Colombia Rolling in Cocaine Crop 

  Colombia Rolling in Cocaine Crop 

Posted by FoM on July 17, 2000 at 14:18:13 PT
Peru loses title as No. 1 supplier  
Source: HoustonChronicle 

Without warning, stout concrete barricades rise up in the middle of the highway leading to this jungle town, forcing drivers to slam on their brakes and swerve around them. The obstacles are leftovers from the days when Aguaytia was a narcotics boomtown. Before they were installed in the 1980s, pilots touched down on the road almost daily. With their engines running, they brazenly packed their planes full of drugs, then flew off to Colombia. 
"It took less than five minutes," says Luis Albitres, an agricultural engineer who works in Aguaytia. Although Peru's cocaine industry has largely collapsed, no one has bothered to uproot the barriers. Like war monuments, they remain anchored in place as somber testament to the turmoil of another era. Peru, a nation once awash in cocaine and drug-related violence, is now held up as a cathartic success story in the U.S.-backed assault on the narcotics trade in South America. A few years ago, Peru was the world's leading producer of coca leaf, the raw material for cocaine. But by shooting down drug-smuggling planes, chopping down coca bushes and promoting alternative crops, authorities banished the plant from much of the Peruvian countryside. Upon closer scrutiny, however, it appears that one nation's cure may be another's pox. The coca never really went away; it simply went to Colombia. With a crop of more than 300,000 acres and growing, Colombia has easily supplanted Peru as the world's leading producer of coca. To some observers, coca's spillover into Colombia illustrates why the war on drugs has bogged down into a dispiriting stalemate. Government officials trot out reams of statistics on cocaine seizures, arrests and eradicated drug crops to prove they are making headway. But just as enemy body counts were offered up as progress during the war in Vietnam, critics warn that drug-war statistics lend themselves to a fine parsing of the truth. "You can always show `success' -- with so many coca plants killed and so many kingpins jailed -- and it all sounds very impressive," says Fernando Cepeda, a former Colombian interior minister. "But these numbers don't reflect the overall picture, which is a failure." In Colombia's case, some say, failure may be a charitable description. According to CIA estimates, the nation produced a record 520 metric tons of cocaine last year and 6 metric tons of heroin. Most of it is believed to have been exported to the United States and Europe. Still, U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey says overall cocaine production in South America has fallen in the past five years, mainly because of the crackdowns in Peru as well as in Bolivia, another coca-producing country. "Is this a hopeless cause? The answer is no," says McCaffrey, who directs the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. "We have a regional strategy that is working." Amid troubling signs that coca is making a comeback in Peru, U.S. drug warriors are focusing on Colombia. Last week, President Clinton signed a measure that contains a two-year, $862 million aid package for Colombia. Besides funding crop-substitution programs and aerial spraying of drug fields, the assistance will help the Colombian military pursue Marxist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries who control many of the narcotics-producing regions. "Our counternarcotics package for Colombia was designed with the benefit of knowing what has worked in Peru and Bolivia," Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering told the Senate Appropriations Committee in February. But some analysts warn that such connect-the-dots reasoning masks the true nature of the problem. Like other captains of industry, narcotics traffickers have gone global. When the heavy hand of the law starts bearing down on them in one country, they can pick up and relocate to another. Once the military push into southern Colombia begins in earnest, governments in neighboring countries fear that coca will start spilling into their territory. The phenomenon of drug crops being suppressed in one region only to pop up in another is known as "the balloon effect." Hugo Cabieses, a Peruvian economist, calls it the factory defect of U.S. counterdrug strategy. "Illicit drugs can never be fully eradicated, because they are portable. You can just take them elsewhere," Cabieses says. However inadvertent it was, funneling the Andean coca crop into Colombia has made a bigger hash of things, some analysts say. "Coca production is now concentrated in that part of the continent that least serves U.S. and regional strategic interests," says Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Lindesmith Center, a drug policy research center in New York. That's because Colombia's drug traffickers, guerrillas and paramilitaries are entwined like a three-braided rope. The guerrillas, who have waged civil war for 36 years, and the paramilitaries earn millions of dollars annually from the drug trade. "Today's prediction is that by building up the Colombian army and eradicating more coca, the guerrillas' source of income will dry up, and they will negotiate peace," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said during recent congressional testimony on the U.S. aid package. "It is just as likely that it will lead to a wider war, more innocent people killed, more refugees uprooted from their homes and no appreciable change in the flow of cocaine into the United States." As he strolls through the national palace in downtown Lima in construction boots and blue jeans, Alberto Fujimori looks more like the building's janitor than Peru's president. Fujimori prefers work clothes to three-piece suits, and that's part of his appeal to many Peruvians, who view him as a hands-on problem-solver. In a May runoff vote tainted by widespread accusations of fraud, Fujimori won re-election to a third consecutive term. In Washington, Fujimori is considered a reliable custodian in the drug war. In the past five years, the amount of land under coca cultivation in his country has dropped from 285,000 acres to 96,000 acres, according to CIA estimates. During the same period, the CIA says, the amount of land under coca cultivation in Colombia has jumped from an estimated 125,000 acres to 302,000 acres. Even Fujimori acknowledges that his nation's success has become Colombia's burden. "Drug trafficking goes to the countries that have the best conditions for it to develop," Fujimori says, as he sips tea during an interview in his palace office. "And these conditions are best where guerrillas are working together with the narcos." The masterstroke in Peru's war on drugs, Fujimori says, came in 1992, when police captured Shining Path leader Abimael Guzman. A fanatical communist guerrilla group, Shining Path waged a terror campaign against the state, brutalized Peruvian peasants and became enmeshed in the drug trade. But after Guzman was jailed, the rebel organization unraveled, allowing authorities to regain control of the countryside. "Once we defeated the terrorists, then we began to take on the drug traffickers," Fujimori says. Colombians frequently implore their government to follow Fujimori's example. The hitch, experts say, is that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the nation's largest rebel army known as the FARC, is older, larger, richer and far more powerful than Shining Path ever was. "Comparing Shining Path to the FARC is like comparing a college baseball team to the New York Yankees," says a U.S. official familiar with counternarcotics efforts in Peru and Colombia. Peruvian drug traffickers, in turn, are widely perceived as minor-leaguers compared with the Colombians. Traditionally, Peru's role in the drug trade has been to provide Colombian drug cartels with coca paste, an unrefined form of cocaine made from coca leaf that is later turned into powder at jungle laboratories. Peruvian authorities sought to break this link. Special police units chopped down coca plants, while the military forced down drug-laden aircraft bound for Colombia. These operations effectively dismantled the so-called "air bridge" between Peru and Colombia and reduced the demand for Peruvian coca. As a result, prices for coca leaf fell, and many farmers began to plant alternative crops. Farther south, Bolivia, another key supplier for Colombian cartels, attacked its coca crop with a vengeance. In the past five years, Bolivia's coca production has plunged from 120,000 acres to 54,000 acres. President Hugo Banzer has vowed to destroy nearly all the plants by 2002. "There's been unbelievable success. It is unarguable. It is dramatic. And it is sudden," says McCaffrey. Yet in an alarming trend, the market for Peruvian coca leaf is rebounding. Narcotics traffickers are now paying about $2 per kilogram of leaf, nearly triple the price of two years ago. Following the cutoff of smuggling routes to Colombia, authorities say, Peruvians began making cocaine themselves and exporting the product to Europe. Police have raided warehouses filled with cocaine along the country's Pacific coast. Up to 2.5 metric tons of Peruvian cocaine have been discovered in vessels bound for Russia and Europe. "When we start stumbling upon a ton of coke," says a U.S. Embassy official in Lima, "it means that there's a lot more that we didn't stumble upon." Across the border in Colombia, authorities are stumbling upon thousands of acres of freshly planted coca. When their pipeline of Peruvian and Bolivian coca paste was cut off, experts say, Colombian cartels prodded local farmers to plant more of the crop. Today, the cartels no longer need to look south for their coca. It's right in their own back yard. Under the scorching Colombian sun, Jose Leon straddles a 4-foot-tall coca bush with his legs and starts stripping off the leaves. Soon his burlap shoulder bag brims with coca. Leon handles the plants like an old pro. But a few years ago, he had nothing to do with drugs. Leon and his brother, Alexander, raised cattle on their family's farm near the town of Cartagena del Chaira in Caqueta, a remote, guerrilla-infested state in southern Colombia. But after a family feud, the farm was split up and the cows were sold. The brothers ended up with only a few dozen acres of pasture. When they studied their options, there seemed to be only one logical choice. The region was teeming with drug smugglers eager to supply peasants with coca seedlings and to give them credit to get started. More important, prices for coca leaf far outstripped what the Leons could earn from any legal crop. "We have to do this. There is no other way to make a decent living," Jose says as he moves down the row of coca bushes. Yeoman farmers like the Leons are sowing coca the length and breadth of Colombia. In just five years, the crop has metastasized to 22 of the country's 32 states. What's more, drug traffickers have set up industrial-size coca plantations that employ scores of workers and produce tons of cocaine. "If you were to let it go, (coca farmers) would expand right into the Amazon basin and destroy the most natural virgin jungle on the face of the Earth," says a U.S. official familiar with Colombia's counternarcotics program. "They would just go hog wild." Deforestation isn't the only biohazard of the cocaine trade. Since 1994, the Colombian government estimates that peasants have used more than 900,000 tons of precursor chemicals -- such as ammonia, potassium permanganate and sulfuric acid -- to produce coca paste. The chemicals have contaminated crop lands and water supplies. In an effort to halt the expansion of the coca frontier, the Colombian government plans to provide drug farmers with incentives to grow legal crops and to bring an array of social development programs to forgotten rural areas. One of the key components of the U.S. counterdrug strategy for Colombia, however, is the aerial eradication of narcotics crops. Authorities vow to spray about 200,000 acres of coca this year. For the Leons, crop-dusting planes aren't the only threat to their livelihood. A few days earlier, Colombian soldiers torched their crude laboratory where they had turned coca leaves into paste. As the brothers inspect the smoldering building, a neighbor who is lending a hand in the coca fields doubles over and vomits after spilling insecticide on his arms and chest. Alexander leads the man to a nearby stream to wash off the poison, then takes him home and offers a spoonful of lard to induce more vomiting. Despite the inglorious nature of the work, the Leons vow to press on, to rebuild their lab and plant more coca. To explain why, Alexander retreats to his bedroom and emerges with a plastic bag filled with pungent, dirty-white coca paste. For the kilo bag, the Leons will clear about $100 -- enough to buy the bare necessities for another month. "As you can see, it's not easy," Alexander says. "You get sick, and you're always dirty. But things are better with coca." McCaffrey, a retired four-star Army general who won three Purple Hearts in Vietnam and served in the Persian Gulf War, is not about to concede any ground in the drug war. Sitting in the back seat of an armored Chevrolet Suburban during a visit to the Colombian capital of Bogota, the U.S. drug czar brushes aside the importance of the balloon effect and reiterates that total Andean coca production has, in fact, dropped off. In Peru, Bolivia and Colombia, combined coca acreage has decreased from 530,000 acres in 1995 to 452,000 acres today, according to CIA estimates. That means potential South American cocaine production fell from 930 metric tons to 765 metric tons -- an 18 percent drop. Critics reply that 765 metric tons is far more than the world's demand. In the United States, prices for cocaine have fallen, a sign that there may be a glut of the drug on the market. What's more, new markets are being developed in Europe and former Soviet-bloc nations. "If the drug war were working, wouldn't the cost of heroin and cocaine be more today than it was 20 years ago? Well, it's a lot less," New Mexico Gov. Gary E. Johnson, a strong critic of U.S. narcotics policies, says in a telephone interview. But where others see gaffes, McCaffrey sees glory. He predicts that by turning the cross hairs on Colombia with the $862 million U.S. aid package, Andean cocaine production will continue its downward spiral. "Now is the time for a major offensive," McCaffrey says. The U.S. package is part of a larger, $7.5 billion initiative by the Bogota government called "Plan Colombia." Designed to target guerrillas and paramilitaries in drug-producing areas, the plan, in theory, will open the door to increased aerial fumigation, raids on drug laboratories, interdiction of drug aircraft and other missions. Some observers warn, however, that results can zig when they were supposed to zag. Because the 130,000-person Colombian army is top-heavy with officers and short on combat-tested troops, three elite U.S.-trained counterdrug battalions will be created from scratch. Two of the battalions will be stationed in Putumayo and Caqueta states, guerrilla strongholds and sites of the army's most humiliating battlefield meltdowns. Bruce Bagely, an international studies professor at the University of Miami, warns that legions of coca farmers who will likely be displaced by the military push may end up joining the guerrillas. "The unintended outcome may well be to strengthen the guerrilla movement by driving thousands of embittered and poverty-stricken peasants into its ranks," he says. They may also be driven into Ecuador. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has warned Ecuadorean officials to expect many displaced Colombians once the military offensive gets under way. Others foresee an ongoing balloon effect. When crop-dusters targeted Colombia's Guaviare and Meta states three years ago, coca farmers migrated south to Putumayo and Caqueta states. When spraying intensifies in those areas later this year, analysts predict that coca farmers will move deeper into the jungle. Meanwhile, officials in neighboring Venezuela, Ecuador, Brazil and Panama fear that the drug trade will be channeled into their nations. Throughout the Amazon basin, experts say, some 52 million acres could be converted into coca lands. Already, a few small coca fields have been spotted and eradicated in Panama and Ecuador. And during a recent raid by Venezuelan police, agents discovered four cocaine laboratories and 27 acres of coca bushes near the Colombian border. "We've never before seen a situation like this in our country," says Venezuelan Vice President Isaias Rodriguez. The U.S. official familiar with counternarcotics efforts in the Andean region says the American aid package for Colombia includes more crop-dusters and escort helicopters, which will be used for lightning fumigation strikes at the first sign of new coca plantations. He also downplays the threat to other nations. "At the first sign of any type of cultivation on a large scale, they have to go in and attack it right away," he says. Still, Colombian Defense Minister Luis Fernando Ramirez warns that Colombia's neighbors had better brace themselves. "Even if, hypothetically, Colombia succeeds in eradicating these crops, surely there will be people in other countries producing drugs," he says. Fast Facts:· Colombia, the world's leading producer of cocaine, now also is the biggest source of coca, the plant used to make the drug. · The amount of land under coca cultivation in Peru has dropped from 285,000 acres to 96,000 acres during the past five years, according to CIA estimates. During the same period, the amount of land under coca cultivation in Colombia has jumped from 125,000 acres to 302,000 acres. · Coca now grows in 22 of Colombia's 32 states. · Colombia produced a record 520 metric tons of cocaine last year and six metric tons of heroin, according to the CIA. By John Otis

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E-mail: hci chron.comAguaytia, Peru Published: July 16, 2000Copyright: The Houston ChronicleAir Support in Peru's Coca Growers Protest US Antidrug Policies Drug Control or Bio Warfare?

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