The newest front in the Latin-US drug war

Second of three US-trained battalions graduated Friday.

Welcome to Putumayo, ground zero in the US-Colombia drug war.

On Friday, the second of three Colombian Army battalions graduated from an intensive training course, led by US Green Berets, here and is now ready for action. This weekend, more than 700 peasants kicked off a crop-substitution project in the region.

Just five years ago, aerial maps showed only sparse patches of bushy coca plants growing in this river-laced jungle region in southern Colombia. Then came what campesinos here call la bonanza, or the coca boom.

Today, with more than 150,000 acres of coca plants spreading over once-lush rain forest, Putumayo - a province roughly the size of Massachusetts - is the coca-growing capital of the world, supplying about 40 percent of cocaine sold in the US.

The boom in coca, the raw material for producing cocaine, has provided thousands of poor farmers with a cash crop, but it has also made for a lawless and violent province. As coca was squeezed out of Peru and Bolivia over the past decade, it oozed into Putumayo; the market demanded it be produced somewhere else. This vast territory outside government control, with ideal growing conditions and thousands of subsistence farmers desperate to eke out a living, was a natural expansion site.

Over the past decade, Putumayo fell under the de facto control of Colombia's largest guerrilla organization, the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC). The FARC have built up an estimated $500 million annual income in the drug trade alone by "taxing" traffickers for protecting their fields, labs, and landing strips. Colombia's right-wing paramilitary organizations have moved in too, seeking their share of the drug trade but ratcheting up the violence.

The combination of these elements - the coca boom, the government's long absence, the guerrilla involvement - explain why Putumayo is set to become the focus of an escalation in the US-Colombia antinarcotics drive.

US-trained battalions will take part in coca-elimination, both through manual eradication and large-scale aerial spraying. They'll try to dismantle cocaine labs and stanch the outflow of drugs. They're likely to confront guerrillas, and that prospect has fed a heated debate over US involvement in Colombia's 40-year internal war.

What is Plan Colombia?

The Colombian government's Plan Colombia is a $7.5 billion program designed to eradicate half of Putumayo's coca in five years and give southern Colombia the economic alternatives and institutions it needs to wean itself from the coca elixir. The United States has approved $1.3 billion over the next two years as its share of the plan.

Critics zero in on the fact that most of the US contribution is for military hardware and training - including 60 Blackhawk and Huey helicopters. US officials emphasize that, while the hardware is expensive and thus looks dominant in the aid package, the US will also be pouring more than $200 million into coca substitution and alternative development programs, as well as into projects like strengthening local justice systems.

Misgivings about the plan have made it slow for the European Union to join up. But in October, the Europeans - who are receiving growing quantities of Colombian cocaine in their cities - approved about $750-million in aid.

Who are the key players?

CIVILIANS: Subsistence farmers and others depending directly on the coca crop are an estimated 50 percent of the population. In recent weeks, several Putumayo mayors have been executed.

REVOLUTIONARY ARMED FORCES OF COLOMBIA (FARC): Colombia's principal leftist guerrilla group, which controls most of Putumayo and 40 percent of the country. The FARC makes most of its money through the coca trade; funds are also raised through kidnapping. Friday, they just ended what they called an "armed strike" in Putumayo, which had put a stranglehold on the region by prohibiting the transportation and entry of food and supplies. 15,000-strong.

PARAMILITARIES: Right-wing groups loosely allied as the United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia (AUC) which are supported by powerful landlords and drug dealers in a turf war against the Marxist rebels. Accusations circulate that, as the Colombian Army has cleaned up its human rights record, they have left much of their "dirty work" in the hands of the AUC. 5,000-7,000 strong.

COLOMBIAN ARMY: Patrols Putumayo's largest cities, including Puerto Asis. Their actions against FARC guerrillas in Putumayo have, until now, been limited by the government's desire for peace talks with the FARC. As part of Plan Colombia, some 1,800 troops are being trained by US Green Berets to fight the drug trade.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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