Mixed Results Seen in Coca Eradication Program

Five years ago, the U.S. government began financing a series of projects meant to reduce the drug trade in the South American nation of Colombia. The program, known as Plan Colombia, included extensive fumigation of coca fields and financing for development of legal crops. After five years and more than $3 billion in U.S. government funding, the program has provided mixed results.

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We're going to report now on efforts to tackle drugs. Five years ago, the US government began financing a series of projects meant to reduce the drug trade in the South American nation of Colombia. This program was known as Plan Colombia and it included extensive fumigation of coca fields as well as financing for development of legal crops. So after five years and more than $3 billion in US government dollars, the program has mixed results. Brian Ellsworth traveled to the Putumayo province of southern Colombia to file this report.


Emilio Gomez(ph) and his neighbors stand in the yard of his home in Colombia's Putumayo province. Although Putumayo is in the middle of the verdant Amazon, his yard looks like a desert. Three weeks ago a crop duster sprayed herbicide as part of an effort to kill coca plants. The plane killed some of his coca, but he says it also turned his banana trees into withered stumps.

Mr. EMILIO GOMEZ: (Through Translator) Wherever they see a small crop of coca, they fumigate everything: bananas, cassava, corn.

ELLSWORTH: But the fumigation didn't call all of his coca. About a hundred yards away lies a field rich in the bright green leaves Gomez uses to make the base for cocaine. He says he plans to continue growing coca.

Farmers like Gomez represent some of the challenges facing the US-backed Plan Colombia. The plan was designed to break the back of a thriving drug industry in a nation wracked by a 41-year-old civil war. State Department statistics show that between 2000 and 2003, the program reduced Colombia's coca cultivation by nearly a third. Fumigation has reduced cultivation of the crop by 40 percent in traditional coca zones like Putumayo. But critics are now saying Plan Colombia's effectiveness is declining as the nation's drug trade adapts to the fumigation measures. Figures recently released by the State Department show Colombia's total coca cultivation remained nearly unchanged in 2004.

Luis Fernando Gaviria is the mayor of Puerto Asis, a port town of 35,000 that was once a thriving center of cocaine trade. Gaviria's skeptical of the overall progress.

Mayor LUIS FERNANDO GAVIRIA (Puerto Asis): (Through Translator) We've noticed a movement of coca cultivation as well as the people who make their living from it.

ELLSWORTH: Gaviria says neighboring provinces are now reporting higher coca cultivation, which suggests the problem is simply being shuffled from one place to another. Back in the capital city of Bogota, supporters of the program are more convinced of its success. Conservative Senator German Vargas is a supporter of Plan Colombia. Speaking from the Colombian Senate, he says the program has been crucial in boosting state presence in areas dominated by Colombia's paramilitary and guerrilla armies.

Senator GERMAN VARGAS: (Through Translator) Plan Colombia is a fundamental part of the eradication of illicit crops which is being carried out in the coca-growing regions of the country.

ELLSWORTH: He says coca cultivation would be even higher than it is today without the fumigation. And even critics of the program acknowledge that greater police and military presence in coca-growing zones has led to a drop in violent crime. But here in Putumayo many farmers say they remain dependent on coca.

Mr. ANGEL RUBANO(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

ELLSWORTH: Two years ago, Angel Rubano pulled out hundreds of coca shrubs under the supervision of US military officers. He planted 500 acres of sugar as part of Plan Colombia's effort to replace coca with legal crops. But he never received the financing promised by local authorities for sugar processing machinery.

(Soundbite of digging)

Mr. RUBANO: (Through Translator) What are we going to do if we don't have a way to process the cane? It's not like we can eat it all with our own teeth.

ELLSWORTH: Now the cane is starting to root and Rubano says it will likely go to waste. So to ensure steady income, he's once again planting coca in his front yard.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Ellsworth in Bogota.

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