January 15, 2001

Colombian governors slam U.S.-backed drug-offensive



                  BOGOTA, Colombia (Reuters) -- Governors from key cocaine-producing
                  regions in Colombia on Monday condemned a U.S.-backed plan for aerial
                  spraying of drug crops, saying the operation would imperil the livelihood of
                  thousands of poor peasants.

                  With U.S. funding, the Colombian army is set to launch a massive military push
                  in the country's south to combat the Andean nation's booming drug industry.

                  The almost $1 billion in mostly military aid for
                  President Andres Pastrana's "Plan Colombia,"
                  approved by the U.S. Congress last July, is aimed
                  at eradicating illicit fields of coca and cutting the
                  funding of leftist guerrillas who protect and profit
                  from the trade.

                  But a group of governors on the frontline on the
                  war against drugs said they would present in an
                  upcoming meeting an alternative plan urging
                  Pastrana's government to stop aerial spraying of
                  herbicides and instead fund crop-substitution
                  programs to wean peasants from their dependence
                  on drug crops.

                  "The real problem is the terrible situation in which
                  thousands of peasants live in Colombia," said
                  Guillermo Alfonso Jaramillo, governor of the
                  southwestern province of Huila. "We can't run
                  over their livelihoods without giving them
                  opportunities to grow other crops," he told

                  Human rights groups say block aid

                  On Friday, major human rights groups called on
                  U.S. President Bill Clinton to block what remained
                  of the Washington aid package, accusing
                  Colombia's army of not severing ties with
                  right-wing death squads.

                  Right-wing paramilitaries, who often target civilians suspected of collaborating
                  with leftist rebels, were blamed for the execution-style killings of at least 20
                  peasants in separate attacks throughout Colombia over the weekend, police and
                  local media said.

                  The governor's plan, which is to be made public at a national meeting of
                  governors scheduled for February 15-16, is backed by at least six governors,
                  including the governor of Putumayo, which grows 50 percent of the country's
                  coca leaf -- the raw material for cocaine.

                  On the lawless southern border with Ecuador, jungle-covered Putumayo is seen
                  as ground zero for the offensive, which would employ Black Hawk helicopters
                  to transport anti-narcotics battalions.

                  Colombia, the world's No. 1 producer of cocaine, is in the grip of a four-decade
                  conflict that has left 35,000 civilians dead in the last 10 years. The war pits leftist
                  guerrillas against right-wing paramilitaries and the armed forces.

                  U.S. and Colombia drug officials say the country's main guerrilla force, the
                  Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), takes in millions of dollars a
                  year from the drug trade.

                  The United States has insisted it wants to target drug traffickers and not be
                  drawn into an expeditionary guerrilla war.

                  In neighboring Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez on Monday urged Clinton's
                  successor, President-elect George W. Bush, to think again about supporting Plan
                  Colombia. "I hope that the new (U.S.) government will reconsider Plan
                  Colombia," Chavez said in a televised address to Congress.