The Miami Herald
January 23, 2001

Troops launch blitz on Colombian coca

Food crops killed, some farmers say


 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 coca bushes,
 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 by Washington,
 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 allowed the
 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 operations.

 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
 among valley

 La Hormiga, with 18,000 people, does about $500,000 a week in coca business,
 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 have long
 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 15,000 acres,
 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 since the
 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 of the
 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 the planes,
 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 farmers take
 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
 and clinics.