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
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
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,
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
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.