Dust-up over coca spraying

Times Staff Writer

Ecuador's foreign minister said Thursday that Colombia's decision to resume aerial fumigation of coca plants near the two nations' border after a yearlong suspension was "an unfriendly and hostile act" that could cause a break in diplomatic relations.

Ecuadorean President-elect Rafael Correa, speaking to reporters in Buenos Aires, agreed with Foreign Minister Francisco Carrion, saying Colombia's resumption of spraying Tuesday was a hostile act.

"We cannot accept fumigation on our northern border," Correa said, according to Reuters new service.

Correa takes office Jan. 15.

In an interview Thursday with a Quito TV reporter, Carrion said Colombia had acted unilaterally and with a lack of appreciation for Ecuador's efforts to contain Colombian guerrillas and accommodate about 500,000 Colombian residents, the "great majority of them illegal."

He said Ecuador was considering a response, and didn't rule out suspending diplomatic relations or "limiting the entry" of Colombians into Ecuador.

Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said in a statement that his government had resumed aerial fumigation because of the threat of land mines laid by leftist rebels, who are funded in part by drug sales.

Several workers were killed this year when a mine exploded in a national park where they were pulling up coca plants, which are used in the production of cocaine.

The two countries' usually amicable relations have been strained since the start of Plan Colombia in 2000, the $4-billion anti-drug and anti-terrorism program funded by the United States.

Ecuador says refugees are fleeing into the country, and that it is not adequately compensated by the United States for the support it gives to the war on terrorism and drugs.

In recent months, relations with Colombia have hit a low point, a Foreign Ministry spokesman in Quito, the capital, said Thursday.

The brother of an Ecuadorean general was killed by Colombian police at a border crossing this summer, and two Ecuadoreans were killed by Colombian soldiers in October as they crossed the San Miguel River.

Colombian forces fired a mortar round at an Ecuadorean border bus station in August, wounding three people.

The southern Colombian state of Putumayo in the Amazon River basin has long been a center of illegal coca cultivation. It borders an Ecuadorean farming and oil-producing region.

Under Plan Colombia, crop dusters began dropping tons of weedkiller in an effort to wipe out the coca crops.

Ecuador claimed almost from the beginning of the program that winds and currents in the San Miguel River, which separates the two countries, brought the weedkiller into the country, damaging crops and the health of citizens.

Several farmers living near Lago Agrio, the biggest Ecuadorean border town across from Putumayo, told The Times this summer that the planes sometimes overshot the Colombian side of the border and dropped weedkiller on their land.

In addition to killing crops, they said, it made their land infertile.

A year ago, Colombia agreed to restrict such flights to six miles from the border.

But last week, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe called his Ecuadorean counterpart, Alfredo Palacio, to say that fumigation flights would resume to as close as 100 yards from the border.

Ecuadorean officials have long insisted that Colombia doesn't do enough to police its side of the border, and that the Colombian armed forces should be pulling up the coca plants instead of spraying.

But Colombia says the area is too dangerous to patrol, a view reinforced by the recent suspension of U.S. aid programs in the region because of security concerns.

Uribe's office did not respond to a request for comment Thursday, but the president told reporters in Colombia that he was forced to resume spraying because of an increase in coca plants since the suspension a year ago.

"Everyone will have to understand that Colombia cannot allow the [leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] to keep growing drugs in the area," Uribe said, according to Reuters.

Colombia said the damage caused by the spraying of weedkiller was negligible.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that about 15,000 Colombians are living in camps on the Ecuadorean side of the border. Officials in Quito say that decades of civil war have pushed hundreds of thousands of Colombians to seek sanctuary in Ecuador.


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