Colombia's Low-Tech Coca Assault

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 7, 2007

EL MIRADOR, Colombia -- The latest shift in Colombia's war on drugs is evident on a green hilltop in this town, as weather-beaten men in gray jumpsuits -- government-paid eradicators -- use hoes and muscle to rip out bushes of coca. Policemen carrying M-16 assault rifles and land-mine detectors stand sentry, while a radio operator listens in on the crackling conversation between two Marxist guerrilla units.

The operation here in the southern state of Caqueta is tedious, hard and dangerous, since destroying coca is a financial blow to the guerrillas, who draw much of their funding from the crop that is used to make cocaine. But Colombian officials say uprooting by hand is the future -- a strategy at odds with U.S. reliance on aerial fumigation.

Three years ago, almost all coca eradication efforts in Colombia were carried out through aerial spraying. By last year, however, more than 100,000 acres of the crop were destroyed by hand, accounting for almost 25 percent of the coca eradicated. The Defense Ministry said it is designing a plan to uproot 172,000 acres by hand this year.

"We are convinced of the advantages of manual eradication over spraying, and that's why we want to give more importance to manual eradication," Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said in an interview, echoing the views of other officials.

Aerial spraying by crop dusters was sold as a great elixir that would curtail Colombia's coca crop, delivering a lasting blow to the cocaine trade. But after seven years and more than $5 billion in funding from the United States, CIA monitoring of coca shows that this country has as much of the crop as it did in 2001, the first full year of aerial spraying under what is known as Plan Colombia.

U.S. officials say new mapping techniques have allowed them to survey more ground in Colombia than before, making such comparisons unfair. They say a sharp drop in violence during President Álvaro Uribe's five-year tenure shows that the program is undercutting funding for violent groups. And they say that other measurements -- more cocaine labs have been destroyed, and more than 500 drug traffickers have been extradited to the United States since 2002 -- prove that the cocaine trade has been hit hard.

"The cultivation number, as an isolated measure, can be leading some people to believe it's not working," John P. Walters, the White House drug policy chief, said by telephone from Washington. "A more difficult but more important number is how much they are able to produce. It looks like that's down."

Although U.S. officials have not publicly criticized manual eradication, they have repeatedly emphasized their commitment to aerial fumigation. Officials here in Colombia, meanwhile, from Vice President Francisco Santos to officers in the National Police, which carries out anti-drug operations, are publicly taking a stand that contradicts that of the Bush administration.

"We feel that we're on a stationary bicycle," said Santos the defense minister, referring to the results of the spraying program. "We've advanced very slowly. So we have to change our tactics."

The reasons for the shift are manifold:

Coca, once found primarily in Colombia's south, is now cultivated nationwide. Aerial spraying has prompted farmers to abandon large plots for smaller, more isolated ones in regions where legal crops are often grown next to coca. Crop dusters invariably hit the legitimate crops, too, angering farming communities. Fumigation has also hurt relations with neighboring Ecuador, which says the spray from planes is wafting into its territory and damaging farms.

In addition, U.S. and U.N. data show that Colombia, Bolivia and Peru together continue producing more than enough cocaine to meet world demand. Colombia is the only U.S. ally to fumigate drug crops on a large scale.

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