a column of two dozen paramilitary troops marching along the road from their base in El Placer.But each side appeared to be on a war footing, reluctant to talk or allow passage into areas they control. Over four days last week, guerrillas and paramilitary forces clashed around La Dorada, a strategic point along the only highway from Ecuador.Meanwhile, the spraying campaign has moved east to neighboring Caqueta province, where last month Americans hired by the State Department to make spraying flights came under guerrilla fire during a rescue mission.Colombian military officials said that, for the moment, spraying and rapid strikes against drug production labs would remain their primary tactics. The strategy, while not changing the security situation on the ground, has two purposes: undermining guerrilla finances and biding time until U.S. military hardware in the form of more than 50 transport helicopters arrives later this year.The third of three U.S.-trained anti-drug battalions is scheduled to be ready for the field by May."This is going to be a sustained fumigation effort," said a senior Colombian military official managing the anti-narcotics battalions.Local officials say the military is getting help from the paramilitary groups, who have effectively taken over many towns and urban centers in Putumayo. Paramilitary troops still camp at Villa Sandra, a fenced compound on the road between Puerto Asis and the military base in Santa Ana."The advance of paramilitarism here coincides with the advance of Plan Colombia," said German Martinez, the local people's ombudsman who completed his assignment last week. "When the military says it is striking paramilitary crops and labs here, it is a lie."Gen. Mario Montoya, head of the joint anti-drug task force carrying out Plan Colombia's military component, said recently that the price of coca has doubled to $1,500 a kilogram since the spraying began chipping away at supply. But farmers here said the going rate for a kilogram of coca paste, which is later processed into powder form to make cocaine, has risen only slightly to about $1,000 a kilogram.However, the spraying has frightened many farmers, who say they have no plans to begin replanting drug crops until they are sure the spraying is finished. Colombia's prosecutor general has opened an investigation into the spraying campaign, which farmers here say has killed animals and sickened children; the probe could open the door to damage claims or criminal complaints.Janeth Sanchez, 22, said she lost five acres of coca in the spraying as well as six acres of corn, bananas and sugar cane. She said several hundred fish she cultivated in a backyard pond also died from the herbicide.A sign hangs in front of her cement-block house reading: "For sale: tinga seeds," a type of coca particularly susceptible to herbicide. Sanchez has 2,000 plants sheltered under a tent in her back yard. "Almost no one wants them right now," she said.Arnulfo Ardila, a farmer and friend of Sanchez, is planting a wheelbarrow-full of new seeds. He was not touched by the spraying and believes the market will soon shift again to make the plants a valued commodity. "Here the social development money won't work," he said. "The people are promised the money and the government never delivers it. Soon people will want these plants again."Pastrana has expressed fear that, without a rapid infusion of aid, farmers here will turn back to coca crops. In a recent interview, he said he would seek additional social development aid from the United States, perhaps as much as $500 million a year.But in western Putumayo and in Puerto Asis, where more than 500 families have agreed to uproot coca in exchange for a subsidy to help them start new crops, no money has arrived. Last year, farmers were told that they would have a choice between as much as $4,000 in cash that could be invested in new ventures or an equivalent amount of crops, livestock and other assistance to help them turn illegal farms into legal ones. That choice has been eliminated; farmers now are offered $1,000 worth of products. In return, they must pull up coca crops a year after the money arrives."This is very complicated and will depend on a lot of factors," said Ruben Dario Pinzon, an official with Plante, the government agency supervising the crop substitution program. "First, the violence must end."Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.El Tigre, Colombia Source: Washington Post (DC) Author: Scott Wilson, Washington Post Foreign ServicePublished: Tuesday, March 6, 2001; Page A18 Address: 1150 15th Street Northwest, Washington, DC 20071Copyright: 2001 The Washington Post Company Contact: letterstoed washpost.comWebsite: Related Articles:Drug War Called Threat To Amazon Crops Spared in Colombia's Coca War Program Hurts Colombia's Small Farmers
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