Major Cocaine Source Wanes

Times Staff Writer

For the first time in at least a decade, the amount of coca grown in Colombia is falling sharply, largely the result of an aggressive, U.S.-backed aerial fumigation campaign.

Repeated spraying by crop-dusters plus government programs to encourage farmers to pull up coca plants have reduced Colombia’s coca, the source of cocaine, by 38% to 252,000 acres in the past three years, according to a United Nations study released this year.

What’s more, coca cultivation appears not to have simply moved elsewhere from Colombia, for years the source of 90% of the cocaine on U.S. streets, as it has in the past. While both Bolivia and Peru have reported slight increases, the rise has not been enough to offset the decline in Colombia. The U.N. study found that throughout South America, the number of acres devoted to coca dropped 22% in the past three years.


The program has not yet affected the street price of cocaine in the United States, and some congressional critics have complained that it focuses too much on coca and not enough on Colombia’s expanding crop of the poppies used to make heroin. But fumigation is working, according to interviews and visits conducted during a weeklong trip in the region around this small coca-growing town.

“The fumigation has blasted everything,” said Javier Yepes, a 40-year-old coca farmer who was rushing to harvest his plants after spray planes wiped out his neighbors’ farm in a village in southern Colombia.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, elected last year on a promise to crack down on the drug business and the leftist guerrillas it helps fund, has pledged to continue fumigating until there are no coca bushes left in Colombia.

U.S. officials are also publicly acknowledging what had long been private information: that the U.S. spraying operations have become a key weapon in Colombia’s 40-year-old internal conflict, which pits the army and an illegal paramilitary force against leftist rebels. Both the paramilitaries and the rebels rely on the coca trade for financing.

“We’re seeing a little bit of the money dry up,” said Gen. James T. Hill, in charge of U.S. military operations in Latin America, during a congressional hearing last week. “The eradication effort is beginning to make some inroads in their ability to fund themselves.”

But the success of the U.S. State Department’s effort to halve coca production here by 2005, which has cost $2 billion to date, has also ruined the lives of thousands of people in southern Colombia, where migrants and dirt-poor farmers seized on coca as a steady, if illegal, source of income. Local farmers are suddenly caught in the cross-fire of a vicious and unpredictable war between rebels and paramilitaries fighting over the remains of the cocaine trade.

And tens of thousands have fled the region, a vast exodus of poor, uneducated people looking for money to feed themselves in an economy in which unemployment hovers at 15%.

“Yes, the spraying has been a success,” said Jose Efren Villota, 48, as he surveyed the ruins of his once-profitable coca farm. “But it has come at a high cost.”

The idea behind Plan Colombia was simple: By cutting back on coca supply, State Department narcotics experts hoped to drive up street prices so high that addicts would cease using the drug and seek treatment.

Instead, the price in the U.S. remains steady at anywhere between $20 and $200 per gram, depending on location and market conditions, according to recent congressional testimony from Drug Enforcement Administration officials.

There are varying explanations for why the price hasn’t gone up.

U.S. officials say they believe the market is starting to change. State Department officials confidently predict that prices will increase soon as cocaine in the pipeline between Colombia and the U.S. is used up. DEA officials say the program is cutting into an oversupply of cocaine at the street level, and that dealers are cutting the purity of the cocaine they sell.

“Our years of effort, and the money that we have invested in Colombia, are beginning to pay off,” said Paul Simons, the acting assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, during a congressional hearing last week. “We believe we have turned a corner, particularly with the coca crop.”

Critics of the plan say that cutting into cocaine production is simply forcing nimble drug traffickers to adjust. Users who cannot find cocaine are choosing other drugs, such as Ecstasy, to satisfy their needs, reducing demand and therefore keeping the price stable. Coke dealers have switched to selling cheaper, easier-to-obtain drugs such as methamphetamine.

“We have been forcing the drug economy to evolve,” said Sanho Tree, a researcher at the Institute for Policy Studies who has been sharply critical of the war on drugs. “For decades, we have been selectively breeding super traffickers who adapt to market conditions very quickly with new substitutes.”

The effects of the program in Colombia -- on farmers trying to make a living and on the country’s internal conflict -- are more clear-cut.

Together, the guerrillas and paramilitaries are estimated to make between $150 million and $300 million per year from the coca trade, U.S. officials say. Both groups acknowledge “taxing” coca production about $100 per kilogram, or about 10% of the price at the local level. Both also have been accused of processing and trafficking the drug themselves.

But they are now retreating in the face of a U.S.-backed offensive by the Colombian military, at least partly due to economic difficulties, according to military experts, State Department officials and interviews with paramilitaries.

Guerrilla deserters have told military officials that they face shortages of ammunition and even food. Paramilitaries are now at war among themselves. Some are trying to remain in the coca business while others are trying to get out of it.

“It’s no mystery how we make our money: We charge a tax on the coca grown” here, said Alvaro, a paramilitary commander in El Tigre, a coca-growing town in the province of Putumayo, as his heavily armed men nervously patrolled a road near the site of a recent battle with guerrillas. “Of course [the spraying] has affected us.”

U.S. statements about the effect of the fumigation on Colombia’s war represent a remarkable turnabout.

When Plan Colombia was launched in 1999, U.S. aid was restricted to antinarcotics efforts. Several U.S. representatives worried that the U.S. was about to get involved in a quagmire like Vietnam.

But after the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress changed its tune, allowing the Colombia aid to be used for military purposes against the rebels and the paramilitaries, both of whom have been designated terrorist groups by the State Department.

Antidrug helicopters could now be used to track guerrillas. U.S. intelligence could aid the search for paramilitaries.

The U.S. now plays a greater role than ever in the conflict. American pilots contracted by the State Department fly crop dusters following routes over coca fields mapped by Defense Department contractors. So far this year, three U.S. contractors have been kidnapped and five have been killed as a result of plane crashes.

U.S. officials now say the fumigations are a success because they are helping Colombia win its war -- no matter the effect on the war on drugs at home.

“There are three benefits from spraying: reducing the supply of drugs, halting environmental damage from the very dirty and destructive coca industry, and reducing funding for terrorist groups in Colombia,” one U.S. official wrote in an e-mail interview last fall. “Even if cultivation moved elsewhere, the terrorism rationale would still apply.”

Putumayo is a province of wide brown rivers and soft green hills that at one time produced much of the world’s cocaine.

But hillsides once covered with the bright green leaves and neatly tended rows of healthy coca plants are now filled only with dying yellow bushes or new-grown jungle brush. Towns dedicated to the harvest and production of cocaine have been abandoned like ghost towns in the old American West, their stores empty, their people vanished.

Of more than a dozen farmers interviewed in mid-May, not a single one planned to continue planting coca. Repeated visits by the crop dusters dropping glyphosate -- the chemical found in the commonly used herbicide Roundup -- wiped out the coca as well as nearby food crops and convinced them to give up the business.

This represents a significant change from the past, when coca farmers would defiantly replant their fumigated fields. Until the recent drop, studies had indicated a steady increase in coca production in Colombia from the mid-1990s.

“It’s better to rip this stuff out and see how the government treats us,” said Villota, who was chopping down his coca plants with a machete in the hope that the government would pay him for the deed. All around him, the hillsides were littered with dead coca bushes.

Many coca farmers also say that the repeated spraying has sickened them, their children and their animals.

Several studies conducted by the U.S. and Colombian governments have found no evidence to back up claims of long-term health damage. They say that the chemical has no long-term effects, and that coca processing, in which gasoline and sulfuric acid are frequently used, is far more damaging to the environment.

The spraying also is pushing farmers back into poverty. In a country where the minimum wage is $1,200 a year, a coca farmer with three acres could clear almost 10 times that.

For many itinerant farm workers, the money amounted to little. But for local families, it was a way to buy school uniforms or a motorcycle or an electric generator. Now, the boom is over and the money is gone. Many coca farmers have decided to simply pick up and leave.

Although Colombia’s crops diminished overall, the U.N. study found that some provinces have seen tremendous jumps in coca cultivation as people seek out places where spraying isn’t yet concentrated.

An estimated 50,000 people, or about 15% of the local population, moved out of Putumayo last year alone, according to the government’s survey of displaced people.

Here in El Topacio, a hamlet of a few dozen homes in the heart of coca country, most of the families abandoned their homes and moved to new coca frontiers elsewhere in Colombia. Of the 138 families who once lived here, only 32 remain.

“The fumigation has done away with everything: the town, the business, the people,” said Omar Parramelendez, 38, a community leader in El Topacio.

The decline in coca in this region has also unleashed more fighting between guerrillas and paramilitaries over the remaining patches of the crop.

In the towns, the murder rate has soared as both sides pick off urban sympathizers. And in the countryside, the two groups have waged bloody battles.

“We lost 23 people in February -- that’s a lot for a tightknit group,” said Tike, a paramilitary political commander, as he watched about two dozen of his fighters patrol through a field of dying coca bushes -- a crop that he said belonged to local farmers. Farmers are unsure of what lies ahead.

Some, like Yepes, are resigned to poverty. This month, he watched a trio of workers he hired ripping off the last leaves from his woody, five-foot-high coca bushes, rushing to beat the spray planes.

Four years ago, he sold his family’s coffee farm in the Colombia highlands when worldwide coffee prices had plummeted to buy land here in Putumayo to take advantage of the coca boom.

Now, he seemed weary, like a boxer bloodied by a long match, unsteady on his feet and unsure of what to do next.

“I’ll plant corn, or yuca, or plantains,” he said. “But we won’t plant more coca. They’ll just spray me.”

Those such as Villota and Parramelendez who stayed behind in El Topacio have scrambled to take advantage of government programs designed to reward those who give up coca.

Parramelendez and two other men from the village gathered one recent day just outside the village on a muddy track that leads to coca fields. Heat, humidity and cloudy skies made the farm feel like a bleak, gray sauna.

The men trod through sucking, ankle-deep mud to get to Villota’s coca farm, about 30 acres of cleared hills surrounded by thick green jungle. It had once earned Villota and two partners about $60,000 per year.

Money like that had convinced Villota and others in El Topacio to ignore earlier government offers to give up their coca plants in exchange for an alternative development aid package worth about $800 -- a cow, some chickens and seeds.

But the planes came again and again, spraying the land around this town three times in a year, and the townspeople finally decided to give up.

Those who stayed signed up for the latest iteration of the Colombian government’s attempt to wean them from coca. Now called “Forest Guardians,” the men get paid $150 a month to chop down the coca and reforest the area with new trees.

Government representatives have already told the men the money will only last a few years. After that, they will be on their own: poor men with no education and no prospects for jobs.

They know this, and they worry. But there is not much they can do. The forces that govern the ebb and flow of coca are far beyond their control.

“It’s better to pull it up than get fumigated and have your fields ruined and your health damaged,” said Alveiro Solorzano, a 25-year-old who was hacking away at coca bushes with a sharp machete. “Coca just brings trouble.”