Troops launch blitz on Colombian coca
Food crops killed, some farmers say
BY JUAN O. TAMAYO
LA HORMIGA, Colombia -- Launching the U.S.-backed counter-narcotics
offensive known as Plan Colombia, army troops and police have begun a land and
air assault on a valley that holds one-third of Colombia's coca fields.
The joint operations are the central element of the ``Push into
the South,'' a
two-year plan to eradicate Putumayo's coca and the first phase of Plan Colombia,
designed to destroy half the nation's cocaine industry and strengthen its
war-beleaguered government in five years.
Reports suggest the blitz is destroying thousands of acres of
driving up coca prices and throwing itinerant coca leaf pickers out of work around
the valley in the southern state of Putumayo.
But poor farmers are complaining that the herbicide sprayed by
police airplanes to
kill the coca is also killing their food crops and could unleash waves of hunger and
refugees across the region.
As scripted in a $1.3 billion aid package approved last summer
about 1,800 U.S.-trained troops and 15 U.S.-supplied ``Huey'' helicopters began
raiding coca fields and protecting the crop-dusters in Putumayo on Dec. 13.
The government's reinforced military presence in the region has
low-flying spray planes to stage their first-ever massive raids in the region,
lessening the danger of gunfire from leftist guerrillas paid by traffickers to protect
Their first target: The Guamuez Valley, 1,500 square miles of
rolling hills that hold
110,000 acres of coca, planted right up to the roads, and 1,500 rebels from the
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
Military officials in Bogotá, 440 miles to the north, have
been tight-lipped about
the Guamuez operation, apparently fearing that publicity would fuel resistance
La Hormiga, with 18,000 people, does about $500,000 a week in
and even an 18-year-old hotel clerk can give visitors the latest prices for what
everyone calls simply ``the merchandise.''
Resistance has not been overwhelming, but complaints are loud.
``All my corn, yucca and bananas died. What am I going to feed
my family?'' said
José Melo, 34, as he surveyed his three acres of sprayed and withering coca
bushes one mile north of La Hormiga, the valley's main town.
Army officials dismiss the complaints as phony because the farmers
lived off the coca trade and now find themselves targeted by an offensive that
seems to be disrupting their operations.
``We're doing good business,'' said Army Col. Luis Trujillo, commander
of the two
900-man counter-narcotics battalions trained by U.S. Special Forces to
spearhead the operations in the Guamuez.
Nine crop-dusters flying up to five missions a day have sprayed
starting with the La Hormiga area, and reporting less ground fire than expected,
Colombian armed forces officials said.
The stepped-up fumigation is being financed by $115 million from
the U.S. aid
Prices for semi-processed coca paste jumped from $750 to $1,000
spraying started in the area Dec. 22, said Carlos Alberto Palacios, a La Hormiga
sociologist writing his master's thesis on the coca trade.
Many farmers are producing only a low-grade form of paste, known
as glue, made
from leaves picked too early because of fear of the spraying or damage by the
herbicides, selling for $500 per kilo, Palacios added.
Standing by his coca nursery off a dirt road, Fulgencio Molina
said he had
dropped the price of his 22,000 seedlings from 25 U.S. cents to 15 after the
spraying began but had found no buyers willing to plant new bushes.
Troops have torched about 20 small ``kitchens'' where coca leaf
is turned into
coca paste, but raided only one refinery that turns paste into cocaine, apparently
abandoned long before, a regional prosecutor reported. Many leaf pickers appear
to have left the countryside -- enrollment at a school in the hamlet of El Maizal
dropped from 120 children last year to 30 this year -- and towns usually filled on
weekends with pickers now seem as idle on Saturday nights as on weeknights.
The spraying comes atop an outbreak of a plague that Palacios
said has cut coca
production in the La Hormiga area by as much as two-thirds -- a leaf-eating worm
jokingly known here as ``the Clinton.''
``The entire coca trade is stopped,'' said Enrique, code name
for the commander
of 600 right-wing, anti-guerrilla gunmen known as Self-Defense Forces or AUC,
who dominate most of the towns and roads in the valley.
Arriving last September in the valley, controlled for decades
by the FARC, the
AUC fighters drove out the rebels after a series of pitched battles and a string of
assassinations of alleged FARC sympathizers.
U.S. officials said the spraying was begun in AUC-controlled areas
Guamuez because it was unlikely that their gunmen would open fire on the
government crop-dusters, making their runs safer.
Enrique confirmed that his men are under orders not to shoot at
saying in an interview that while he ``taxes'' area coca dealers to finance AUC
operations, ``we are 100 percent in favor of eradication.''
He said he had just completed an operation in which his men helped
their machetes to about 80 acres of coca bushes, in hopes of avoiding the
spraying and destruction of their food crops.
Colombian officials also hoped that starting the spraying close
to La Hormiga
would push area farmers to join a voluntary eradication program the government
has been promoting in other parts of Putumayo since August.
The program offers $2,500 in crop substitution support for each
farmer, plus roads