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.
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.
"We think that because of the greater success of Colombian interdiction, traffickers are losing a lot of cocaine," says the US official. "They find that they can make more money with a smaller amount of heroin that is easier to conceal."
Though Colombian production of the drug is still small compared to that of Asian countries and Mexico, police fear that the cocaine cartels will use their established smuggling routes to quickly expand their share of the US and European heroin markets.
The head of Colombia's antinarcotics police, Gen. Jose Serrano, said recently that the force would focus on destroying the budding heroin trade in 1992. So far during this year's first operation in Tolima state, police have eradicated 1,470 acres of poppy. Since raids began last year more than 4,000 acres have been destroyed by hand.
There's much more where that came from: In the central and southwestern mountains, authorities have located a total of 5,540 acres of poppy, enough to produce more than 5,000 pounds of heroin in one harvest. Several traffickers have already been caught in the US with very pure heroin samples that police believe were made in small laboratories scattered throughout Colombia.
To attain the goal set by General Serrano, police say they need to spray fields with glyphosate, an herbicide used in Colombia to eradicate marijuana crops in the mid-1980s. Health Minister Camilo Gonzalez Posso leads the opposition to the spraying. He is the only Cabinet member belonging to the M-19 Democratic Alliance, a political party formed by M-19 guerrillas, who laid down their arms in 1990.
While Mr. Gonzalez maintains that glyphosate spraying would damage the environment and endanger the health of peasants, other experts point out that the chemical is used extensively in commercial agriculture in Colombia and in landscaping in the US.
The US official points out that between 1984 and 1988, the Colombian government sprayed more than 15,000 acres of marijuana cultivations with glyphosate. But the amount of the chemical used in the operations accounted for only 5 percent of Colombia's national total during that time, he says. Police complain that the exhausting labor of manual poppy eradication is made more difficult by the huge size of Colombian cultivations and their location in remote areas controlled by leftist guerrillas.
"Manual eradication is an immense waste of money and personnel," Col. Alfonso Arellano, the antinarcotics police operations chief, told reporters last week.
Paradoxically, President Gaviria's critics in Colombia complain not about the drug traffickers running free but about those behind bars. Pablo Escobar and several other leaders of the Medellin cartel turned themselves in last year under a government leniency program criticized as being far too soft. Escobar is suspected of continuing his cocaine operations and of planning attacks on the rival Cali cartel during visits to the prison from subordinates.
As a result, the government has announced new security measures at the jail, including the rotation of guards and monthly visits by the attorney general. But the real test will be Escobar's trial next year.
Despite questions about Escobar's incarceration, Colombian police must be given high marks in their campaign against all forms of drug trafficking, Western officials say. Gaviria will almost certainly carry those laurels to Washington Feb. 26-27 for an antidrug summit with President Bush and the leaders of Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela, and Mexico.