Anti-drug offensive launched in Colombia

U.S.-backed operation targets valley coca fields

January 26, 2001|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

LA HORMIGA, Colombia - Launching the U.S.-backed counter-narcotics offensive known as Plan Colombia, army troops and police have begun a land and air assault on a valley that holds a third of Colombia's coca fields.

The joint operations are the central element of the "Push into the South," a two-year plan to eradicate coca in the southern state of Putumayo and the first phase of Plan Colombia, designed to destroy half the nation's cocaine industry and strengthen its government in five years.

Reports suggest the blitz is destroying thousands of acres of coca bushes, driving up prices and throwing itinerant coca leaf pickers out of work across the valley in Putumayo. But poor farmers are complaining that the herbicide sprayed by police airplanes to kill the coca is also killing their food crops and could unleash waves of hunger and refugees.

As scripted in a $1.3 billion aid package approved last summer by Washington, about 1,800 U.S.-trained troops and 15 U.S.-supplied helicopters began raiding coca fields and protecting the crop-dusters in Putumayo.

The Colombian government's reinforced military presence has allowed low-flying spray planes to stage their first large-scale raids in the region, lessening the danger of gunfire from leftist guerrillas paid by traffickers to protect drug operations. Their first target: the Guamuez Valley, 1,500 square miles of rolling hills that hold 110,000 acres of coca and 1,500 rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

La Hormiga, with 18,000 people, does about $500,000 a week in coca business, and even an 18-year-old hotel clerk can give visitors the latest prices for what everyone calls "the merchandise."

Resistance has not been overwhelming, but complaints are loud. "All my corn, yucca and bananas died. What am I going to feed my family?" said Jose Melo, 34, as he surveyed his three acres of sprayed and withering coca bushes.

The spraying comes atop an infestation that sociologist Carlos Alberto Palacios said has cut coca production in the La Hormiga area by as much as two-thirds - a leaf-eating worm jokingly known here as "the Clinton."

"The entire coca trade is stopped," said Enrique, code name for the commander of 600 right-wing, anti-guerrilla gunmen known as Self-Defense Forces or AUC, who dominate most of the towns and roads in the valley.

Enrique confirmed that his men are under orders not to shoot at the planes, saying that while he "taxes" area coca dealers to finance AUC operations, "we are 100 percent in favor of eradication."

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