Colombia weighs fresh tack in drug war

President Alvaro Uribe has said that the government will start buying coca to halt the cocaine trade.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

In a bid to further eliminate coca crops and cut off funding for armed rebels, President Alvaro Uribe has proposed that the government pay peasant farmers for their coca crops.

Uribe made the bold and controversial offer late last month at a town hall meeting in the central region of Meta. "This has to be very serious. Hand over the coca and take the money," he said with his trademark folksiness. "As at the country fair, hand over the pig, take the money."

Until now, the focus has been on the fumigation of coca crops, though other strategies have included manual eradication by peasants guarded by police, and paying farmers to protect forests while eradicating coca.

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Under Plan Colombia, the US also provides some farmers with alternate livelihoods in exchange for eradication.

Uribe's offer, designed to win over peasants who are the base of left-wing rebels known as the FARC, illustrates a desire to promote innovative ways of slowing cocaine production in what could be the last year of his presidency.

This is also the last official year of the $3 billion antinarcotics and antiterror "Plan Colombia."

Fumigation remains in place

But it remains unclear whether the president's proposal is serious - or just political rhetoric. And observers caution that the government isn't changing strategies in the drug war, despite fumigation's limitations.

"When they fumigate 130,000 hectares and the reduction is very small, there's a problem," said Francisco Thoumi, an expert on the drug war who works at Bogotá's Rosario University. "Fumigation isn't 100 percent effective."

Nonetheless, fumigation has been Uribe's weapon of choice to reduce coca in Colombia, which produces 90 percent of the world's cocaine.

Since he took office in 2002, more than 130,000 hectares have been sprayed per year - using American planes and money - with a chemical called glysophate.

Coca crops dropped 15 percent from 2002 to 2003, but only 7 percent from 2003 to 2004 despite increased fumigation, according to the United Nations.

"We have had a policy of success through fumigation," Interior and Justice Minister Sabas Pretelt recently told the Colombian Congress.

But the price of cocaine on US streets has not surged, indicating that there has been no real decline in the amount of coca coming from Colombia.

The Colombian government claims the stalemate is because each hectare is now yielding more coca, and further argues that production is being stoked by competition among armed insurgents and drug traffickers to sell their goods at the lowest price. It also argues that sellers have a large supply of cocaine in the pipeline waiting to be sold.

A controversial proposal

Given the challenges, the government is using all weapons at its disposal, including the controversial idea of becoming a buyer of the illegal crop. But the criticism at home and abroad has been harsh.

Naysayers contend that the government simply doesn't have the budget for such a proposal. One kilogram of cocaine base, according to the UN, went for $807 in 2004. With 80,000 hectares of coca plants in 2004, the program could potentially cost more than $64 million.

Furthermore, critics contend that the offer will drive up cocaine prices and actually spark the growth of more coca. And they ask how the government is going to verify that peasants don't return to their old ways. "It's absurd from the economic point of view," says Congressman Gustavo Petro, a frequent Uribe critic.

Mr. Petro explains that armed groups who traffic in drugs like the FARC and right-wing paramilitaries would only raise their prices above the government offer.

"It won't solve the issue of narco-trafficking," Petro says. "The farmer will sell to the highest bidder."

The US has also been critical of the project, citing examples in other countries like Bolivia where similar strategies failed.

Fighting the FARC

Uribe's government insists that the proposal is necessary at a time when it believes it is winning the war against the FARC and is demobilizing the paramilitaries through a peace process.

In Meta, for instance, the government says that a stubborn battle with the FARC has them on the run.

"The advance of military operations has made [the coca trade] more difficult and has created a favorable environment for the farmer to get out of this illegal activity," said a presidential statement.

Supporting farmers

Typically, peasants sell their coca to the FARC and paramilitaries, who then refine and either sell it to drug cartels or transport it themselves to the US and Europe.

Colombian and US authorities hope that cutting off the sources of funding for the rebels will help end the bloody 41-year war.

But neither the offer to pay peasants for coca, nor other methods of eliminating it, provides farmers with an alternative to live on, suggesting that they will rapidly regrow in order to survive.

"You have to do something with the farmer," Mr. Thoumi says. "You have to give him employment."

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