ROSAL, Colombia - With the full support of the Colombian president, the United States has begun what U.S. officials say will be the biggest and most aggressive effort yet to wipe out coca production.
A round of aerial spraying to kill Colombia's mammoth drug crops is part of a new phase in the war on drugs. U.S. officials said the spraying, which resumed a month ago, was bigger and more aggressive than before and that if sustained, it could at last make substantial inroads against Colombia's coca crops.
With the approval of new Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, the U.S. plan calls for more crop-dusters operating more hours and with none of the restrictions that officials say hampered spraying programs in the past.
In the Guamuez Valley, the world's richest coca-producing region, the effects are clear.
The crop-dusters have returned, flying low and leaving a fine mist of gray spray in Colombia's coca-growing heartland. Fields of brown, withering coca bushes, whose leaves are used to make cocaine, remain in their wake.
"Look at all this - it was all fumigated," said one farmer, Diomar Montenegro, 49, as he stood in a field of wilting coca bushes in this hamlet in southern Colombia. "I cannot do this anymore. They have put me out in the street."
It is a refrain U.S. officials are happy to hear. In the last large-scale spraying of this region, a two-month onslaught that ended in February last year, the United States said it would concentrate on "industrial size" plots.
U.S. and Colombian officials pledged that small farmers would be spared as long as they had agreed to stop growing coca voluntarily in exchange for modest government benefits.
In reality, many small farms were sprayed. But the spraying ended earlier than U.S. officials had hoped because Andres Pastrana, then Colombia's president, forbade some missions for fear of further alienating peasants in the midst of delicate peace negotiations with leftist rebels.
The result was that 80 percent of the crops sprayed in this province, Putumayo, were replanted, and cocaine trafficking to the United States continued unabated.
Now, Uribe is allowing U.S. officials to plan missions wherever and whenever they see fit, and there is no pretext that small farmers will not be hit. U.S. planners say they intend to cover as much acreage with defoliant as possible to stop the replanting of coca.
"What keeps them from going back to growing coca is the spray plane, and only the spray plane," said an official at the U.S. Embassy who works on the anti-drug programs. "The coca fields are enormous and there are a lot of different owners, and you just have to rub it all out. That is the only way you are going to make this work."
Community leaders say aerial spraying has further impoverished people who turned to coca because it was the only viable moneymaking option.
Farmers also say the spraying has caused a scarcity of food, since their legal crops, planted alongside coca, also die in spraying operations.
U.S. officials involved with the program vow not to retreat, saying that the fact of the matter is that coca farmers are engaged in an illegal activity.
"If we cut and run after initial failure after one year, that wouldn't be a very good sign," said a State Department official.