To Curb Drug Flow, Colombia Sprays Crops, Pays Peasants

JACOBO OTALORA, a Colombian peasant who lives in a wooden shack with his wife and five children on the edge of the Amazon jungle, makes a living from growing coca, the plant used to make cocaine.

"Our greatest dream is to own a cattle ranch," explains Mr. Otalora, as the chickens peck at the dirt floor of his shack in the southern state of Guaviare.

"But we have to grow coca. We have no other income, and we have to feed ourselves," he adds.

Otalora is under government pressure to abandon coca cultivation. Adopting a carrot-and-stick approach, officials have begun to fumigate Colombia's 165,000 acresof coca, heroin poppy, and marijuana plantations while at the same time offering peasants the alternative of growing other crops.

Criticized by the United States for being half-hearted in his fight against drug barons, Colombian President Ernesto Samper made what some say is a rash pledge in February: to eliminate illicit crops in Colombia by February 1997.

The government also stepped up its hunt for the Cali cartel, which supplies 80 percent of the world's cocaine. Last month, the cartel's kingpin was captured and the head of its armed wing surrendered. More are expected to be captured or turn themselves in.

But the eradication program doesn't look as promising as the crackdown on traffickers. The government claims to be on schedule with its goals, but many top aides think total elimination is impossible, and that President Samper's promise was a grave political error.

"He's going to pay for this. I think it was a fatal mistake," says a top anti-narcotics official. Sampar instigated the big crackdown on the Cali cartel and stepped up the eradication program after the US threatened to "decertify" Colombia - cutoff financial aid - if more progress wasn't made.

The government has underestimated by about 100,000 acres the extent of the illegal cultivation, says Sergio Uribe, a United Nations consultant carrying out a survey on drug cultivation in Colombia.

In addition, resources for fumigation are low: five planes and nine pilots. "We need more planes and helicopters," says Col. Jose Gallego, head of the antinarcotics police.

Colombia will receive $16.8 million from the US this year in its war on drugs. But it needs more.

"The costs are going to multiply," says Mr. Uribe, "because the aircraft are being shot at all over the place."

In the last two years, 52 aircraft have been struck and three helicopters shot down while fumigating. Colombian authorities say drug traffickers have offered $200,000 for every aircraft or helicopter brought down. Peasants have been known to string wires between trees to ensnare aircraft.

Although the police claim to have fumigated more than 25,000 acres of large plantations, peasants in Guaviare say smaller plots are being sprayed primarily because the bigger plots pose greater dangers. The government promises to eradicate fields of eight acres or less with forces on the ground.

UN workers in the area say at least 15 legal crops have been sprayed and destroyed during fumigation.

And instead of stopping coca growers, fumigation merely drives many of them to more remote regions. "They fumigate one hectare, you sow two further in the jungle where they can't get you," said one harvester in Guaviare. Another peasant trick is to protect the coca plants by sprinkling honey on them or cutting them down to the stem immediately after fumigation, enabling them to regrow.

The government program to convince peasants to grow other crops relies on favorable loans and the granting of a title to their cultivated land, in exchange for destroying their coca plots. Cattle ranching, corn, yucca, and rubber all provide alternative income, says the government.

But no crop is as profitable as coca. Even in its 10th year of growth, rubber-latex is worth $2,500 per acre per year, whereas a peasant can earn $3,500 from coca per acre per year. Transportation costs from distant regions, like Guaviare, are extremely high, making it impossible to sell products profitably on the national market.

The government has a window of opportunity at the moment with the price of coca at almost half its price two months ago. Pressure on the Cali cartel has slashed the cartel's cash flow.

"But if the price of coca or poppy is high, they will cultivate them elsewhere. They'll have a legal and an illegal plot of land," said Alfredo Molano, a Colombian sociologist.

A lack of trust between the government and peasants has produced an added obstacle for the program. Authorities demand that peasants pull up all their coca plants before they qualify for the credit.

"The people continue to sow coca each day. And I can see why," says Otalora. "We are in a region which has been abandoned by the government." In the frontier zones of Colombia, there is little state presence.

As one peasant family took the chance and began pulling up the coca on its land, a woman threatened, "If they don't keep their promise, we'll have to take up arms."

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