Stepped-Up Coca Battle Ignites Debate

Stepped-Up Coca Battle Ignites Debate
Posted by FoM on April 16, 2001 at 10:32:14 PT
By Juan O. Tamayo
Source: Miami Herald
From the air, a Colombian police raid to spray herbicide on coca fields is a graceful aerial ballet of swirling crop-dusters and menacing helicopter gunships that drape a stream of household weedkiller on the coca bushes below. But the view is different from the ground. Coca farmers describe it as an indiscriminate rain of poison that kills their food crops as well as the coca, makes children and animals sick and devastates the ecology of Colombia's Amazon River Basin. 
Three months into a U.S.-financed assault on Colombia's cocaine industry, the stepped-up use of aerial spraying has become the most controversial facet of the $1.3 billion U.S. counter-narcotics aid package.The State Department, which is pumping $115 million into the spraying program this year, announced recently that it will again study the human health effects of the herbicide used, glyphosate, commonly sold as Roundup. But that is hardly likely to satisfy critics.National Ombudsman Eduardo Cifuentes has demanded a halt to all spraying, saying that ``indiscriminate'' raids were hitting farmers who already had agreed to uproot their coca in return for government ``no-spray'' promises.U.S. and Colombian officials insist that extensive aerial spraying is the only effective way of curbing the explosive growth of illegal coca farming -- which often happens under the protective gaze of leftist or rightist gunmen.The crop area grew from 301,000 acres in 1999 to 336,000 last year, an 11.6 percent increase, and double the 1997 estimate.Bleak History: But the history of the aerial spraying campaign is not a hopeful one.Police statistics show that even as aircraft sprayed nearly 650,000 acres from 1994 to the end of 2000, Colombia's total coca acreage grew more than threefold -- from 97,265 acres in 1994 to 336,000 last year.Even so, officials insist it's the only way.``Coca is like cancer. You may need surgery, maybe a special diet. But you also need chemotherapy,'' said Gonzalo de Francisco, President Andrés Pastrana's point man on the eradication campaign.Trying to dispel the criticisms, Colombian and U.S. officials recently gave The Herald an unusually detailed look at Colombia's main operational center within the Larandia army base, 235 miles southwest of Bogotá.Complex Mission:It is an extraordinarily complex operation, run by the National Police with heavy help from the U.S. State Department's International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Bureau -- the INL -- and DynCorp, a Virginia security services firm contracted by the State Department.The State Department's Air Wing owns the T-65 and OV-10 spray aircraft and Huey helicopter gunships -- it prefers to call them ``escorts'' -- while the INL pays for DynCorp's services, the glyphosate and other related costs.DynCorp hires mostly Latin American spray pilots because they need Spanish to coordinate with the police. But Americans predominate among the helicopter pilots, mechanics and rescue teams. A helicopter had to drop into a firefight three weeks ago to recover the crew of a chopper shot down by guerrillas.Colombian police officers usually copilot the gunships and man the multibarreled machine guns they jokingly call ``the girls.''Most mornings, a twin-engine civilian airplane under contract to DynCorp flies over a known coca field nearby to calibrate its multispectrum camera, then heads off to photograph long strips of farmlands and jungle.The camera locks in on the infrared signature of the chlorophyll in coca leaves -- the source of cocaine -- while U.S. military satellites allow it to pinpoint their location within a foot.Finding Targets:DynCorp's American computer analysts later run the data through a computer program that highlights the coca fields.Then they select a couple of potential target areas -- usually five miles long and four miles wide -- for approval by police counter-narcotics officials.Next, the analysts and the chief police pilot plot the mission on their computers. Each mission normally consists of three to five crop dusters flying nearly abreast for five-mile ``spray paths'' precisely set by the satellites.Each pilot's assigned paths are loaded on a computer memory card that is then plugged into his aircraft, guiding him to his targets and recording every step of his flight, including exactly where he dropped the glyphosate.Far slower than the 110 mph crop dusters, two gunships station themselves at the start and halfway point of each path and protect half the run. A fifth helicopter, carrying the mission commander and a rescue team, remains high above the ``package.''Flying as low as 50 feet, each airplane lays down a 170-foot wide stream of glyphosate, with the pilot using the computers to approach his targets but manually pulling the spray trigger when he's over coca fields.To avert complaints, pilots are under orders to stop spraying when winds reach seven mph to prevent the herbicide from drifting outside their target zones, and when they fly over villages or rivers.``From my point of view, this is the most accurate possible system,'' said the chief pilot at Larandia, a Colombian. ``We don't want to be in the newspapers, and if we make a mistake they hang us.''Still, the chief pilot acknowledged, mistakes happen. Spray nozzles sometimes stick open, and officials in the government's alternative crop programs have occasionally provided police with the wrong map coordinates for ``no spray'' coca fields.Gunfire and mechanical malfunctions can also force pilots to pull the red ``DUMP'' switches in their cabins, releasing their glyphosate because they cannot land with a full tank -- 300 to 350 gallons, weighing up to 2,800 pounds.``At the end of the day, it's the pilot who pulls the trigger, flying fast at tree-top level and worrying all the time about gunfire,'' the chief pilot said. ``It's not the same as spraying rice, you know?''Admission of Errors:De Francisco, the president's point man on eradication, has admitted that 11 ``no-spray'' areas were treated during the Dec. 19 to Feb. 2 campaign that sprayed some 50,000 acres in the southern state of Putumayo, home to nearly half of Colombia's coca acreage.But government officials and coca farmers in Putumayo complain that the mistakes were far worse, killing nearly 5,800 acres of legitimate crops such as plantains, yuca and corn, as well as poisoning several fish ponds.Note: U.S.-Colombia fight on cocaine draws farmers' ire.Larandia, Colombia Source: Miami Herald (FL)Author: Juan O. TamayoPublished: Monday, April 16, 2001 Copyright: 2001 The Miami HeraldContact: heralded herald.comWebsite: Articles - Colombia
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Comment #4 posted by dedbr on April 17, 2001 at 06:30:14 PT:
Theres Money in Them There Hills
   Ask the oil and coffee companys whats up,they would be able to tell you.
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Comment #3 posted by dddd on April 16, 2001 at 16:44:17 PT
Where did everybody go?
I am still mystified at the relative silence from evironmentalists,andeveryone else.Where is the outrage at this crime against the planet?dddd
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Comment #2 posted by Cuzn Buzz on April 16, 2001 at 11:34:13 PT:
And Then The Rain
Ah yesssssss.....The "Graceful Aerial Ballet". Call it what you want, it is still the dance of death above the heads of the poor.After the antis get over swooning to the beauty of the ballet perhaps they would care to reflect on the gentle rain.You know, the ones that wash the ->*DEADLY CHEMICAL SOUP*Remember oceans? Our oceans are sick, our lakes are sick, as are our rivers and streams. It is bad enough that we who have so high a standard of living must foul our own nest in pursuit of that standard, but we foul the entire planet...for one cause or another.Alas, one cannot truly appreciate ballet while swimming in a sewer.Are drugs really so important that we must assasinate Dame Nature?When the Ballet is over let us go to the Opera....I believe I hear the Fat Lady tuning up! 
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Comment #1 posted by Ethan Russo, MD on April 16, 2001 at 10:52:54 PT:
Disgusting Exercise in Futility
Our policy in Colombia is a crime against nature as well as a crime against humanity. It will no doubt continue, because war is good for business.
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