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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

With money from the U.S., Colombia has been aggressively using a fleet of crop dusters to fumigate coca plants - the crop used to make cocaine. But after seven years and more than $5 billion, American statistics show there is as much coca today as when the program began. So now, Colombia is increasingly using a different strategy - uprooting the coca, roots and all, by hand. It is expensive, dangerous and time-consuming.

And as NPR's Juan Forero reports from El Mirador, it looks like the future of the war on drugs.

JUAN FORERO: Dozens of men called coca eradicators work in two-men teams. One uses a hoe to weaken the root. The other pulls and tugs until the sturdy bush has been pulled from the ground.

(Soundbite of people talking)

FORERO: They work under a relentless sun on a steep hillside in Southern Colombia. It's backbreaking. It's also dangerous.

(Soundbite of man talking on two-way radio)

FORERO: That's the sound of Marxist rebels just over the hill here on a mountaintop called El Mirador, one group is communicating with another and a policeman is picking up the signal on a scanner. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the rebel group known as the FARC, makes money off the coca and cocaine produced here. So they often target the eradicators and the policemen assigned to provide security. Already dozens have been killed, usually by way of booby traps planted in the coca fields.

Still, the rebel presence is far enough away that the police barely react. And the eradicators continue their work. Until now, coca eradication had come from the air with the toxic herbicide sprayed across much of the country. The Bush administration says it's been a success, hitting the FARC and drug traffickers hard.

But the coca is still there. Farmers say their legal crops often get hit. While American officials say the chemical is safe neighboring Ecuador complains it's wafting into its territory and killing crops.

Privately, Colombian officials expressed frustration with the fumigation. Publicly, they say they'll continue backing it albeit with manual eradication playing a bigger role.

Francisco Santos is Colombia's vice president.

Mr. FRANCISCO SANTOS (Vice President, Colombia): Colombia is moving to have an eradication policy in which manual eradications are going to have a lot more weight. The president is really convinced that manual eradication has to have a bigger impact and that Colombia has to create a capacity to be able to increase more and more the ability of eradicating manually.

FORERO: Officials say spraying will continue, but already manual eradication has gone from virtually nothing in 2004 to more than 100,000 acres last year. That's about 25 percent of all the coca eradicated. And Santos says the hope is to soon have 50 percent of all eradicated coca uprooted by hand.

John Walters is the White House drug czar and a major proponent of aerial spraying. He's seen figures showing widespread coca cultivation but says it's because the Americans are doing better mapping of the country, and thus detecting more coca.

But he says that fumigation is working and the proof is that Colombia is safer and armed groups like the rebels are weaker. Walter says manual eradication can contribute but he says the Bush administration will lobby hard to maintain funding for aerial fumigation since Democrats on Capitol Hill are calling for cuts to the spraying program.

Mr. JOHN WALTERS (Director, White House Office of National Drug Control Policy): If you take pressure off that, you're going to get more cocaine. You're going to get more cocaine in the communities of the United States, which are now suffering. That's not prudent.

FORERO: Getting to El Mirador is a slog - two hours uphill on muddy trails. Policemen carry M16 rifles and 40 pounds of ammunition and provisions. Lieutenant Persan Miranda leads the patrol.

Lieutenant PERSAN MIRANDA(PH) (Colombian Police Officer): (Through translator) What worries us most in this zone, for us who may not know the territory, is that it's so vulnerable. You worry about an ambush from the mountains.

FORERO: At the top, you can see the wide plains below and the rolling hills all around. They've been scraped clean like giant fingers had clawed down into the dirt. It's the work of eradicators who've gone from one field to the next, uprooting coca for 44 straight days.

For their work, they're paid about $270 a month. Alberto Cotazo(ph) says he's been doing it for two years now. He doesn't think about the risks any more, though his family worries.

Mr. ALBERTO COTAZO (Worker): (Through translator) They told me change my profession, my work. But I'm used to this now. So I'm going to continue with this.

FORERO: So, apparently, will the Colombian government.

Juan Forero, NPR News, El Mirador, Colombia.

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