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
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
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
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
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
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
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.