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  Colombian Candidate Questions Plan

By Jared Kotler
Associated Press Writer
Sunday, Aug. 26, 2001; 4:02 p.m. EDT

BOGOTA, Colombia –– A U.S.-backed program for aerially eradicating drug crops here has failed, a front-running Colombian presidential candidate said Sunday, just days before the Bush administration's first high-level visit.

"Today there is more cocaine being produced, more trafficking, more traffickers and larger areas under cultivation," Horacio Serpa, a former interior minister who is leading polls ahead of May's elections, wrote in an editorial in Bogota's Cambio news magazine.

"New and alternative formulas are needed along with a recognition that the (counter-drug) policies applied to date have been a failure," wrote Serpa, a member of the opposition Liberal Party.

Elsewhere Sunday, the army announced that U.S.-trained counterdrug troops seized a jungle refinery where leftist guerrillas were allegedly making gasoline used to process cocaine. It was the first such report of a rebel refinery.

The spraying of cocaine and heroin-producing crops and U.S. troop training are part of a $1.3 billion drug-fighting program approved under the Clinton administration. That program is reportedly undergoing a review.

Top State Department, White House and Pentagon officials are scheduled to arrive Wednesday to discuss future U.S. support for the drug war with President Andres Pastrana's administration. Secretary of State Colin Powell is also considering a stop here next month, officials have said.

The visits come as U.S. policy in the world's leading cocaine-producing nation is being questioned from many angles.

Environmentalists say the spraying is toxic and pushes desperate farmers to cut down more virgin Amazon forest. Peasant farmers say the spraying is killing food crops as well as coca and opium poppies – and making their families ill.

U.S. officials insist the spraying is safe and that only large-scale coca plantations run by drug traffickers are targeted. They stress that Washington is also providing cash assistance to small farmers who agree to voluntarily eradicate their drug plots.

But in his column, Serpa claimed there has been "indiscriminate fumigation" of peasant drug plots, and that accords with small farmers are not working. He called for an "urgent evaluation" of the strategy.

"After spraying more than 500,000 acres (200,000 hectares) of coca, the area under cultivation is three times larger than it was five year ago," Serpa wrote.

He said Colombia should renegotiate its counterdrug aid from Washington, while continuing only to spray large-scale coca plantations following environmental impact studies and with international auditing.

Some voices in Washington are reportedly urging the Bush administration to turn U.S. aid – currently earmarked for counterdrug operations alone – against the country's guerrillas. Critics worry that could draw the United States directly into Colombia's brutal 37-year civil conflict.

Underscoring the rebel links to the drug trade, the army said the refinery seized by its troops near the town of Puerto Asis was an abandoned government installation capable of making 2,000 gallons of gasoline a day for cocaine processing. Coca farmers use gasoline and other chemicals to convert coca leaves into semi-processed cocaine.

The army said six fighters from the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, were killed by members of a U.S.-trained brigade while defending the refinery in southern Putumayo State – Colombia's main cocaine-producing province along the border with Ecuador.

The report could indicate the FARC is having to compensate for government success in stopping drug-making chemicals from entering Putumayo along its labyrinth of rivers.

© Copyright 2001 The Associated Press

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