Turning a new leaf

By Pedro Ruz Gutierrez and E.A. Torriero of The Sentinel Staff

Published in The Orlando Sentinel on September 17, 2000

Note: Because of a reporter's error, this story incorrectly states that the Putumayo region of Colombia produces enough coca for 1.3 billion grams of cocaine. According to Colombian officials, the region produces enough coca for 1.3 billion hits of cocaine.

SANTA ANA, Colombia -- The young coca farmer never wants his toddler to get high, yet he knows the cocaine he produces might end up fueling the habits of young addicts worldwide.

He has no desire to take a snort himself. Just the smell of a simmering cocaine cocktail once gave him a wicked headache

Still, he knows the deadly allure that the milky-white coca paste has for millions of junkies.

He is a God-fearing Catholic who tries to live right. But it is not his conscience nudging him out of the drug-growing business in the most productive region for cocaine on Earth. It is the anticipation of war.

Jairo Rodriguez, 20, fears this verdant land of coca plants will turn into a battlefield where U.S.-made choppers will lead aerial assaults on the drug farms and heavily armed guerrillas will fire back to protect their lucrative cash crop

So Rodriguez has become a reluctant ally in Colombia`s war on drugs.

And in the coming months, he will join hundreds of neighbors in voluntarily yanking his green coca stalks in hopes that the Colombian government will make good on its promised offer of alternative crops.

"You have no choice but to join the plan," Rodriguez said as he stood on a slope dotted with coca that he has grown since high school. "So let`s see what the government does.

This sprawling maze of Andean foothills, jungle, swampland and fertile fields is ground zero in the U.S.-led campaign to loosen cocaine`s stranglehold on Colombia. Here in the Putumayo region, an area roughly the size of Maryland, much of the $1.3 billion in U.S. aid will be spent in a dual effort of eradication and assault against the protectors of the drug trade.

It is a controversial game plan that has critics from the United States to Latin America wondering if Uncle Sam`s money will fuel an already explosive civil war and lead to an expansion of the drug trade in neighboring Andean nations.

"We believe our strategy will work," said Jaime Ruiz, the presidential aide who helped devise the international-aid package known as "Plan Colombia."

But how will the understaffed and poorly trained Colombian army wage this war? How well will its soldiers repel insurgent forces that are reportedly training peasants in the jungles and forcing young recruits into their folds?

Will farmers who depend on cocaine for their existence easily switch to less-lucrative crops? Will they be targeted by rebels if they go along with eradication? How much environmental damage will be done by herbicides sprayed on plantations where growers refuse to cooperate? And who will care for the thousands of expected refugees fleeing fighting, fumigation and uncertainty?

"Rather than reducing coca cultivation and calming Colombia, this is going to unleash Armageddon," Bruce Bagley, a University of Miami professor of international studies, has said.

The battleground:

For as far as the eye can see, there are coca plants in Putumayo. You can stop on the side of most any road and pick a few leaves. You can take a short hike and walk into a valley of coca plants as tall as a professional basketball player. You can float down a river and pass rail-thin canoes loaded with burlap bags of refined coca.

Nearly 300 tons of coca are produced annually here, enough for an astounding 1.3 billion grams of pure cocaine, Colombian officials say. Most of the coca is grown on farms of only a few acres, but some are on large Old South-style plantations of 250 acres or more in the jungles and lowlands.

An estimated 140,000 acres yield more than half of Colombia`s total annual cocaine harvest of about 600 tons.

Many farms have on-site "kitchens" -- crude labs where coca leaves are crushed, cooked in gasoline, washed and mashed to make the coca paste shipped to clandestine markets.

For an average farmer with 5 acres of coca plants, an annual yield produces roughly 8 kilos of paste and nets roughly $4,700. But by the time just one of those kilos reaches the streets of Europe or the United States, it may be worth more than $100,000.

"There are a lot of people who think because you grow coca you are rich," said Rodriguez, who, like most peasants, cultivates cocaine because it is the region`s staple crop. "But it is the middlemen who are making all the profits."

And in Putumayo, feuding factions will do anything to get a slice of the cocaine windfall.

Villages south of the Putumayo River, which slices through the region, are under the control of the leftist guerrillas, known by their Spanish acronym FARC. North of the river is government territory, where right-wing groups with close ties to the Colombian military are active.

Both sides forcibly recruit teens. They levy unofficial taxes on farmers and merchants. They rule by intimidation, threats and ruthless nighttime executions and massacres.

In Puerto Asis, the province`s second-largest city, four of the last five mayors were assassinated by the forces jockeying for control of the drug trade. The sole surviving ex-mayor is in prison for corruption. For many years, Puerto Asis was controlled by the guerrillas. Then, in 1998, the paramilitaries arrived. Dozens of suspected guerrilla sympathizers were killed, say townsfolk and government agencies.

Today, while Colombian soldiers patrol the town`s outskirts, Puerto Asis is ruled from behind the scenes by paramilitaries who occupy a fortified encampment outside of town.

"The paramilitaries go around town without anybody bothering them," says Manuel Alzate, Puerto Asis` current mayor, who keeps armed bodyguards near him. "And the army and the police do nothing."

Colombian officials swear their soldiers are not linked to paramilitaries. But residents fear a wave of reprisals as farmers flee violence in rural areas controlled by rebels.

Paramilitaries likely will finger some refugees as rebel sympathizers. "You don`t know who to trust around here," said Lilia De Gaitan, whose family has lived in Puerto Asis for more than a decade.

The battle plan:

The Colombian government has made no secret of its two-pronged strategy to be unleashed in the coming months.

On the military side, a combined Colombian force of about 15,000 soldiers, police, sailors and air corps will attack drug-producing labs and attempt to drive the rebels from the region.

With 60 U.S.-made helicopters, a 3,000-strong anti-narcotics battalion trained by U.S. Green Berets will fan out across the Putumayo and Caqueta states in support of police units as they fumigate huge swaths of coca fields and force the big producers out of business.

In the social and economic arenas, the government will offer more than $300 million in incentives to farmers to replace cocaine with yucca, African palms and assorted food crops. But that`s a lofty goal, because there are few roads and bridges on which to move the goods to market. With cocaine, the buyers go directly to the farmers.

The aim, Colombian officials insist, is not to fuel the civil war that has ravaged Colombia for more than 40 years. Rather, it is to stem the cocaine trade and return rebels to the bargaining table, where negotiations have sputtered in recent months.

"The most important part is the peace process with the rebels," said Ruiz, the government`s point man for the plan.

But people who depend on cocaine for their livelihoods say the government plan is fraught with huge pitfalls. The rebels are a potent force, more than 20,000 strong. They are well-armed and have a war chest packed with millions of dollars from protecting the cocaine trade and imposing illegal taxes on growers.

Coca growers have reported being threatened by rebels. The message: Either continue growing coca or face death. Those independent farmers who have mounted a campaign to join the government`s cause have seen at least a half-dozen leaders assassinated in recent months.

"Right now we are being eliminated one by one," said Benedicto Caicedo, a former coca grower who is leading an effort to persuade farmers to stop growing coca.

Coca growers find themselves in a bind: Either go against the rebels and risk death or go against the government and risk having their crops destroyed and their soil spoiled by herbicides. More than 500,000 acres have been sprayed with herbicides in the past six years.

The Castro family, who operated a coca-growing farm in rebel-run territory, knows the fallout from fumigation. A few years back, the Castros tried switching to other crops, including squash. They also tried raising cattle. But the profits were not nearly as hefty as from cocaine production.

Then about six months ago, the Castro coca crops were fumigated. Today, the coca leaves are still falling. The coca-paste lab sits idle with the burnt leaves from the last production, an eerie testimony to its demise. The farmland no longer will grow coca -- or anything else, the Castros say.

"The ground is damaged," said 15-year-old Elver Andres Castro, who, like most children in the region, picks the coca leaves for his family. "It is useless."

The family still owes the bank money for loans it received to try new crops.

"We are finished," said Bolivar Castro, the family patriarch who wears a big white cowboy hat and looks more like a Texas rancher than a coca grower. "I know we have to finish with this coca thing. But what do we do next? We will suffer."

Colombian officials acknowledge that in the short run, the people of Putumayo will bear a heavy burden. The United Nations already is making plans to deal with as many as 10,000 refugees.

The Colombian government plans to send 35 people into the region to explain the plans for crop alternatives.

The intention is to fumigate mostly large tracts, government officials say, and not destroy the lands of the small farmers. The government also brushed aside criticism from environmentalists who fear the spraying will pollute rivers, destroy jungles and damage rain forests.

"This is not going to be a razed-earth policy," said Gonzalo de Francisco, the Colombian official in charge of the social programs planned for Putumayo.

Last month, 489 farmers in Santa Ana signed up for a government program to eradicate 1,400 acres of coca plants by hand.

Rodriguez, the young coca grower, plans to hire a crew to destroy his crop. He is skeptical, though, of the government`s will to help farmers.

"But we have to pull the coca so the government doesn`t come and destroy our land," he said. Colombian officials vow they will be vindicated. Putumayo will be purged of coca, and a new generation will grow up without dependence on cocaine production, they claim.

"People in Putumayo think there is an invasion coming," said de Francisco, whose formal title is "presidential adviser for togetherness and citizen security."

"People feel abandoned and that something dark and obscure is heading toward them," he said. "We have to work hard to show them this is not the case."

Pedro Ruz Gutierrez can be reached at 407-420-5620 or by e-mail at pruz@orlandosentinel.com