Deadly heroin trade sprouting like poppies in Colombia Early signs show that this business may become as profitable as cocaine.

February 13, 1992|By Dallas Morning News

CHAPARRAL, Colombia -- A new cash crop is spreading across Colombia: the poppy plant, used to make heroin.

The business could be even more profitable and deadly than cocaine, judging by the first signs. Poppies -- almost unknown here just two years ago -- are sprouting in nearly half of Colombia's 30 states.

Already the heroin trade has provoked violence across the country, including killings and land battles. Authorities are worried that an increase in high-purity heroin will touch off a frenzy of price discounting in the United States, making the drug more accessible.

In just one airport -- New York's John F. Kennedy -- 38 heroin smugglers from Colombia were caught last year. Others have shown up in Florida and Los Angeles.

Heroin is far less common in the United States than cocaine, but it is more addictive. Also, it is often injected with hypodermic needles shared by users, raising the risk of AIDS.

In Colombia, the newborn heroin trade is showing signs of producing traffickers as ruthless as the cocaine smugglers in the 1980s.

"If you're planting poppies, you're planting violence," said Col. Alfonso Leon Arellano, who has led national anti-narcotics police on a series of successful poppy raids this year.

Increases in murders, sometimes committed by drunken poppy planters flush with cash, have followed the crop across Colombia, he said.

Police say the rise in heroin traffic from the Andes was made possible by the financial clout and marketing wizardry of drug lords from Cali and Medellin.

"God protect us if the Colombian drug traffickers enter the heroin traffic," said Gen. Miguel Maza Marquez, head of the secret police, when he was forced to retire last summer. Maza upset the government with his calls for all-out attacks on the Medellin drug lords.

Like cocaine, the heroin business has encouraged a dangerous marriage between drug traffickers and well-armed guerrillas. One police report said that the Revolutionary Armed Forces, or FARC, and the National Liberation Army, two leading guerrilla groups, charge 10 percent to 30 percent for protection.

The report said that FARC guerrillas have started their own poppy plantations in and around Cali, known as the base of the country's most powerful cocaine lords.

Less discussed, but also frightening to Colombian and U.S. authorities, is the temptation to Colombia's military, customs service and other authorities to get involved in protection rackets.

Other little-known dangers include deforestation. Traffickers, eager for quick profits, are hiring armies of workers to log trees 6,000 feet to 9,000 feet above sea level, where poppy plants quickly grow to maturity.

When the workers are in a rush, they simply burn the forests.

Last year, a secret police report estimated that 62,000 acres in the country were under poppy cultivation.

A series of helicopter flights over the mountains of Tolima state, near Cali, revealed patches of pristine forest cleared completely, like sand traps on a golf course.

The plantations, always on remote slopes, ranged from the size of backyard gardens to shopping center parking lots. Growers used to conceal poppy plants amid corn, but they have become brazen, letting them grow in the open.

The plants are difficult to identify from far above. But when the helicopters lower, the naked eye can make out distinctive red flowers standing more than two feet above the ground at harvest time.

Colombia is a natural country for heroin traffickers. Over the years, the marijuana and cocaine trade have established direct shipping routes to New York, Los Angeles and Miami. Those are the biggest heroin markets in the United States.

There are even stories -- so far unconfirmed -- about biologists and genetic engineers being flown in from Asia to develop disease-resistant, high-yielding poppy plants for the Andes.

"It's like Iraq building a nuclear reactor," said one U.S. drug expert. "You throw enough money at anything, and you can get the best technical help in the world."

Colombia's climate is so favorable, and its growing techniques so sophisticated, that some areas have four harvests a year, compared with two in many parts of Asia.

In the United States, heroin wholesales for as much as $200,000 per kilogram -- 13 times the price of cocaine in some cities. Heroin is the drug of choice in several European capitals. To the surprise of police, European authorities confiscated hundreds of pounds of Colombian heroin in 1991.

The high profits have set off land grabs. Several massacres of Indians in recent months have been blamed on traffickers desperate for mountain plots.

For now, the only way police can get rid of poppy plants is by wielding machetes. The police officers, paid $28 a week, say the work is tedious and the high altitude tires them.

The government is considering spraying a herbicide commonly known as Roundup to eradicate the poppies. But critics in Colombia's congress are expected to protest any spraying.

The U.S. Embassy, which pays much of Colombia's anti-drug budget, has stayed out of the fray. But some say the Americans are preparing for a publicity campaign.

As one embassy official put it, "Roundup is the kind of stuff you buy in the hardware store and put on your crab grass."

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