Here in the cloud-swept mountains of southern Colombia, a group of Paez Indians recently abandoned their traditional crops to begin growing the poppies that earn them slightly more money. The buyers are Colombian cocaine traffickers trying to diversify their business by using the poppies to produce what law enforcement officials call some of the purest heroin in the world.
Despite a campaign by police to destroy Colombia's new poppy cultivation, experts say the scourge is likely to spread, bringing violence to peaceful communities such as Pitayo while opening a new supply line to the U.S. heroin market.
Although Colombian heroin production is still small compared to that of Asia, police foresee large quantities of high-purity drug traveling from the South American nation to American streets along already established cocaine smuggling routes.
"Colombian heroin is the purest I've ever seen in my life," said Felix Jimenez, chief of heroin investigations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in a recent telephone interview from Washington. "Our concern is that Colombian traffickers can use their established cocaine distribution network to sell U.S. customers heroin."
A U.S. official in Bogota said agents have still not been able to pinpoint which of Colombia's many drug-trafficking groups are behind the growing of opium poppies, from which heroin is derived.
A Paez Indian calling himself Edgar appeared equally uncertain. He spoke vaguely of "people who pass through once a month" to buy the paste he painstakingly collects every Monday and Tuesday from poppy bulbs on his two-acre field near Pitayo in Cauca state. Seven days' work earns him the equivalent of about $44, 20% more than average agricultural wages in the region.
"The work is easy, and they pay me well," said Edgar, standing amid the red and purple poppy blooms. Pointing to the thick, white paste collected in a small plastic cup, he added, "I don't know what they do with this, and I don't care."
Although law enforcement officials do care, they admit that they are just as ignorant as Edgar about where the poppy extract is sent. Police have yet to find a heroin laboratory in Colombia, leading some to speculate that production is still in an experimental phase.
Since heroin is much more difficult and expensive to make than cocaine, the Colombians have had to bring in chemists from abroad to teach the process, according to a Colombian police source. He said he had received reports of Asian heroin "cooks" charging the Colombians tens of thousands of dollars to share their know-how.
In Washington, Jimenez said that the DEA had analyzed heroin samples that, although similar to the drug produced in Southeast Asia, were identified as Colombian by intelligence sources. But the U.S. official in Bogota said it was still not clear whether Colombian traffickers were reaching the estimated 500,000 addicts in the United States.
A kilogram (2.2 pounds) of the drug sells for about $150,000 in the United States, compared to about $20,000 for the same amount of cocaine. What is clear is that the traffickers are betting on the future of the heroin market in both the United States and Europe by persuading thousands of poor peasants to grow poppies.
The U.S. official said that although agents had been monitoring the Colombian poppy cultivations since 1984, they had not been overly concerned because of the small size of the fields, one or two acres at most.
That situation changed dramatically last August, when Colombian police destroyed 2,276 acres of poppy fields clinging to the mountainsides in the southern state of Huila. Officials estimate that the poppies were capable of producing enough opium paste in one harvest to make more than 2,000 pounds of heroin.
"The quantity blew my mind," the U.S. official said. "I never expected to find that much anywhere in Colombia."
He and other officials say they are convinced that such widespread poppy cultivation means that there are heroin laboratories somewhere in Colombia. The problem is finding them: Unlike cocaine, heroin can be produced in a small room.
Apparently content to keep going after the raw material, police have destroyed a record 3,000 acres of Colombian poppies in 1991. The chief of the national police, Gen. Miguel Gomez Padilla, said in September that his men would be able to eradicate the rest by the end of the year.
The U.S. official called that view overly optimistic, explaining that a number of problems prevent quick destruction of the remaining cultivations. He said that since many of the fields are guarded for drug traffickers by well-armed leftist guerrillas belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, police must go in with sufficient men and helicopters to ensure their security. It was FARC guerrillas that killed five police officers on a poppy raid last June in Huila state, according to the Colombian police source.
To make matters worse, helicopters often cannot land anywhere near the poppies, which grow on inclines so steep as to appear almost vertical. U.S. officials say chemical eradication would be a much more efficient means than having police pull up the poppies by hand, but so far the Colombian government has not approved spraying from airplanes.
Even if spraying were allowed, authorities say they often cannot locate the poppies because the mountains in Huila, Cauca and Valle del Cauca states are almost always covered with thick clouds. "We don't even know how much is out there," said the U.S. official.
Police have still not raided several poppy fields around Pitayo, although many of them can be seen from the road. Authorities in the area know that such raids would require the permission of leaders of the 80,000 Paez Indians living in three states, said Miguel Dario Calambas, mayor of Silvia, just south of Pitayo here in Cauca state.
Calambas added that only a small percentage of the tribe is growing poppies but that the number would certainly increase if authorities try to suppress their cultivation without providing alternative crops that pay as much.
"The poppy problem can only be dealt with as part of a larger plan to help my people," said Calambas, who admitted that the new crop is bringing violence to the region.
He told of a group of traffickers from Cali who took over the nearby town of Jimbalo for seven months, passing out poppy seeds to Indians and paying bills with guns and other weapons until the many residents were armed.
Finally, four months ago, the town's mayor gave the traffickers 24 hours to get out after three Indians were killed in gunfights.
"Fortunately, they complied," said Calambas. He added, however, that continued poppy cultivation means more traffickers and that next time, Jimbalo or another town might not be so lucky.