Colombian Antidrug Effort Is Challenged By Political Resistance, Cartel Shift to Heroin
COLOMBIAN antinarcotics police are attacking what they call their No. 1 target in 1992 - burgeoning cultivations of poppy blooms that provide the raw material for heroin.Skip to next paragraph
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As Colombian cocaine traffickers have turned to heroin production to increase their profit margins, police have responded with grueling eradication missions. Helicopters are flying physically fit members of the antinarcotics police to nearly vertical hillsides in southwestern Colombia, where they hack away with machetes at the flowers.
This scene best demonstrates the country's continued commitment to the antidrug fight, according to several Colombian and Western officials.
But if chopped-up poppies show authorities' determination, the fields of still-healthy flowers stand as troublesome reminders of an unfinished job. Colombian police have been pressing, so far unsuccessfully, for authorization to spray chemicals on the fields, saying that they can't completely eradicate the cultivations by hand.
"If you're 22 years old, you're too old to do this kind of work," says one United States antinarcotics expert in Bogota.
The administration of President Cesar Gaviria Trujillo has delayed in answering the police request, apparently because of opposition by several prominent politicians.
Other criticism has been aimed not just at chemical spraying but also at the broader antidrug fight. An outcry over US involvement hit a peak earlier this month when newspapers in the city of Cali published allegations by Gustavo Alvarez, a local writer and political organizer, that the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was trying to stir up trouble in Cali and surrounding Valle state. The city is the base for the so-called Cali cartel, now said to be the largest supplier of the US cocaine market.
The mountainous region just east of Cali is the center for the large poppy cultivations first discovered last year.
Even the governor of Valle state, Carlos Holguin, jumped on the anti-US bandwagon started by Mr. Alverez's remarks.
"We don't need the DEA here. We don't want it," Mr. Holguin said.
This prompted the US Embassy to issue a statement pointing out that DEA agents are in Colombia under official agreements to cooperate in the fight against trafficking.
US officials stress that the DEA does not participate in operations, but provides intelligence and training to Colombian forces. Western officials say the rhetoric indicates that drug traffickers still wield substantial influence despite several triumphs over the criminals.
"Whenever I hear this type of anti-US talk, it usually means that some drug-trafficking organization is being hurt and has put the word out to criticize us," says a US antinarcotics expert in Bogota.
Colombian and other officials point to a number of victories as further evidence that traffickers are feeling the pressure. Seizures of cocaine by Colombian police soared to 70 tons in 1991 from 45 tons in 1990.
Authorities show no sign of letting up in the campaign. Last Tuesday, police announced the results of this year's first operation aimed at cocaine traffickers: 10 cocaine-processing laboratories were destroyed and 1,740 pounds of the drug seized in Putumayo state on the border with Ecuador. A police statement says the labs and the cocaine belonged to Cali drug traffickers.
The US official says the increased seizures may partly explain why Colombian traffickers have diversified into heroin production. A kilogram (2.2 pounds) of heroin sells for about $150,000 in the US, where there are some 500,000 addicts. The same amount of cocaine sells for about $20,000.