The Cocaine Conundrum : Can Colombia Finally Win the War on Drugs? Better to Ask: Can It Survive If It Does Win?

Alan Weisman is a contributing editor to the magazine who lives in Sonoita, Ariz. His last article was on harnessing hydrogen as a fuel

Two degrees above the Equator, in a sultry, lowland province of eastern Colombia, runoff from the Andes begins to drain away from the Caribbean and flow south toward Brazil. This place, called the Guaviare, is the upper reach of Amazonia, where coastal savannas disappear beneath unbroken forest, rain falls for 10 straight months and biological fervor builds to near-delirium. About the size of Belgium, the Guaviare has no paved roads, or barely any roads at all. The main exception is a 40-mile mud trench that, in dry weather, connects the provincial capital of San Jose (virtually inaccessible except by air or river) to the jungle outpost of Calamar.

On the Friday evening of June 9, 1995, nothing special was happening in Calamar. The afternoon cloudburst had been torrential but brief. By sunset, men and women in clean cotton shirts and dresses were picking their way through slick, brown muck along the nameless main street that parallels the Rio Unilla, the northernmost tendril of the Amazon, heading to public radiotelephone stalls to make weekend calls back to civilization, and then on for a chilled beer, a game of chess or dominoes and some news and entertainment on the big screen.

In the wooden storefront cafe belonging to Ernesto Romero, a stubby cheerful barkeep in blue shorts and sandals, families sat at white plastic tables, engrossed in bullfights transmitted live over a Madrid network. (Rising above the forest canopy at the edge of the town clearing, three imposing parabolic dishes, each scanning 120 degrees of the heavens, keep Calamar’s settlers better linked to the world than most relatives back in Bogota or Cali.) Yet just as the action heightened--a flashy young Basque matador had managed to get himself gored--Cali itself intervened. The alert came from the excited shouts of radiotelephone operators outside. The biggest news to hit Colombia in two years was soon roaring over every TV in town, overwhelming scores of throbbing portable diesel generators and the squawking green parrots overhead.


On the screen, General Rosso Jose Serrano, director of the National Police, his steel-gray hair flecked with confetti, proclaimed this a moment for all Colombians to be proud. Colombian President Ernesto Samper mopped his forehead with undisguised relief and announced his intention to sleep for 12 straight hours. Even the nation’s current resident scourge, U.S. Ambassador Myles Frechette, pronounced it a “great triumph” and hugged the startled Colombian official standing next to him.

It referred to a videotaped sequence being replayed nearly continuously, showing a pudgy, middle-aged man in a goatee and tan khaki jacket seated glumly in an overstuffed chair, his hands shackled. Three hours earlier, Colombian police had pushed aside a bookcase and revealed Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela cowering in a hidden crawl space. For weeks, they had been storming health clubs with Range Rover-filled parking lots, gleaming corporate headquarters of money-laundering fronts, five-star restaurants and, repeatedly, Cali’s Intercontinental Hotel, where Rodriguez Orejuela and his brother Miguel frequently commandeered four floors at a time to conduct family business. Finally, they’d pinpointed his refuge, a plain suburban stucco house, and surrounded it with 3,000 men. “This,” declared Presidente Samper as the camera cut back to him, one arm around his wife, the other lifting a glass of champagne, “marks the beginning of the end of the Cali cartel.”

Hundreds of roadless miles away in Calamar, dozens of beers joined his toast. “Thank the blessed Virgin,” exhaled one grandmother. “Finally, something to pop the lid off prices!”

“Amen!” concurred Ernesto Romero, who was pouring shots of Chivas Regal on the house. He then placed the bottle in front of a wiry, moustached man who was smirking at a TV anchor’s reference to “this long-awaited victory for Colombian international relations, especially with the United States.”

Idiota. Wait’ll the United States figures out what it really means.” Luis Eduardo Betancur, president of the Guaviare provincial assembly and Calamar’s representative, took a slug of imported Scotch. “Hell, maybe they’ll approve, since it’s really a victory for free enterprise. No more monopoly controlling the market and dictating what growers get paid. It’s just like when they shot Pablo Escobar: Now money’ll flow to everybody.”

By “everybody,” he meant his constituents. The Guaviare’s economy openly, and nearly totally, consisted of the monoculture of a tall, pale-green shrub known as erythroxylum coca . To these people, the fortunes of celebrity cocaine capos like Rodriguez Orejuela had little bearing on what actually happened in the drug trade; hundreds of ambitious young entrepreneurs would promptly step in to fill the breach. But this time, the pursuit of the Cali cartel was related to something else, which they also believed wouldn’t have much effect in the long run unless, by some miracle, consumers in the United States and Europe actually stopped buying drugs. Still, it had become an irritant.


During the previous four months, under growing duress emanating from the Clinton administration--which was pressured in turn by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms--Colombia had embarked on what President Samper and the U.S. Embassy were touting as the biggest drug-eradication program in history. Specifically, under “Operation Radiance,” Colombia would eliminate nearly all cultivation of coca, heroin poppies and marijuana within two years.

Samper’s surprise February announcement of this ambitious undertaking variously incurred the disbelief or derision of nearly everyone affected. Within his government, aides complained that they’d been blindsided, that such a thing simply couldn’t could be done. (With estimates of up to 200,000 acres planted in illicit crops here, this plan could require the destruction of 500 acres per day). They worried that, in response to assertions widely repeated in the U.S. press that his presidential campaign had accepted a hefty contribution from the Cali cocaine cartel, their boss was risking his credibility to defend his honor.

Over the following months, Operation Radiance would become the least of their troubles. Even as the manhunt continued to snare the remaining Cali cartel leaders, a dark tide of evidence gathered by Colombia’s prosecutor general began to lap at the president’s heels. By August, with the arrest of both his defense minister and former campaign treasurer, Samper had ordered a congressional committee to investigate him as well, vowing that he’d be exonerated of any knowledge of misconduct by his subordinates. Amid what has become one of Colombia’s gravest political crises, with the president’s public opinion ratings plunging and demands for his resignation increasing, his commitment to drug eradication now seemed crucial to his survival.

For its part, the United States had immediately promised $15 million to bankroll the aerial spraying on which the program depended, as well as to train pilots and provide aircraft. Still, State Department officials privately suggested that, although encouraging, the plan was more symbolism than substance since Colombia, compared to traditional growers like Peru and Bolivia, was far more involved in processing and shipping cocaine than cultivating it.

In fact, while chances for success were arguably improbable, Operation Radiance wasn’t merely symbolic at all. The misconception that Colombia doesn’t actually grow coca had been belied by cartel accountants who’d lately concluded that planting at home makes sense. Ferrying the leaves from neighboring Andean countries to Colombian laboratories is costly and vulnerable; if the alkaloid content of the local variant isn’t as high, you simply grow more of it--so much more, in fact, that Colombia’s coca harvest recently surpassed Bolivia’s. And although Colombian marijuana farming had dwindled to insignificance, as imaginative indoor agro-technology helped make pot the most lucrative crop in the United States, mounting demand in U.S. suburbs and universities for the fashion fatale of the ‘90s--heroin--had easily compensated for the loss. (Unlike marijuana, opium poppies don’t readily submit to attic hydroponics, preferring volcanic soils exactly like Colombia’s Andean slopes. Their cultivation--unheard of here five years ago--was now escalating 13% annually, according to U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration warnings that no one disputed.)

In addition, President Samper and his country were already pinned in the cross-fire of the 1996 U.S. election. Republicans led by Sen. Helms had branded Bill Clinton a wimp on drugs for failing to decertify Colombia--certification being a process by which the United States annually judges the sincerity of producing and transit countries in the war on narcotics. Failure to pass muster would effectively make Colombia a pariah nation, unfit for loans from the World Bank or other such institutions, and severely restrict sales of its oil, bananas, coffee and flowers to its biggest international customer: us. In the Senate, Helms had alluded frequently to cassette tapes, rather spitefully divulged by Samper’s opponent upon losing the election, that apparently recorded the president’s men receiving narco-tainted campaign funds. Although falling short of directly implicating Samper himself, the charges were not playing well in Washington.


So between Helms’s threats to sever diplomatic relations and Clinton’s response--to give Colombia a year’s probation to clean up its act--Samper had known he had to do something. But could Operation Radiance actually work? Or had drugs become so entwined with the internal organs of Colombian economy--traditionally among Latin America’s most robust--that surgically removing them would kill the patient?

With oil, coal, dozens of potential agricultural exports and diversified industries such as textiles, leather, and publishing, Colombia had seemed poised back in the ‘60s to be Latin America’s entry in the nascent Pacific Rim community. Unfortunately, the growing taste in the United States during that decade for potent marijuana (and, gradually, for harder stuff) also stirred another old Colombian tradition: smuggling. During colonial times, dealing in contraband here was practically considered an honorable act of defiance against a Spanish crown that only permitted trade with Spain itself, and many elite families originally grew to prominence by doing it. In the 20th Century, this legacy inspired lower-class entrepreneurs to traffic first in black market Colombian emeralds, then in hallucinogens and stimulants.

As the hapless international war on drugs has served mainly to encourage the narcotics trade by keeping prices high, today more than 300,000 families grow coca or poppies in the Guaviare and neighboring provinces--a figure equal to the number of Colombians propagating coffee. “What else could pay us enough to put up with typhoid and malaria?” demanded Ernesto Romero on the night the Cali cartel began to tumble, brandishing the nearly empty bottle of Chivas Regal at President Samper’s beaming, televised image.

Already the drone of spray planes had invaded the tranquillity of their forest, inevitably drawing the retort of automatic weapons fire. The government was promising a costly, radical crop substitution program, but a relic of when that was last tried--a fading, defaced color poster of a United Nations project, showing caricatures of campesinos happily digging fish ponds and reforesting--hung on his barroom wall for comic relief. “We’re not rich like the capos and the corrupt generals, but we’re the ones who bear the cost. If they don’t come up with something better than soaking us with herbicides, they’ll have a civil war on their hands.”


As pilot Cesar Quijano knows too well, Colombia already has a civil war on its hands. Like others in Latin America’s battle-weary history, it was kindled by greed: too few people controlling too much land. The difference in Colombia is that, after nearly 40 years, it burns on, pitting the government against seasoned guerrilla armies operating in terrain so tangled that El Salvador or Vietnam seem comparatively featureless. Colombia has not just one Andean cordillera but three, separated by valleys that everyone covets or jungles where anyone can hide. Over the past decade, the guerrillas, originally inspired by leftist doctrine, have made some ideological compromises to finance the war effort. In the case of the largest insurgency, the 8,000-strong Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias Colombianas (FARC), this means skimming 10% from every shipment of coca produced in areas they control, such as the remote Guaviare.

In exchange, the FARC provide muscle and security, ostensibly to defend peasant coca growers but also to guard their cash cow. That’s where the mild, graying Quijano and his colleagues come in, because their mission is to douse Guaviare coca fields daily with the herbicide glyphosate. Quijano’s U.S.-provided, single-engine Turbo Thrush--each rumored to be worth a $200,000 bounty to traffickers--has now been hit by gunfire seven times. Only the pilots’ seats have protective shielding, but that’s better than the unarmored, Vietnam War-surplus helicopters flown by the police who accompany them to provide cover. Since the program began, guerrillas have already shot down four of them.


When Colombian officials inquire at the U.S. embassy why, if the United States wants them to do this, they won’t at least provide suitable equipment, they’re told that the same senators who demand it are also cutting foreign aid. Quijano is used to such inconsistencies. Once, he and his crew sprayed benign targets like corn and rice for a living. Then, around 1990, George Bush’s Enterprise for the Americas succeeded in enticing Colombia and several of its neighbors to open their markets and not miss out on the New World Order. Bush’s visions of equal trading partners forging Pan-American prosperity, however, soon proved disastrous for Colombian agriculture, which couldn’t compete with the deluge of cheap grains and other foodstuffs that poured in from giant U.S. corporate producers. Not only did crop-dusting jobs vanish, but many of the now-bankrupt farmers whose crops they formerly dusted ended up either in the Andes tending poppies or right here in the Guaviare planting coca.

“Let’s go get ‘em,” Quijano says to his men, zipping his flight suit. “Anybody scared?”

“We’re all scared.”

Moments later, two fixed-wing spray planes, four support choppers with dual mounted M-60 machine guns, and an ambulance helicopter are airborne, heading south from San Jose. Instantly, the truth of what is happening in the Guaviare becomes apparent: Huge hunks of the jungle’s skin have been ripped away--nearly a third of it seems to be missing. From above, a healthy rain forest is as dense as a living coral reef, so impenetrable that no ground can be glimpsed through the green. Here, the Colombian Amazon is pocked with dead scabs: olive-gray patches sown in wispy coca shrubs, brown scars where the planes have fumigated with glyphosate, and charred black holes where campesinos continue to advance into the forest.

Sensitive to concerns that Operation Radiance is defoliating the rain forest, Colombia’s Environmental Ministry sometimes sends monitors on these flights. So does the attorney general’s office, responding to farmers’ gripes that food crops such as corn and cassava are being eradicated as well. Glyphosate, a common weedkiller sold in the United States under the trade name Roundup, blocks photosynthesis, effectively suffocating a plant, but it supposedly biodegrades within a few weeks. The controversy over its use presents a conundrum for Colombian ecologists: Which is worse for the forest, herbicide or the slash-and-scorch assault of dope cultivation? A recent “humanitarian” decision by the government to spray only areas larger than three hectares (about 7.5 acres)--reached after thousands of irate, small coca farmers marched on San Jose to protest that they were being fumigated disproportionately--has visibly backfired. Every week, new three-hectare coca clearings are making the jungle resemble a vast field of craters.

But today’s target is well over the legal limit. Forty minutes out of San Jose, the pilots veer toward a thick, black column of smoke on the horizon. There, a police commando scouting unit has already swooped into a 90-hectare coca plantation along the shores of a swollen river. Under covering fire from the circling helicopters, the commandos had descended by rope from the troop transport. After discharging several hundred rounds into the surrounding forest, flushing dozens of terrified toucans and macaws but drawing no answering fire from guerrillas, they radioed for the spray planes to come in. While waiting, they’d torched the processing laboratory--which, since the agent used to leach the cocaine alkaloid from the leaf is gasoline, vaporized rather dramatically.

From the barracks where the rasperos --the harvesters--live, Serafin Baret watches the twin Turbo Thrushes approach, about 100 feet above the ground. From 64 ducts spaced along the underside of their wings burst jets of opaque white mist, dispersing over the coca. Despite U.S. State Department claims that the nozzles were ingeniously designed to unload only upon the desired objective, Serafin takes an acrid blast through the open window. Outside he can see the commandos, coming across an adjacent soccer field, also wiping glyphosate from their faces.

Six of them enter, carrying M-16s, Galils, and a grenade launcher. Baret, wearing just green cutoffs and blue socks, waves both hands to show that he’s unarmed. Having served in the army himself, he’s unruffled by their weaponry. “Where’s everyone else?” a corporal demands, probing a pile of clothing with his bayonet.

“Very deep in the jungle, I suspect.” About 80 men work here, plus a cook and her children. They were prepared for the possibility of being fumigated, with vats of molasses water ready to coat the leaves so the poison won’t penetrate, but nobody had counted on a commando raid, too. Usually, they can pick up the choppers’ radios on their FM, but their generator’s conked out. Fortunately, growing season coincides with the rainy season: If there’s a good downpour within a couple of hours, they won’t lose much. The most careful farmers immediately prune sprayed bushes down to the stalk, then process the leaves, glyphosate and all. If done quickly, it saves the plant, and in three months they’re back in business. “Aren’t you about ready to leave?” Baret inquires.


“Our movements are classified,” the corporal snaps, knowing why he’s asking. Baret shrugs. Already the fumigation planes have gone, their 500-gallon capacity quickly depleted. Sooner or later, he figures, they’ll get tired of having to constantly re-spray, or the gringos will get tired of paying for it. A former rice farmer, he works harvests here, bagging coca flour, but he has a few of his own three-hectare plots a few miles further into the forest. Days like this are a pain, but surely not the end of coca in the Guaviare.


On the morning of May 26, 1995, the FARC missed a once-in-a-war opportunity. A C-130 transport that flew from Bogota to San Jose del Guaviare carried no less than President Ernesto Samper, nearly his entire cabinet, the federal prosecutor general and, among other dignitaries, the ambassadors of Peru, Spain, France and the United States. One sharpshooter’s bullet might have brought down the nation.

In fact, the occasion for this auspicious gathering was meant to resurrect it. The only thing about drugs that everyone in Colombia agreed upon, from the government to the growers to the guerrilla, was that in order to get rid of them, farmers would need something else to do--something that paid. Dressed in shirt-sleeves, his hair sticking to his brow in the equatorial heat, Samper had chosen an open-air assembly hall at an agronomy institute to launch PLANTE: Colombia’s National Plan for Alternative Development. But before he was able to present it, he was publicly lectured by the governor of the Guaviare:

“You can give us seeds to sow, but unless there are markets to sell to and roads to reach them, you might as well not bother.”

A growl of assent elicited from the campesinos present. How many times had they heard this business about substitution crops? Everyone here knew the history of government and U.S. perfidy in these Godforsaken lowlands. During World War II, Colombia had allowed the U.S. Rubber Corporation into the Guaviare, back when practically no one lived here except for forest-dwelling Indians. They’d dug a road between San Jose and Calamar, lured a labor force here with daily cargo planes laden with food and supplies from Bogota--and then pulled out once the war ended. Abruptly stranded, the rubber tappers turned to hunting jaguars, tapirs, river otters and alligators, whose pelts provided sustenance until the wildlife was virtually exterminated.

By then, the 1950s, a civil war had erupted between Colombia’s two major political parties. The conflict, over a decade, expanded the property holdings of both sides’ leaders and drove thousands of small farmers from their land. In desperation, many fled to wild places like the Guaviare. When a truce was forged in the ‘60s, the government, eager to be rid of potential trouble in its midst, promoted further colonizations with radio ads that assured fertile land for the taking, and one-way flights for new settlers, courtesy of the Colombian air force.


In the former rubber port of San Jose del Guaviare, war-sick, dispossessed refugees were sold machetes and axes and told to walk until there were no more houses. They did, taking turns helping each other clear the jungle, turn tree trunks into boards, trap monkeys when there was nothing else to eat, and bury the children who died of malnutrition. Then, in the 1970s, government agricultural agents appeared with a plan. The Guaviare, they promised, would become a cornucopia of rice and corn. They distributed seed, which everyone planted. The agency’s warehouses in San Jose filled with grains. When there was no more room, the people erected tents. Then they commandeered every available public space. Finally, when even the church was bursting and cereals were spilling into the streets, they knew that something had gone wrong.

The problem was simple: hauling commodities over the Andes to markets in Bogota or beyond cost many times what they were worth. The agricultural agents stopped coming, and the mountains of rotting grain had to be dumped into the river. The colonists of the Guaviare were again left to survive alone--until 1979, when some now-legendary, husky blond men appeared, bringing very different seeds. Roads, they explained, weren’t a problem. This time, buyers would come to them.

Now, 16 years later--or maybe 16 years too late--here was President Samper saying: “We will never abandon you again. Many doubt that we can do this. But we must.” PLANTE, he explained, was for small subsistence growers, who cultivate an estimated half of all illicit crops in the country. It would make low-interest credit available for substitutes with good market potential, like rubber, oil palm, palm hearts and tropical fruits. During the four to 10 years it would take for these trees to mature, the farmers could grow perishables--grains, bananas, sesame and cassava--that the government guaranteed to buy itself. At the same time, PLANTE would build roads and establish regional purchasing hubs. And, settlers would receive official, permanent title to their land--”unless, of course, you return to planting coca.”

Polite applause. At least, grunted one young grower, it wasn’t like the United Nations a few years back, with their caps and T-shirts, their comic books portraying coca as a seductress who leaves hapless campesinos exhausted and broke, and their schemes for pet boa constrictor farms and ornamental butterfly hatcheries. That substitution program had actually stimulated coca proliferation: To qualify for their credits, you had to be growing ilicitos. “At the time, a lot of us weren’t. So we started.”

As everyone here now realized, coca hadn’t solved all their problems and had brought plenty others. When it all began, buyers had paid top prices to hook them. Soon, colonos were exchanging their banana-stained shirts for fine silk and their plastic jugs of homemade sugar beer for multicolored bottles that lined the mirrors of new San Jose night clubs. Every week, chartered flights arrived filled with prostitutes from Bogota, even in backwaters like Calamar.

The intoxicating effect of such affluence led eventually, of course, to overproduction. By 1985, prices had collapsed and civic order along with them. Deranged by the sudden loss of their unaccustomed wealth, neighbors turned on each other. Thieves ran amok, and every morning bodies lay in the streets. Fortunately--thanks to the United States--coca prices crept back before everyone either fled or perished. In the early ‘90s, when the Bush administration tried for a while to clamp down on growers in Peru and Bolivia, Colombian production promptly ballooned again to meet the U.S. demand, which showed no signs of abating.

Today, no one in the Guaviare is as wealthy as when coca first appeared: In a region where everything costs double because it must be flown in, three hectares yield at best the peso equivalent of $1,200 per month. Right now, it’s lower, as the spraying has driven many buyers back to Peru. Everyone knows they’ll return--from one place or other, demand must be satisfied. But for many, a more modest living free of wild price gyrations, with guaranteed land titles and credit to grow viable, legal crops and run a few cattle, is increasingly an attractive option--if the government could ever be trusted to keep its word.


“But why,” complained Juan Carlos London~o, a leader of the coca growers’ recent protest march on San Jose, “do they think that bombing our fields will make us want to cooperate? Why not let people gradually phase out, say, a third of their coca each year while the government builds the roads and markets? Don’t they realize the spraying just drives people into the arms of the guerrillas?”


Hector Moreno, the man in charge of making the government keep its word, realizes much more than that. Enhancing the guerrillas’ popularity is just one of many paradoxes he deals with as the author and director of PLANTE. Another involves the subsidies they’ll have to pay 300,000 small farmers for crops. It’s always possible that the United States--a country that dictates drug policy elsewhere even while failing to control its own consumption--may object, because subsidies violate the spirit of free global trade. Not that Colombia is any less mercurial: Banco de la Republica, its federal reserve, identifies halting narcotrafico and slashing public spending as the nation’s two biggest economic priorities. But how can drugs be fought without spending money? PLANTE alone will cost $300 million. Colombia has just half that budgeted and is counting on the balance coming from interested foreign countries. Thus far, the European Union is interested. The United States is not.

Moreno also ponders the 50% of illicit crops not grown by campesinos . Over the past five years, the coca equivalent of 30,000 prospectors have arrived in Miraflores, an old rubber camp nine hours downriver from Calamar--not to colonize but to engage in narco-agribusiness. Months into Operation Radiance, none of Miraflores’ enormous commercial fields had been sprayed yet. The official explanation mentions strategic police timetables, but the truth was that Miraflores is too remote for planes to safely reach and return. The solution means finding money to build and fortify another base. Meanwhile, traffickers ship cocaine northward in Boeing 727s that they can afford to junk after one a single flight, because a $4 million airplane is a trifle compared to its $150 million cargo.

Illicit crops aren’t worth much more than legal ones, until smuggling them into the U.S. hikes their value by a factor of 200. Years before running for president, Ernesto Samper wrote an article suggesting that the sole remedy for such distortions, so costly in dollars, lives and ecosystems, may be legalization. Given current geopolitical realities, that option is inconceivable. Unless--as many here pray--the gringos manage to synthesize the cocaine alkaloid and eliminate the need for coca leaves altogether, both Samper and Moreno believe the only hope is for farmers to accept the carrot of substitute crops. However, since cassava or palm oil can’t compete with the price of cocaine, that carrot must be pounded down their throats with the stick of total eradication.

Yet Moreno, who spent years studying rural colonization, knows that carrots and sticks are behavior modification tools that avoid confronting root causes. “For generations, we’ve postponed agrarian reform in this country. We’re now paying for our greed. Until we give people land to colonize and the infrastructure to live in it, drugs will exist for generations more.” The long-term solution he envisions to his nation’s deeper ills will cost much more than war-surplus helicopters and herbicide: He has proposed practically building a new state in Colombia’s eastern plains, equipped with roads, schools and clinics, and relocating every possible colonist out of the rain forest.

But the issue of land reform here is no longer just a matter of rich versus poor. What may truly undermine Colombia’s future is that not that narcotraficantes have bought its police and politicians, but that they’re literally buying the country. The pressure to launder money, combined with macho ranching fantasies, has translated into a nationwide real estate nightmare. Fully one-third of Colombia’s fertile land now belongs to drug barons. Their immense acreage is rarely economically productive: the narco norm is owning a few show cattle and having stables filled with expensive paso fino horses. This rural tragedy has deepened with the continued onslaught of cheap agricultural imports, as more Colombian farmers willingly give up and sell. Drug dealers are even buying up 450-year-old coffee plantations and ripping out the bushes for pasture.


Nor have cities been spared. Property values in north Bogota now rival Manhattan or Tokyo, as narcos burdened with excess dollars routinely purchase entire neighborhoods. When owners of provincial, tile-roofed family houses insist that they wouldn’t dream of selling, an offer five times above appraisal--plus a hint of what might happen should they refuse--usually changes their minds.

Then, because construction is another deft way to launder cash, the old dignified brick homes of Bogota are swept away by monstrous condo towers, with prices that defy laws of supply and demand and designs that shatter all standards of architecture taste. Worst of all are the horrors rising over the once-graceful city of Cali: multistory spires and prisms with diagonal yellow sashes and red racing stripes, grotesque Greek-Renaissance miscegenations topped with pink vaults and the inevitable parabolic antennae encrusting the skyline like gigantic steel fungi.

Such unbridled exorbitance has meant that few middle-class urban Colombians can afford homes anymore. The myth that the nation’s economy has benefited lavishly from drugs “is exactly that: a myth,” says Banco de la Republica director Salomon Kalmano’vitz. “We figure $3.5 billion in untaxed, money-laundered contraband enters every year.” Electro-domestics, computers, clothing, cameras, luxury automobiles and pharmaceuticals--all purchased with narco-dollars, all whisked past suborned customs officials--sell by the ton in proliferating “free” zones that undercut lawful businesses and knock historic Colombian industries like textiles into bankruptcy. Bogota’s streets grow glutted with inexpensive cars imported with funny money, their drivers forced to conduct business over cellular phones while languishing in stupendous traffic snarls. Sidewalk vendors hawk hot designer fashions in front of legitimate apparel stores, ambushing customers before they get through the door. And nearly everyone fills their prescriptions and has film developed in cut-rate drugstore and photo-processing chains owned by the families of cartel members.

“This is fine for consumers,” Kalmano’vitz concedes: “Personal computers cost less here than in Miami. But it weakens our commercial sector, our industry, our productivity. Our nation.”


A hundred miles south of Bogota, in Huila province, it is possible to stand atop the Andes and have the illusion that, except for its two seacoasts, the entire country is visible. It is a land with so much: more than a thousand rivers, greater biodiversity than nearly anywhere on earth, deep soils, rich harvests and a capital still called the “Athens of the Americas” for its many universities and museums. There are also its people, a high percentage of them educated and enterprising, yet stigmatized everywhere because their nationality is linked to heinous substances whose consumption at home is negligible compared to that of the so-called developed world.

Thousands here have died for the sake of other people’s distant fancy for a certain white powder. Now, the very liquid of life is draining from these mountains, as Colombia’s cloud-forest watershed is torn down to produce yet another. Like their lowland coca counterparts, poppy growers on precipitous Andean inclines ravage about two hectares of nature for every one they plant in narcotics. The magnitude of deforestation is revealed by a World Bank statistic: Ten years ago, Colombia ranked third in world hydroelectric potential. Today it is 25th.


The planes have been here to spray, but in the Huila hamlet of Turquestan, poppy farmers like to point out two things. One is the remains of the police helicopter that guerrillas downed in a ravine nearby. The other is growing on the steepest slopes, from the banks of gushing streams right up to the ridgelines.

Concealed among thick, sheltering rows of corn are pink, white, red, and lavender constellations of tissuey poppies, bearing multiple buds swollen with raw opium milk. “After the spraying, they just grew better,” marvels one grower. “It’s like fertilizer.” By observing, the farmers have learned what university ecologists in Bogota confirm; have confirmed: As glyphosate biodegrades, it enriches the soil with phosphorus and essential amino acids--veritable poppy food.

They have also learned to organize. With the blessing of municipal officials, their Association for Alternatives to Poppies has a deal for President Samper, and for the United States: “The problem is huge, but the solution is so small,” says association president Israel Ramirez. “If they bring us fairness instead of fumigation, find us decent prices for our fruit and beets, and begin building roads to get us to market, in six months we will rip these flowers out ourselves.”

He stoops to pluck a crimson blossom. “If not, we will grow them as long as there’s demand. And nothing can really stop us.”