SAN JOS DEL GUAVIARE, COLOMBIA — San Jose Del Guaviare is not your average town. It is one of Colombia's coca capitals; locals estimate that the leaves that are later stomped and steeped into cocaine make up 90 percent of the town's economy. Outside the city, almost every farmer has at least a little patch of coca to supplement the meager profits made on legal crops.
It follows that San Jos is also the center of the Colombian government's coca-fumigation program. And that means gringos are here.
"Have you ever seen an Iowa cornfield?" asks one of the American civilian flight instructors working at the antinarcotics base in San Jos. "It's like that. We could spray forever, there's so much coca."
The fact that the US declared Colombia an uncooperative ally in the drug war last February doesn't mean joint efforts have ceased. In fact, the fumigation program in San Jos and other antinarcotics aid has steadily grown since Colombia has been "decertified." Along with planes, helicopters, and fumigation equipment have come US civilian pilots, technicians, and a search-and-rescue team. While political hard feelings continue between the Colombian and US governments, there seems to be no trace of discord here on the ground.
"The Colombians seem pretty committed to me," says a US helicopter technician. (All of the US citizens working on the base asked that their names be withheld.)
Crop-dusting in the jungle involves some tricky flying, and the planes have been drawing an increasing number of bullets from the coca fields below.
"We're bringing them back [from the fumigation flights] shot up," says the technician.
In response, the police decided to start flying helicopters closer to the planes, armed with US made M-60 machine guns, to discourage resistance. Now it's the helicopters that get shot at.
One of the US instructors died when his single-propeller crop-dusting plane crashed. Two other planes have gone down, and several Colombian police have been shot while destroying cocaine labs.
Both the Americans and Colombians say they sometimes feel underequipped to deal with the amount of coca, given the increasing number of rounds of ammunition the narcotraffickers are firing at them.
The coca growers don't find the program amusing either.
"If there's one thing the campesinos [peasants] hate, it's those fumigation planes. They would take great pleasure in knocking down every one of them," says the Rev. Belarmino Corea, the Roman Catholic bishop of Guaviare.
Bishop Corea says he doesn't believe that coca-growing is good for the region. But he says it is how most of the local farmers survive. Many of the growers came here fleeing violence in other parts of the country, and they see few other choices for making a living. The fumigation is hitting small growers hardest, and the government isn't providing alternatives, Corea says.
"The fumigation has practically destroyed their economy," Corea says. "It's an illegal [economy], but it's still their economy."
While crop-dusting over the last five years has drastically hit San Jos, coca production in Colombia overall went up 32 percent in the last year, according to US government estimates. This figure has caused speculation about whether the program is worth the risk and expense.
"The program is counterproductive," says Coletta Youngers, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America, a US policy research group. After visiting the area, Ms. Youngers concluded that the fumigation program was only pushing coca farmers farther into the jungle, or sometimes leaving them no economic alternative but to join the leftist guerrillas, who control most of Guaviare.
Even some of the Colombian police and US pilots wonder if it's worth it.
"These kids aren't stupid. They don't want to die over these weeds, either," one US technician says.