February 4, 2000
Colombia expects peasants to fight cocaine-crop removal

                  NEIVA, Colombia (AP) -- Authorities are bracing for violent protests by
                  angry peasants when U.S.-trained counter-drug troops push into a southern
                  region this year to wipe out Colombia's largest concentration of cocaine-
                  producing plants, the defense minister said Friday.

                  "It's predictable that there's going to be violence and marches," the official,
                  Luis Fernando Ramirez, told U.S. reporters during a trip highlighting drug
                  eradication efforts.

                  Spearheaded by a new 950-man narcotics battalion, the government intends
                  to move shortly into guerrilla-infested Putumayo State, where authorities
                  estimate about a third of Colombia's coca crop is grown.

                  Colombia supplies 80 percent of the world's cocaine and is a growing heroin

                  Although U.S. officials don't expect to release 1999 figures until later this
                  month, they say Colombia's illicit coca crop increased dramatically -- at least
                  by 50 percent -- from the 106,000 hectares (400 square miles) registered a
                  year earlier.

                  One reason is the increasing involvement of leftist rebels who tax and
                  regulate the drug trade in their vast areas of control. Guerrillas regularly fire
                  on herbicide-spraying planes in defense of peasants' coca plots and fields of
                  heroin-producing opium poppies.

                  On Friday, Ramirez and police director Gen. Rosso Jose Serrano proudly
                  displayed three new Blackhawk helicopters donated by Washington to help
                  eradication efforts.

                  They flew journalists to an opium plot in a steep Andean valley near this
                  southwestern city, depositing the reporters on a 2,300-meter (7,500-foot)

                  As heavily armed police commandos scanned ridges for rebels, a
                  TurboThrush crop-duster dive-bombed the plot. The reporters and their
                  hosts were covered in a drizzle of the herbicide glyphosate.

                  "Militarily, we're ready," Ramirez said of the plan to push into nearby
                  Putumayo State, which officials say would have been impossible without the
                  new battalion, which was activated in December.

                  The U.S. Congress is expected to debate this month a proposed $1.6 billion
                  aid package for Colombia that would pay for two more battalions, dozens of
                  attack helicopters and funds to wean peasants off illegal crops.

                  Ramirez would not specify a timetable for the army's southern thrust, saying
                  President Andres Pastrana's government cannot proceed without a
                  comprehensive strategy for dealing with the tens of thousands of farmers
                  who depend on the income from coca to feed their families.

                  Without providing alternatives, there is a potential for unrest far worse than
                  1996 riots by tens of thousands of coca growers in adjacent Caqueta State
                  in which at least six protesters were killed, he said.

                  The strategy for aggressive aerial fumigation of coca plots in Putumayo is
                  expected to include alternative crop programs. But Ramirez also suggested
                  many coca growers, some recent migrants from war-wracked regions,
                  would have to be relocated elsewhere.

                  "In many cases planes must be ready to transport them," he said.

                  Human rights and U.S. church groups insist the U.S. aid package will fuel
                  human rights abuses in the areas where the counterdrug battalions operate.

                   Copyright 2000 The Associated Press.