By Steven Dudley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday , April 16, 2000 ; A33
PUERTO ASIS, Colombia –– This remote area in southwest Colombia is the
testing ground for a U.S.-backed plan to
persuade small farmers to grow legitimate crops instead of coca, the raw material for U.S.-bound cocaine, and to spray the
traffickers' large coca plantations with herbicides to cut off the destructive flow.
No one could be more enthusiastic about the idea of crop substitution
than Eder Sanchez, who heads the most powerful
farmers union here in the province of Putumayo. But at the same time, no one is more aware of the dangers the government's
Sanchez said he could coordinate the province's traditional farmers
so they "voluntarily and manually" eradicate their coca fields
and use government subsidies to raise cattle, grow Amazonian fruits and cultivate rice, yucca and plantains instead. In three
years, Sanchez proclaimed in an interview, most of Puerto Asis's small-scale coca crops could be gone and the government
would not even need to fumigate areas where farmers live.
But in soft tones in his small three-room house along one of the dirt
roads that run through Puerto Asis, Sanchez also admitted
he is afraid that his project could get him and other small farmers in trouble with those who benefit from the region's coca
production, and that the government would not be able to protect them. "The minute one of us gets killed, we're all going to
have to leave," he said without changing his expression.
Sanchez embodies the hopes and fears of the government for its coca-eradication
project in Putumayo, a remote Colombian
province 300 miles southwest of the capital, Bogota, near the border with Ecuador. Lying between Colombia's Pacific coast
and the Amazon Basin, Putumayo is about the size and shape of New Hampshire, with a population of just 330,000 people.
But its dense jungles, dry flatlands and vast network of rivers are also home to almost half of Colombia's 250,000 acres of
coca fields and hundreds of laboratories that are used to process and ship the cocaine abroad.
Much of the cocaine is consumed in the United States. Last week, worried
lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives
pushed through an emergency aid package of $1.6 billion, most of which goes toward training two special anti-narcotics
battalions and providing helicopters and intelligence equipment for the "Push Into Southern Colombia." If the emergency
appropriations bill passes in the Senate later this month, the money will become part of President Andres Pastrana's $7.5 billion
Plan Colombia--a three-year project to fight drugs and shore up the country's ailing economy, starting here.
More than 1,500 left-wing rebels from the country's largest guerrilla
group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia
(FARC), and 500 right-wing paramilitaries are fighting for control over the drug trade in the province. Both groups use a tax on
local coca growers and large traffickers to finance their war, and any disruption in production is met with harsh reprisals.
"The rebels said they didn't like this process," Sanchez said, referring
to the plan to eradicate coca fields. "What needed to be
done, they said, was to gear up for the coming war."
As outlined in its ambitious proposal, the Colombian government will
pursue a two-pronged strategy in Putumayo, combining
military and social programs. A Joint Southern Task Force that includes 15,000 army troops, police, sailors and air force
personnel will focus on destroying laboratories in guerrilla-controlled territory and driving the FARC out of the region. Other
units will provide support for police airplanes that will fumigate the industrial-size coca fields run by traffickers with migrant
labor in different parts of the province.
During the first two years, Putumayo will also get an estimated $70
million in economic aid. Some of this money will go toward
the 10,000 refugees who the government expects will flee when fumigation begins in the next few months. Authorities say most
of these refugees will be coca pickers from the big plantations that the government says produce most of the cash crop in
The rest of the coca is produced by the small farmers Sanchez represents.
They make up almost half of Putumayo's residents
and could be a knot of resistance to the government's plan--or the measure of its success. They grow other crops like corn,
yucca and rice. And they fear the attempts to fumigate the coca also will kill the rest of their crops, as they did during a similar
effort in the mid-1990s.
The government says it will concentrate on the large fields owned by traffickers and abstain from fumigating small farmers' plots.
"The most important thing about the plan is that we will not fumigate
without having a social plan that is implemented at the same
time or prior to the fumigation," said Fernando Medellin from his office in Bogota, where he heads the government's National
Solidarity Network that is working with Sanchez on the Putumayo project.
But the locals remain skeptical. Puerto Asis authorities and residents
alike said the fumigation has already begun in areas just
outside the city and they knew nothing about a "no-fumigation zone" Medellin said he proposed to Plan Colombia's
coordinators in Bogota.
In the background are the rebels and paramilitaries. Both groups have
reportedly begun forcibly recruiting children as young as
13 for the war they expect to explode in the province once the Joint Southern Task Force begins its offensive. Father Luis
Alfonso Gomez, who works regularly outside Puerto Asis, said he found some villages empty when he visited recently because
the FARC took everyone to the jungle for a one-week training session.
"The people come to me and say, 'You remember that kid? Yeah, he's gone,'
" the priest said. "I got two kids here in the parish
that came to me and said, 'Father, can you take us in because they're dragging the others away.' "
While the FARC controls the countryside, the paramilitaries control
many urban centers in Putumayo, including Puerto Asis.
The city's district attorney, German Martinez, said the paramilitaries also are targeting small farmers they claim collaborate with
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