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NY Today
August 14, 1998

U.S. Will Help Colombia Coca Growers Switch to Other Crops

By DIANA JEAN SCHEMO

BOGOTA, Colombia -- After long refusing to pay for programs to help Colombia's coca growers switch to legal crops, the United States is now agreeing to finance alternative development under this country's new administration.

While the precise amounts and mechanisms of the help have not been determined, U.S. officials say that development aid will be part of the U.S. anti-drug strategy in Colombia.

Colombia's new president, Andres Pastrana, has insisted that aerial fumigation of drug crops, the cornerstone of U.S. counter-narcotics efforts here, is useless without providing coca growers with a legal alternative. He has announced his intention to create what he calls a Marshall Plan for government investment in coca-growing regions, similar to the U.S.-financed reconstruction of Western Europe after World War II.

In the past, U.S. officials have given minimal aid -- less than $1 million a year -- to finance consultants to study alternative development in Colombia, but no direct assistance for crop substitution work.

In Peru and Bolivia, rural development, in conjunction with eradication or other law enforcement efforts, has paid off. In Peru, coca production dropped 40 percent in the last two years; in Bolivia, it declined 7 percent last year.

But U.S. officials have ruled out such aid for Colombia in the past, citing distrust of the previous administration of President Ernesto Samper and rebel dominance of coca-growing regions.

Sergio Uribe, a consultant to the National Drugs Council who advised Pastrana on drug control strategy during his campaign, called the U.S. move to support alternative development "the first admission that American eradication policy is not working."

"It's what we've always told them, that eradication for eradication's sake doesn't work," Uribe said.

As the head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, Thomas Constantine, arrived here to lay wreaths honoring the 143 soldiers and police officers killed in a pre-inaugural rampage by rebel forces last week, U.S. officials denied that any Americans were among those killed or taken hostage.

A rebel commander, Jorge Briceno of the the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, had been quoted in the daily El Espectador as saying that Americans were among those abducted by the group during the hostilities.

"No American citizen was captured or killed during the recent guerrilla attacks in Colombia," a U.S. Embassy statement said. The attacks covered half the countryside and leveled the counter-narcotics base at Miraflores. About 300 Colombians were killed, and 124 police officers and soldiers were abducted.

In a letter of condolence to Pastrana, sent hours before his inauguration last Friday and made public in Bogota, President Clinton pledged $2 million to help internal refugees, and promised to seek congressional approval for stepping up aid to the military and police.

"We also propose to increase our other assistance to Colombia to include support for a multi-year alternative development program and for justice sector reforms and human rights," Clinton wrote.

Pastrana has made peace negotiations with Colombia's 20,000 armed rebels a priority of his administration. The rebels have indicated they would curtail the drug trade among peasants in zones they control as part of a peace accord. But some see the offer as a gambit to gain autonomy over parts of eastern Colombia, from which the rebels could launch further attacks after signing a peace accord.

U.S. officials are skeptical that the rebels, who are estimated to earn hundreds of millions of dollars a year for protecting coca crops and laboratories, would seriously curtail trafficking. "That would be like killing the goose that lays the golden egg," one said. Last week's attack on Miraflores has only heightened their doubts.

U.S. officials are saying that aid for alternative development would flow only to areas where the government has established control. The aid could be a way to strengthen the state presence, whose absence peasants in remote regions cite as one reason for guerrilla control.

U.S. officials, who insisted on anonymity, said that aid might not take the form of crop substitution, but could involve finding other ways for reformed coca growers to make a living, like development of local industry. Most Colombians live in rural areas, but their country's economic opening in the early 1990s destroyed the market for traditional domestic crops.

White House anti-drug chief Barry McCaffrey told reporters last week that eradication would remain "the central aspect of U.S. counternarcotics thinking." He added, "That can't be taken off the table."

Thursday, as a new military high command took over, Miraflores remained in a state of "red alert," beyond government control, a police spokesman here said.

Pastrana replaced Gen. Manuel Jose Bonett, chief of the Combined Armed Forces, and other senior commanders with officers who have openly supported a peace agreement with the rebels.

The military is particularly discredited now. Investigations have shown government soldiers were beaten after commanders failed to back up units under rebel attack. The military's budget largely benefits senior officers, while foot soldiers often go hungry, military experts here say.

Two senior officers are under investigation for ties to right-wing paramilitary death squads, which traffic in drugs. A third, Gen. Ivan Ramirez, lost his U.S. visa because of his alleged ties to the death squads.

A Washington Post report that Ramirez was also a paid informant for the U.S. CIA has caused a stir in Colombia.



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