Colombia braces for assault on coca
BY JUAN O. TAMAYO
SANTANA, Colombia -- Coca grower Luís
Nectario Gómez can almost feel the
rumble of war approaching as U.S.-financed army troops prepare to blitz into the
heart of Colombia's guerrilla-dominated cocaine industry.
``One fears what's coming,'' Gómez
said with a terse frankness as he walked his
small field in the southern Putumayo state, one-sixth the size of Florida but home
to nearly half of Colombia's 300,000 acres of coca.
President Clinton's scheduled visit Wednesday
to the city of Cartagena will show
his support for Plan Colombia, a counter-narcotics onslaught backed by a $1.3
billion U.S. aid package officially released last week.
But soldiers and rebels in Putumayo, the
offensive's first target, have been
readying for a battle that might decide the future of an industry now supplying 90
percent of all the cocaine sold to U.S. consumers.
The leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia, called FARC, has reinforced
its ranks in the region from 900 to 1,500 since May, and another 500 reportedly
arrived last week, Army and Defense Ministry officials said.
FARC rebels are forcing boys as young as
15 to join their ranks and requiring
older peasants, men and women, to undergo weapons training to be ready for the
upcoming ``gringo invasion,'' municipal and church officials said.
Firefights between soldiers and guerrillas
rose five-fold in the past few months and
worse is expected, said Col. Gabriel Díaz, commander of the region's main army
base in Santana, 550 miles southwest of Bogotá.
U.S. Special Forces are training a new army
anti-narcotics battalion 100 miles
north of Santana, and the military will soon move 18 UH-1N ``Super Huey''
helicopters into the region to help assault guerrilla-defended coca plantations
while police crop-dusters spray herbicides.
Right-wing paramilitary groups estimate
that 350 to 800 men are also recruiting
and pushing into FARC strongholds in Putumayo -- sometimes battling the
rebels, more often executing suspected civilian supporters of guerrillas.
Some families have quietly begun sending
their children to safer areas, and
neighboring Ecuador has drawn up plans to receive up to 5,000 refugees across
the border when Plan Colombia kicks into high gear.
Caught between soldiers, rebels and paramilitaries,
and fearing that the
fumigation will also kill their food crops and farm animals, Gómez and 488 other
small-time coca growers around Santana last week offered to uproot their own
bushes -- if the government gives them enough aid.
Colombian officials say there's no set date
for the start of Plan Colombia's push
into Putumayo, the opening shot in a five-year plan to eradicate half the nation's
coca and opium poppy fields.
``It'll take three months to put the military
and social components in place . . . but
that doesn't mean we won't do large operations down there before,'' Defense
Minister Luís Fernando Ramírez said in an interview.
The plan combines stepped-up fumigation
and military interdiction with economic
development programs to wean peasants away from illegal crops, as well as
efforts to strengthen government agencies in the countryside.
Ramírez said the initial phase of
the fumigation campaign will target the estimated
70 percent of Putumayo's coca plantations that are larger than 25 acres, in hopes
that smaller farmers will voluntarily uproot their bushes.
U.S. critics of Washington's growing military
involvement in Colombia -- the
biggest in Latin America since El Salvador in the 1980s -- warn it will suck
America into a counter-insurgency war in a nation twice the size of Vietnam.
Plan Colombia will also intensify the war,
upset ongoing government peace talks
with the FARC and shower herbicides on a richly biodiverse Amazon basin region,
local opponents predict.
``Kennedy sent us hospitals. Bill Clinton
sends us rifles,'' one Putumayo farmer
shouted at a passing group of foreign journalists, referring to President John F.
Kennedy's Alliance for Progress in the 1960s.
President Andrés Pastrana's government
acknowledges Plan Colombia will be an
uphill fight, but insists it is the best chance to attack a narcotics industry that is
eroding the government through corruption and strengthening the rebels through
massive protection payoffs.
``We have a window of opportunity here,
because I don't think it's easy to find
another 300,000 acres with so little government presence, the right soil and a
natural ally for narco-traffickers, the guerrillas who protect the fields,'' Ramírez
But a look at Putumayo shows just how difficult
Plan Colombia's opening ``push
into the south'' will be.
``How else can I feed my family?'' asked
Gómez, 54, whose 7.4-acre coca plot is
part of an 86-acre field farmed cooperatively by 18 families a five-minute drive and
a short walk from Col. Díaz's heavily sandbagged headquarters.
From a military helicopter flying at 4,500
feet to avoid guerrilla gunfire, the vistas
are of stunningly vast expanses of coca bushes, many deep in the Amazon
jungle, two just off the airport runway in the town of Orito.
Once home to cattle ranchers and hardscrabble
farmers -- it had three people per
square mile in 1990 -- Putumayo today is little more than a cocaine factory and
bloody battleground for the army, FARC and paramilitaries.
Television satellite dishes sprout from
the tin roofs of peasant homes, farmers
sport gold wrist chains and cultivate so much coca that eggs, corn and plantains
must be imported from neighboring Ecuador.
``This is a coca town,'' said Manuel Alzate,
mayor of Puerto Asís, the state's
largest town with 38,000 people, a rough-hewn kind of place with lots of loud bars,
discothéques and cheap brothels.
Motor scooters and trucks dominate its few
paved streets, and the town was
connected to the national electricity grid only 18 months ago.
Half its homes still lack running water, two-thirds have no sewers.
Of the 65 deaths reported in town this year
52 were violent, most the work of
paramilitary or FARC hit squads. Of the previous five mayors, three were killed
after leaving office, two by guerrillas, one by ``paras.''
``It is a massacre, drop by drop,'' said
parish priest Luís Alfonso Gómez. One of
his predecessors was assassinated by the FARC while saying Mass in 1998,
another left town with ulcers apparently caused by the pressures.
Army troops and paramilitary gunmen control
the town in what Alzate, 60, a cattle
rancher and former priest excommunicated in the 1960s for his liberal politics,
calls ``a peaceful coexistence.''
Díaz said he does not tolerate paramilitaries
and reported his troops killed five in
combat this year. Soldiers have raided one known ``para'' house in Puerto Asís
four times but found nothing because sympathizers in town tip the gunmen, he
The FARC controls most of the countryside,
and its territory starts a five-minute
boat ride from Puerto Asís across the café-con-leche colored Putumayo River,
which marks the border with Ecuador and Peru further downstream.
TAXING THE TRADE
With 1,500-2,000 fighters in Putumayo and
17,000 in all Colombia, the FARC
draws about 60 percent of its income -- $300 million to $500 million a year -- from
``taxing'' the cocaine trade.
Paramilitaries are also into the protection
racket, and Díaz said that of the 12
cocaine refineries raided by his troops this year, nine were protected by FARC
fighters and three by paramilitary gunmen.
``This is not an ideological war. This is an economic war,'' said Díaz.
It is indeed those economics that have made
thousands of Putumayo families
turn to coca cultivation. One hectare of the bush -- 2.47 acres -- can produce an
annual profit of $2,700, a princely sum in a region where a good day's salary is $7
``With the income from this I can send the
kids to school, maybe get the
medicines we need,'' said Luís Nectario Gómez as he showed visitors around his
neat rows of head-high coca bushes, just sprouting new leaves after the last
Gómez was one of 489 small-time coca
farmers from the Santana area who last
week volunteered to uproot their plants if Pastrana's government comes across
with enough economic aid for themselves and the region.
``We're all tired of coca,'' said schoolteacher
Ernestina Cifuentes, 42. ``Too many
widows. Too many widowers. Too many orphans. But without that money we
Alzate and Putumayo Gov. Jorge Devia have
embraced the proposal, arguing it is
preferable to massive fumigations rumored to kill food crops, farm animals and
even humans even though Colombian officials insist the chemicals are safe.
FARC commanders have not said whether they
will support voluntary eradication
-- a key requirement if it is to succeed. And some government officials remain
skeptical. ``They know that if they don't eradicate in the next month I will throw
them in jail,'' Díaz said.