Colombia Leader Tries to Please US On Drugs, but Ignites Peasant Revolt

Peasant demonstrations over the last two weeks in southern Colombia have left President Ernesto Samper Pizano stuck between pressure from the United States to battle illegal drugs and the need to maintain civil order.

Eager to please a disenchanted US government, President Samper is refusing to cave in to the demand by the peasants to stop fumigating their illegal crops, used to make drugs. But now he must find a way to defuse the anger among peasants that his measures have provoked.

In mid-July more than 50,000 peasants from several remote states in southern Colombia began to converge on large towns to protest the fumigation of their fields of coca, used to produce cocaine, and poppies, which are the base for heroin.

By early August, the demonstrations had turned violent. Two peasants were shot dead and several injured in confrontations with the armed forces. Demonstrators burned vehicles and tried to block local airstrips to disrupt the local economy. And the Army blew up the few roads leading to the main towns in the area to obstruct the way of marching demonstrators.

Samper is standing firmly by a pledge made in February 1995 to eradicate Colombia's 148,000 acres of illegal crops within two years.

The president made the promise, seen by many here as rash, under heavy pressure from Washington to step up Colombia's war against drugs.

A president under siege

Since taking office in August 1994, Samper has been dogged by allegations that his campaign received millions of dollars from the Cali drug cartel.

In June this year Samper was cleared by Colombia's Congress of taking the drug money. But most Colombians remain skeptical of the president's innocence.

The US government shares this skepticism. In March, the US decertified Colombia as a nation cooperating in the fight against drugs.

Last month, Washington canceled Samper's US visa, accusing the president of being an accomplice to drug trafficking.

With a review of Colombia's decertification due next month, and the threat of US economic sanctions ever more likely, Samper is being careful not to misstep.

"The policy of illicit crop eradication is not negotiable," a communique from the president's office said this week.

Few observers say Samper's eradication target will be met by February 1997, the president's stated goal.

"This is not going to be solved this year," said Gen. Harold Bedoya, commander of the Colombian Army, in an interview with the weekly news magazine Cambio 16. "This problem is going to last at least five more years."

Official statistics show that two-thirds of illegal crops have been destroyed. But independent research reveals that the government underestimated the number of acres by about 50,000. In addition, the antinarcotics police count a field fumigated as a field destroyed, which is not always the case.

Last year Colombian authorities said they had destroyed 67,000 acres. But US satellite pictures showed that only about a third of that amount had actually been eradicated.

The most difficult areas have been left until last. Hidden in jungle territory controlled by Colombia's left-wing guerrillas, these fields can be fumigated only at great risk. The Colombian police have pitifully few resources, despite US aid. Currently they have nine helicopters and six planes in operation.

Last year the government set up Plante, a program intended to offer coca growers credit to sow alternative crops such as corn, yucca, and rubber. But only 1,200 out of an estimated 35,000 families have received help.

"The government planned a carrot-and-stick approach, but up until now we haven't seen the carrot," says Eduardo Flores Espinosa, governor of Guaviare state.

Even peasants who have received the credits find it difficult to stop growing coca. No alternative crop is as lucrative.

Unlike the wealthy Cali cartel drug lords, coca growers in southern Colombia live a life of poverty in wooden shacks with dirt floors. The money that coca brings is vital to their existence.

Peasants wary of the state

Many farmers whose crops are fumigated simply move deeper into the jungle. "They fumigate one hectare [about 2.5 acres], you sow two," says Gustavo Vaca, a coca grower in Guaviare state.

Peasants have a deep distrust of a government that has always ignored the needs of those in frontier regions like Guaviare and Putumayo.

"We don't have any public services - no water, no electricity, no roads - these are areas that are totally abandoned by the state," says Jaime Buruano Cordoba, a local government official who is acting as a leader for some of the coca growers in Putumayo state.

Now they feel that their own president - who in recent months has been so keen to drape himself in the Colombian flag - has turned on them at the behest of the United States government.

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