Andean Drug Policy to Focus on Seizing Crops

Times Staff Writer

The Bush Administration, as part of its new offensive against drug producers, has decided to back away from efforts to eradicate coca fields in Peru and Bolivia and to escalate military campaigns to intercept the crops before they reach processing labs, Administration officials said Wednesday.

The plan, recommended under a $2-billion "Andean initiative" contained in President Bush's anti-drug strategy, would seek to focus efforts in South America on powerful cocaine traffickers rather than impoverished peasants, the officials said.

The escalation, previously rejected out of concern that such an approach could pose unacceptable risks, signals the urgency felt by an Administration determined to wage a comprehensive war on drugs even as it ventures into uncharted grounds.

The new policy is a tacit admission that eradication efforts had failed and marks the beginning of a new era in the American effort to staunch the supply of cocaine at its source--a South American crackdown described by President Bush as an indication that "the rules have changed."

The change in tactics would deploy military forces in the Andean countries as central players in the anti-cocaine effort. The South American troops would be bolstered by an influx of U.S. aid and extensive training by U.S. military advisers.

But analysts warned that in waging such a drug war by proxy, the United States could put itself in the position of expensive but doubtful reliance on armies that have not yet demonstrated a full commitment to the task.

"In theory, this makes far more sense than eradication," said Renssalaer Lee, an adjunct professor at American University. "But in practice, I'm skeptical that we'll end up any better off than we are now."

A Military Task

Administration officials, however, argued that the anti-drug effort in Peru, Bolivia and Colombia--waged against well-armed cocaine cartels sometimes aligned with powerful guerrilla movements--clearly had become more a military than a law enforcement task.

The most vulnerable targets, they said, appeared to be the major "choke-points"--airstrips, river routes and roads--through which Peruvian and Bolivian coca is ferried on its way to processing plants in those countries and Colombia.

A primary goal of the Andean initiative, they said, would be to use U.S.-backed military forces--roadblocks, river patrols and actual military attacks--to disrupt those key transport routes so severely that it would isolate the coca-growing regions.

The purpose, they said, would be to depress the value of coca crops to the point that Peruvian and Bolivian growers might be willing to seriously consider replanting their fields with other crops.

In deciding to give less emphasis to the eradication program, U.S. officials said, the Administration is moving away from an approach that had been "about as stable as a one-legged stool."

The officials said the United States does not propose to dispense altogether with coca eradications, noting that the Administration has endorsed "eradication of the coca crop when it can be made an effective strategy."

They made clear, however, that the new Andean initiative would shift priority of the military crackdown away from the coca fields.

"With more selectivity in the eradication expeditions," said Terrence M. Burke, a deputy assistance administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, "that means more blade time for the helicopters in the interdiction process."

Of $97.5 million in new aid slated for Bolivia and $73.3 million for Peru, the bulk would be in military aid, with much of the remainder in law enforcement funding, according to a funding breakdown released Wednesday. No economic assistance would be provided until the following year, when it would be offered as a reward for progress in the anti-drug effort.

An even larger share of a $90.4-million total package planned for Colombia would be composed of military assistance, with no plans for economic aid.

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