Deep in the Colombian Jungle, Coca Still Thrives

This is the second report in a five-part series.

A cocaine lab hidden in the jungle of Colombia.

A cocaine lab hidden in the Colombian jungle. A lone man can process about 375 pounds of coca leaves a day. Carlos Villalon/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Carlos Villalon/Getty Images
A Colombian peasant displays coca seeds from his plantation

A Colombian peasant displays coca seeds from his plantation near the San Miguel River, in Teteye, department of Putumayo, along Colombia's border with Ecuador, December 2006. Rodrigo Buendia/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Rodrigo Buendia/AFP/Getty Images

The war on drugs is fought full force in Colombia, where for seven years the United States has used crop dusters to spray a deadly defoliant to wipe out coca, the shiny leaf used to make cocaine.

The spraying, which began in force in southern Colombia in late 2000, has wiped out huge, industrial-sized fields of coca. Paired with an intensive American-backed effort to modernize Colombia's armed forces, the program — called Plan Colombia — has also pushed back Marxist rebels that depend on the drug trade to finance their long war against the state, American policy makers contend.

"I think Plan Colombia has been extraordinarily valuable," said David Murray, a senior policy analyst at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). "I believe, amongst other things, it's helped stabilize and save an emerging democracy that is now living under the rule of law."

But Plan Colombia, which has cost $5.4 billion, most of it to bankroll fumigation and modernize Colombia's army, has done little to erode the flow of cocaine into the United States. In Colombia, coca has not been wiped out, just spread out — redistributed to smaller, harder-to-reach plots, spread out across virtually every state, in a country that is twice the size of France.

The fact is, virtually as much coca is growing in Colombia as was cultivated at the start of the aerial fumigation program in 2000, American statistics show.

And United Nations data shows that while there has been success at eradicating coca across the main coca growing countries in the South American Andes — Colombia, Bolivia and Peru -– the region still produces more than enough cocaine to satisfy demand in the United States and Europe.

"Eradication has fallen flat on its face," said Myles Frechette, who was Washington's ambassador to Colombia in the late 1990's. "We've discovered, and it's right in the reports by the State Department and ONDCP, that after five years of Plan Colombia, the amount of acreage under cultivation for coca is the same as it was five years ago."

Coca Country

On a recent day, five single-engine spray planes returned to their base in Tumaco, a poor honky-tonk town on Colombia's Pacific coast, after a mission across coca country in Narino province. The planes had been fumigating coca fields in a region that has, in recent years, become the epicenter of Colombia's cocaine industry: A swath of jungles and soft, rolling hills that have attracted coca farmers, Marxist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and the army.

The idea, American officials have said, is to hit the coca farmers repeatedly, until they give up growing the plant. In essence, the plan has been to hit the traffickers where it hurts most: at the source.

The pummeled fields are tucked away in hamlets like La Balsa, a tiny community of Afro-Colombian families near the porous border with Ecuador. It's a far cry from the huge coca fields that spray planes used to target.

But the harder-to-reach plots are not really a byproduct of the spray program. They're part of a strategy aimed at evading the spray planes.

Getting to La Balsa requires a bone-jarring journey to a riverside port community, then a ride on a fast-running river. Then, there's a two-hour hike along a narrow trail, deep into rebel territory. It is in this type of lawless region where coca grows — an area with no roads, no telephones, no sewage or services. There is no state presence whatsoever.

Cocaine Labs in Lawless Territory

What one does find here are rivers used to move in the chemicals needed to mulch coca into coca paste, and to transport the coca paste out to the cocaine-making labs. La Balsa is also a few hours' walk from Ecuador, through which cocaine is often transported.

Though desperately poor, La Balsa has found a way to ease poverty with a boom crop that never busts: coca.

Small comforts abound — tin roofs, homes made from wood planks. So farmers plant coca... even after the spray planes strike, as they did on a recent day.

Jorlin Giovanny, 23, was busy one recent afternoon splitting stalks of coca that had been sprayed. He and a companion were trying to save the seeds. They planned to replant, and fast.

"This afternoon we're going to dig and plant," he explained. "We can't lose time."

Another villager who makes a living in another facet of the drug trade — churning coca leaves into coca paste — explained that the people in La Balsa have no other option, even if the defoliant keeps falling from the sky. The villagers plant bananas, yucca and other crops, but for their own consumption. The coca is what brings in the cash, said Uber Buila.

"You try to save what you can," said Buila. "Imagine, this is a cocalera zone. Here, the people don't have anything else to live on. So if they fumigate, two or three months later, people are planting again."

Less Violence, New Rebel Groups

For Colombia, the impact of the American aid has been mixed. The money the United States has spent in Colombia has helped sharply reduce violence, American and Colombian officials say, since the army and police have been able to increase security in hundreds of towns.

Fernando Araujo, Colombia's foreign minister, has said the assistance has helped the army better fight two Marxist rebel groups. Colombia's government, led by President Alvaro Uribe, has also overseen the disarmament of thousands of right-wing paramilitary fighters who participated in talks with his administration. More than 500 drug traffickers have been extradited, while the amount of seized cocaine — and the number of drug labs destroyed — continues to break records.

But critics say that the central goal in Plan Colombia — delivering a powerful blow to drug trafficking — has failed to materialize. Cocaine continues to permeate Colombian society. Rebel forces remain strong. And new paramilitary groups, solely focused on the drug trade, are sprouting up and replacing the old groups that disarmed.

John Walsh, who closely tracks the drug war for the Washington Office on Latin America, a policy group critical of American policy in the region, said that little has changed despite the purported advances.

"Have we arrested or extradited this or that trafficker?" he said. "Have we disarticulated this or that organization? Have we moved, denied trafficking routes or patterns? Often the answers are yes, yes, yes."

He continued: "For every grand success that official statistics describe, there'll be an array of countervailing factors that tend to dull the impact... the business as usual taking over, the trade regrouping, adapting and coming on in worse form."

The Book of the Dead

Across Narino is the town of Llorente, located on a lonely stretch of highway. Years ago, this was little more than a hamlet, home to a few farmers and their families. Today, it's a cocaine boom town, crawling with drug traffickers. The police patrol with assault rifles. They spend their nights in a specially protected bunker-like building.

The spray planes have hit coca near the town, and the security forces have battled with the armed groups that roam in the region. But the violence has not ebbed much, said a local Catholic priest, Richard Yawe, who hails from Nigeria.

Sitting in the parish hall, he displayed a thick black book. In it, he and the other priest in Llorente jot down the names and ages of people who've died in the town. Also, the circumstances. Often, it's homicide.

"This is the book for the dead," he said. "Most of the people here in Llorente, we have here in the book for the dead. People have been assassinated, killed by bullets, involved in drugs."

Further to the east, in the foothills of the Andes, is another town, Egido, also hit hard by drugs and violence. Indeed, the best-known landmark is the Red Bridge, from which armed groups would throw the bodies of their victims.

Now, things are calmer. The American aid has meant the arrival of security forces, once absent from the region.

But few think that the region is much closer to resolving its drug problems. Farmers complain there are no markets for their legal crops.

Yoni Sanchez, a local government official, explained.

"The people need markets, and they need to transport their products to big cities. And we don't have roads, we don't even have a good telecommunications," he said. "I think it's very expensive for people to transport their products."

Making a Living

Touring the region in a four-wheel drive, you run into people like Maximiliano Valdez. He's made a living working coca fields. And like other coca farmers approached along the main unpaved road through the region, he insisted that he planned to give up on coca and the drug trade.

He spoke in what was left of a drug lab burned down by the police on a recent raid. "This is going to end," he said, speaking of the drug trade.

But the next day, he was out in the fields, shaving coca off coca bushes with his bare hands. He was accompanied by a couple of friends. They planned to sell the coca, which would then be turned into coca paste and then cocaine. It would likely wind up in the United States.

"If there were programs to allow you to plant something else and help us, things would be a lot better here, to allow us to leave this behind," he explained. "That doesn't exist. Here, there's nothing else to do."

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