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Colombia's Way to Halt Drugs and War at Once

Legal jobs would cut incentives to grow drugs - and profits to finance guerrillas.

Standing in a pasture of browning grass, Victor Manuel Vanegas coos to a herd of skinny cows before recounting the day in May when the narcotics police dropped their calling card: a potent herbicide sprayed on his fields.

"It had to be a mistake, I've never planted coca on my land, never," says the graying campesino (peasant) who's been farming in this hotbed of narcotics production and guerrilla activity in southern Colombia for three decades.

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But the spread of narcotics production to areas like Guaviare is a symptom of a failure to develop forms of legitimate and sustaining production for campesinos with no love for coca or heroin poppies - but with a will to survive.

A failure to address the development needs of marginalized regions like Guaviare is at the root of both the guerrilla war and rising drug production, many observers say. And so, until the former is addressed, both of the latter are likely to continue.

"Now I've got a bad rice field, some sick cows, and dying pastureland," Mr. Vanegas says, crumpling up a handful of grass like autumn leaves. "It's a mistake I'm having to live with."

Experiences like Vanegas's throughout the coca and heroin-poppy-growing regions of Colombia hint at both the limited successes and overlying failure of Colombia's drug-crop eradication program.

Some peasants like Vanegas may stay away from coca, the plant whose leaves make cocaine, for fear of spraying or trouble with the law. But, overall, the total area of coca production has climbed sharply every year since 1992, from 91,000 to about 200,000 acres today.

The eradication program began in 1985 and has expanded steadily since then with heavy backing from the US. But now it is coming under tough scrutiny as Colombia - spurred by new President Andrs Pastrana - moves toward serious negotiations to end a three-decade-old civil war.

Narcotics production is intimately intertwined with Colombia's long guerrilla war because it is a principal source of income for the war's combatants: the guerrillas, paramilitary groups, and - peasants here insist - some sectors of the Army.

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"Drug trafficking is the fuel that keeps this conflict burning," says Augusto Ramirez Ocampo, a former Colombian foreign minister and member of the National Peace Commission.

"Peace negotiations will have to be based on a development plan," Mr. Ramirez says, "and that plan will have to include real alternatives to narcotics cultivation."

But not a plan based on crop spraying. "That hasn't worked," he says, pointing out that, after the spraying of more than a half-million acres over the last 13 years, total illegal-crop acreage (including coca, marijuana, and heroin poppies) has risen from 20,000 in 1985 to about 250,000 today.

Some of the increase in Colombia has followed important decreases in planting in Peru and Bolivia, according to US officials. Yet US policy on spraying seems to acknowledge the limitations of its effectiveness: While the US maintains that spraying large plantation-style fields is effective, the usefulness of spraying small plots intermixed with other crops is considered questionable.

Along the dirt highways and in the lush, tropical forest that surrounds San Jos del Guaviare, everyone encountered by a recent visitor had felt the impact of the region's narcotics activity - either by direct involvement in the coca-production process, or through some effect of the government's efforts against illegal crops.

A taxi driver, a paramilitary soldier collecting "taxes" from cars passing his outpost, and a poor campesino returning to his isolated farm on horseback - these are just three examples. And, even though what was simply called here the "bonanza" of coca production a decade ago is over, all three agree illegal crops will continue to grow until other income sources are developed.

Leonardo the deliveryman

The taxi driver is "Leonardo" (none of the three wanted his real name used for fear of reprisal). He moved to San Jos from a more distant settlement two years ago after his 75-acre farm, part of it planted with coca, was sprayed with defoliants.

"Before that happened I employed as many as 30 campesinos at a time," he says. "After the spraying, the young workers either joined the guerrillas or the paramilitaries as a way to make money. But I sold the farm and moved here. I consider myself a war refugee."

But the move did not extricate Leonardo from the drug business. "I couldn't support a family just on taxi fares," he says, "so I went into the delivery business."

What he delivers are all the products that coca producers need to turn their lush green leaves into coca paste - cement, gasoline, ammonia, and other chemicals. He replaced his taxi's conventional 20-gallon tank with a 40-gallon tank that passes both military and paramilitary checkpoints undetected. Leonardo sees his activity as simple necessity. But he worries that the spraying campaign, while it has recently reduced total drug-crop acreage in Gauviare, ends up making guerrillas of the young campesinos put out of work.

That's not exactly what happened with "Rubn." Manning a paramilitary roadblock just two miles up a dirt highway from a similar Army checkpoint, the young former farmer says he joined Guaviare's "self-defense forces" after the farm he cut out of the jungle was sprayed two years ago:

"I had 3.5 hectares [about 8.5 acres] of coca, but it was right with the yucca and plantains and corn, so everything was hit."

Now Rubn makes about $350 a month - an enviable wage for San Jos - as a paramilitary soldier and tax collector. The driver of a jeep loaded with cement bags and fertilizers slows to a stop and pays him 20,000 pesos ($12) without batting an eye.

Rubn the paramilitary

"We do go out on night missions to fight the guerrillas," Rubn says casually, "but I'd put down my weapons tomorrow if the guerrillas did the same - and if I had some other work to do."

Having other work to do is all it would take to get most campesinos to give up planting illegal crops, they say.

"I can't get anything I grow to market, no roads come near my farm," says "Salvador," taking a rest during his long horseback ride back to his land. "But with the coca I grow, there's always someone to come to me to buy it."

Salvador the coca planter

Salvador has only three of his 170 acres in coca, but he says that's the only part of his farm that brings him income.

"I'm not tied to that plot of coca," he says, "but you've got to have some money coming in to live on."

Still, the attractiveness of growing coca is reduced by rising costs, he says. The $500 in profit his coca field brought him three years ago is now only about $250.

Surprisingly, but like many other campesinos here, Salvador thinks the US involvement in Colombia is necessary - both to stop the very narcotics production he's involved in, and to help bring peace. "But it should be an assistance that really does some good, like help developing new crops that we can sell or building roads so we can get our produce to market," he says. "This cursed spraying isn't going to do it."

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