New coca spat leaves Colombia flying solo

Ecuador and Venezuela denounce a restart to Colombia's US-backed aerial fumigation campaign.

A decision by Colombia's conservative President Álvaro Uribe to restart the country's aerial fumigation of coca leaf plantations near the border with Ecuador appears to have further isolated him in a region increasingly unfriendly to Washington's war on drugs.

Last week's move has sparked a diplomatic row, with Ecuador recalling its ambassador to Colombia and vowing to file an official complaint to both the Organization of American States and the United Nations. Ecuador's leftist president-elect Rafael Correa, a close friend of Venezuela's anti-American president, Hugo Chávez, has even started recruiting other Latin leaders to oppose aerial fumigation.

"It's simply unacceptable that they continue spraying from the air with glysophate," Mr. Correa said this week, referring to the herbicide used, a more concentrated version of Monsanto's Round-Up. "It kills legal crops on the Ecuadorean side and, apparently, also kills farmers."

Ecuador has activated its air defense system to monitor the fumigation planes, many of which are piloted by Americans. Colombia announced it was sending more troops to the 586 kilometer-long border, to keep Colombian leftist guerrillas from fleeing into Ecuador.

"There's a risk this could spiral out of control, which would be a tremendous setback for what [Mr. Uribe] is trying to accomplish in Colombia," says Michael Shifter, an analyst with the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. The Colombia-Ecuador dispute could ruin relations between the neighbors and end Ecuador's cooperation with the Colombian military, says Mr. Shifter.

Colombia refusing to back down

But Uribe, whose government insists the herbicide is innocuous, has shown no willingness to back down. He pointed out that after Colombia suspended fumigation along the border a year ago in response to Ecuadorean complaints, plantations of coca leaf, the base ingredient used to make cocaine, boomed. Uribe described the situation as a global security issue.

"The whole world will have to comprehend that Colombia cannot permit the FARC to continue filling the area with drugs," he said of the border region, where leftist FARC guerrillas are active. "Because, with 10,200 hectares [25,205 acres], the FARC is capable of financing the destruction of the world."

Whatever the world's opinion, Uribe's Latin neighbors appear to be chilling to the US-backed war on coca, which Uribe has embraced enthusiastically. Colombia receives more than $700 million from Washington – mostly in military aid – each year to fight coca and the guerrillas who use it to finance their rebellion.

While Uribe has made progress in reducing Colombia's coca crop, neighboring Peru and Bolivia – both of which elected more leftward-leaning leaders in the past year – have advocated turning coca leaves into legal products, although they say they won't tolerate narcotrafficking.

Neighbors now more coca-friendly then ever

This week, Bolivian President Evo Morales, who made his name as a leader of the country's coca farmers, announced he wanted to expand the amount of coca that can be planted for legal uses, such as chewing the leaves (a longstanding traditional custom) or using them as religious and cultural symbols. Mr. Morales announced this week that Bolivia will increase the legal area for planting coca to 49,400 acres next year from 29,700 acres currently, disregarding limits set in a US-sponsored law. He also said that each family will be permitted to plant a small plot of coca.

The US ambassador to Bolivia, Philip Golderg, objected, warning that drug makers would inevitably purchase the coca leaves. Bolivia is the world's No. 3 cocaine producer after Colombia and Peru.

Venezuela's Chávez, who has repeatedly clashed with Washington, met with Ecuador's Correa on Wednesday and then called the US war on drugs a violation of regional nations' sovereignty.

"The battle against narcotrafficking has been imperialism's excuse for penetrating our nations, trampling our people, and having military presence in our countries," he said in backing Correa's objection to Colombia's renewed aerial spraying.

Even Peruvian President Alan Garcia, who has been friendly to Washington on many issues, touted the leaf's nutritional value.

"It can be consumed directly and elegantly in salad," Garcia said, adding that a chef had recently served several coca leaf-based dishes at the Government Palace.

Correa has also said he opposes the presence of the US military base at the Ecuadorean port of Manta – a key support for the US drug war in neighboring Colombia.

All of this leaves Uribe – and Washington – increasingly isolated. Many Latin Americans have long resented the US drug war, which they say forces them to bear the burden of America's vices.

Shifter says that Latin American hostility toward the drug war shows "a growing dissatisfaction with a policy that has failed."

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