Plan Colombia’s Killing Fields

A visit to the coca growing regions of southern Colombia clearly illustrates that more than coca is being eradicated by the U.S.-sponsored aerial fumigation. While the spraying has eradicated thousands of acres of coca over the past one and a half years, it has also destroyed the food crops and livelihood of impoverished Colombian farmers in the targeted regions. Recent attempts to more accurately direct the aerial attacks against illicit crops have also failed to protect food crops. And as both the fumigation campaign and the civil conflict intensify, there is evidence of collusion between the Colombian army’s U.S.-trained counternarcotics brigade and paramilitary death squads that are on the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.

In early January 2000, President Bill Clinton proposed $1.6 billion in counternarcotics aid for Colombia. That summer the U.S. Congress approved $1.3 billion as the initial U.S contribution to Plan Colombia, a strategy devised by Washington and Bogotá to boost Colombia’s economy, end the civil conflict, and dramatically curtail the flow of illicit drugs to the United States. More than one and a half years after its initial implementation it has become evident that Plan Colombia is failing to achieve any of its stated objectives.

In recent years, the Colombian economy has stagnated with unemployment hovering near 18 percent. The economic austerity measures imposed on Colombia by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in return for a $2.7 billion loan in December 1999–which also constitute the economic component of Plan Colombia–have only aggravated conditions for the 64 percent of the population that lives in poverty.

Not only has Plan Colombia failed to improve the country’s economic situation, but also the collapse of the Pastrana administration’s peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in February has resulted in an escalation of the civil conflict. The Bush administration has responded to Colombia’s growing crisis by expanding its military involvement from counternarcotics to counterinsurgency operations as it now aims to target the FARC under the guise of both the “war on drugs” and the “war on terrorism.”

Plan Colombia has also failed to dramatically diminish drug production. Despite record amounts of acres having been fumigated during the past 20 months, figures released by the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy show a 25 percent increase in illicit crop cultivation last year. In contrast, figures released by the United Nations show an 11 percent decrease in coca cultivation during the same period, but point to an increase in cocaine production due to an improved strain of the plant. Regardless of which eradication figures are the most accurate, it is clear the fumigation campaign has failed to slow the flow of cocaine to the United States where prices and availability remain unaffected.

Plan Colombia’s initial six-week spraying campaign was launched in Putumayo in December 2000 and not only resulted in the destruction of 62,000 acres of coca, it also devastated food crops and adversely affected the health of local children. Even farmers who had signed social pacts that called for them to voluntarily uproot their coca plants in return for $1,000 in materials, technical assistance, and a promise that they would not be fumigated, stood by helplessly as the spraying killed their newly planted alternative crops.

The devastation wrought by the initial spraying campaign led to protests by thousands of campesinos and the governors of the six southern departments affected by the fumigations. While they failed to convince the government to switch from aerial spraying to manual eradication, it was agreed that PLANTE, the government agency in charge of the alternative crop program, would inform the National Anti-Narcotics Directorate of the location of farmers who had signed social pacts in the hopes that their fields would not be fumigated.

But there is already evidence that the latest spraying campaign, launched in Putumayo on July 28, has also destroyed alternative crops. Victoriano, a Putumayo farmer who signed a social pact four months ago, replaced his coca plants with lulo plants that produce fruit used to make juice drinks. In August, his newly planted lulo crops were destroyed by the fumigation. Meanwhile, two nearby coca fields were scarcely affected by the herbicide.

Conditions placed on the fumigation campaign by the U.S. Congress call for the Bush administration to certify “whether or not the aerial eradication program in Colombia is being carried out in accordance with regulatory controls required by the EPA as labeled for use in the United States, and the chemicals used, in the manner in which they are being applied, do not pose unreasonable risks or adverse effects to humans and or the environment.”

The State Department recently released the results of a study conducted on its behalf by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that was based on, as incredible as it may sound, guidelines and information provided by the State Department. The report proved inconclusive, primarily because the EPA could not accurately determine the effects of the particular herbicide mix used in Colombia’s remote tropical regions (a mix that is not used in the United States). Without access to Colombian data, the EPA instead based its report on studies of glyphosate usage in the United States. The State Department now intends to use the fact that the report could not unequivically prove the herbicide is harmful as justification for intensifying the fumigation campaign.

The report did succeed in shedding light on some of the many controversial issues pertaining to the aerial eradication. The State Department has repeatedly defended its use of glyphosate in Colombia by pointing out that it is the most commonly used herbicide in the United States. But the EPA report exposes this claim as mere propaganda by stating that glyphosate usage in the United States occurs in agricultural areas “employing crop varieties that have been developed to be resistant to glyphosate.” In contrast, Putumayo’s food crops have not been genetically modified to be resistant to glyphosate, therefore, are far more vulnerable to the herbicide than U.S. crops.

In addressing the human health consequences of the spraying, the EPA report claimed that the current concentration of glyphosate causes acute eye irritation and recommended that the State Department “consider using an alternative glyphosate product (with lower potential for acute toxicity) in future coca and/or poppy aerial eradication programs.” In response to the EPA’s recommendation, the State Department announced that it will soon begin spraying with a less toxic form of glyphosate.

But upon closer examination, it becomes evident that the switch to a less toxic glyphosate product is nothing more than a public relations ploy by the State Department that will have little or no affect on the toxicity of the herbicide mix. The same day the State Department delivered its spraying report to Congress, counternarcotics officials in Colombia announced that they intend to increase the concentration of glyphosate used in the herbicide mix by 25 percent. In other words, the State Department will offset the benefit of spraying a less toxic glyphosate product on peasants and food crops by using 25 percent more of it in the herbicide mix. According to Dr. Henry Daniell, a professor of microbiology at Central Florida University, increasing the dosage of glyphosate will increase the level of toxicity because the degree of “toxicity is directly related to the proportion of glyphosate.”

Even when the alternative crops of local farmers manage to survive the fumigation, the social pacts have often provided insufficient resources to maintain a family. According to one local official who requested anonymity because of rebel death threats, “Plan Colombia was the worst thing that could have happened to us. There was a lot of corruption as NGOs from Bogotá invaded Putumayo. We know how to work with the people in Putumayo, but with Plan Colombia came a lot of people from other places to manage the projects and the government only gave the money to these organizations.”

Such accusations of corruption and waste were echoed by Jair Giovani Ruiz, an agro-industrial engineer with the Ministry of the Environment’s Corpoamazonia (Corporation for Sustainable Development in the Southern Amazon), who claims that campesinos have received little of the alternative crop funding: “Maybe a cow or three chickens, but the farmers can’t live off of these. Maybe the money got lost on the way, or maybe [the government] contracted a lot of experts in order to supply a cow.” The bottom line, according to Ruiz, is that “there was bad management of the Plan Colombia resources.”

While the 20 percent of U.S. aid going to social and economic development programs has proven to be a woefully inadequate amount of money disbursed too inefficiently to implement effective long-term alternative crop strategies, the other 80 percent of Plan Colombia aid has proven very effective at destroying the livelihood, not only of impoverished coca growers, but also of those farmers willing to sign social pacts. Needless to say, a wary populace that already distrusted a government that has repeatedly abandoned it is now even more skeptical than ever about the rhetoric emanating from Bogotá and Washington.

To make matters even worse for rural Colombians, the Bush administration’s imminent expansion of the U.S. military role from counternarcotics to counterinsurgency operations under the guise of the “war on terrorism” means the U.S.-trained counternarcotics brigade and helicopter gunships could be used to combat Colombia’s two leftist guerrilla groups that are on the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. This military escalation will inevitably draw the United States even deeper into Colombia’s dirty war. There is already evidence of collusion between the new U.S.-trained counternarcotics brigade and right-wing paramilitary death squads that are also on the State Department’s terrorist list.

The U.S. Congress passed the Plan Colombia aid bill with the understanding that some of the funding would be used to create, train, and arm three new Colombian army counternarcotics battalions that would function independently from the Colombian army’s counterinsurgency troops. The intent was to keep U.S. aid out of the hands of Colombian army units that routinely collaborate with right-wing paramilitaries responsible for, according to human rights groups and the U.S. State Department, more than 70 percent of Colombia’s human rights abuses, including a majority of the country’s massacres.

It is becoming clear, however, that this strategy has failed. In one recent incident a few miles upriver from Puerto Asis–now known in Colombia as Muerto Asis (Death Asis)–this reporter watched as an army patrol consisting of soldiers from the U.S.-trained counternarcotics brigade allowed four paramilitaries armed with AK-47′s and walkie-talkies to pass unhindered and then watched the right-wing gunmen openly brandish their weapons as they prepared to board canoes on the Putumayo River. That same night, a paramilitary death squad killed three unarmed civilians in Puerto Asis. Two were shot in the head, while the third was hacked open from the neck to the belly button with a machete.

According to Catalina Diaz of the human rights group Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ), “It is very clear that there is a tolerance and acceptance of the paramilitaries by this [U.S.-trained counternarcotics] brigade.” Diaz says that information she has received about collaboration between the U.S.-trained counternarcotics brigade and the paramilitaries in Putumayo has been passed on to the U.S. embassy in Bogotá. All requests by this journalist to obtain an interview with U.S. embassy officials to discuss the ongoing implementation of Plan Colombia were refused.

U.S. and Colombian officials have claimed that Plan Colombia will bring peace and economic prosperity to Colombia while dramatically curtailing drug production. But after one and half years and almost two billion dollars, it has instead contributed to an escalation of the violence, a dramatic increase in poverty, and a growing discontentment among those Colombians directly affected by the militaristic aerial fumigation campaign. The enormous U.S. contribution to Plan Colombia has, however, succeeded in creating an environment in which Washington can now justify further escalating its military intervention in Colombia’s civil conflict. As Mario Cabal of PLANTE succinctly stated, “We have money for helicopters and arms for war, but we don’t have money for social programs.”


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