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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

All this week we're assessing the war on drugs, what it has accomplished and what more can be done. Today, we take that story to Columbia. For seven years, the United States has used crop dusters there to spray a defoliant on the coca plants used to make cocaine.

American policymakers consider that anti-drug program a success. They say the huge, industrial-sized fields of coca are gone and that Columbia's government is no longer threatened by narco-terrorists. But the crop has not actually been wiped out, just spread out, and cocaine continues to flow from Columbia.

NPR's Juan Forero reports from Narino, the southern Columbian state that has become the epicenter of the war on drugs.

(Soundbite of machinery)

JUAN FORERO: Five planes funded with American dollars return from a mission in Tumaco, a seaside town that's among the most forlorn outpost in the war on drugs. The planes have been fumigating, hitting coca where American officials say it hurts traffickers the most - at the source.

The spray program is the centerpiece in Washington's efforts to reduce the world's largest fields of coca by half. Called Plan Columbia, the program was designed to help a close ally buffeted by the American addiction to drugs. But it has already cost 5.4 billion and is nowhere near done.

The pummeled fields are tucked away in hamlets like La Balsa. It's a far cry from the huge coca fields 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.

(Soundbite of music)

FORERO: To get to La Balsa, you take a boat from a hardscrabble honky tonk. It's a meandering ride on a fast-running river. Then there's a two-hour hike along a narrow trail. The village is deep in rebel territory.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

FORERO: In La Balsa, children play soccer. A group of village elders gab on a porch. A flock of tiny parrots flood our path.

(Soundbite of parrots chirping)

FORERO: Like countless towns, it's 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 shortly before my arrival.

(Soundbite of chopping wood)

FORERO: Twenty-three year old Jorlin Giovanny and a friend use a machete to split the stalks of coca bushes.

Mr. JORLIN GIOVANNY: (Through translator) This afternoon we're going to dig and plant. We can't lose time.

FORERO: Another villager makes a living in another facet of the drug trade — churning coca leaves into coca paste. It's the last step before it's made into cocaine. Uber Buila explains that villagers have no other option, even after defoliant falls from the sky.

Mr. UBER BUILA: (Through translator) We try to save what we can. 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.

FORERO: Still, across this Andean country, fumigation has changed the dynamics of the drug trade. David Murray is a senior policy analyst at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, or ONDCP. He says Plan Columbia is a success.

Dr. DAVID MURRAY (Senior Policy Analyst, Office of National Drug Control Policy): I think Plan Columbia has been extraordinarily valuable. It has, amongst other things that it's done, helped stabilize and save an emerging democracy.

FORERO: The Columbian foreign minister was recently in Washington lobbying for continued aid. Fernando Araujo said that American aid has helped the army fight the rebels. He stressed that his government has disarmed thousands of paramilitaries and extradited hundreds of traffickers. Violence, he said, has ebbed.

Mr. FERNANDO ARAUJO (Foreign Minister, Columbia): To measure the success of Plan Columbia we must look at what Columbians have achieved in the last years in areas such as the fight against terrorism. Economic and social recovery and the reintegration of illegally armed group has mean to reaching a lasting peace.

FORERO: But the drug trade continues to permeate Columbian society. Rebel forces wield influence in places like Narino. New paramilitary groups solely dedicated to the drug trade have sprouted. Perhaps the worst news for the United States is that there is as much coca in Columbia today as there was when Plan Columbia began, and it's found in virtually every state.

Myles Frechette was the United States ambassador to Columbia in the late 1990s.

Mr. MYLES FRECHETTE (Former U.S. Ambassador to Colombia): Eradication has fallen flat on its face. We have 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.

FORERO: The fumigation has done little to slow the drug trade in towns like Llorente. The rough-and-tumble community swarms with drug traffickers. A Catholic priest from Uganda named Richard Yawe(ph) works here. He leafs through a book containing the names of hundreds who've died.

Father RICHARD YAWE: The book for the dead. Most of the people here in Llorente we have here in book for the dead. People have been assassinated, killed by bullets involved in drugs.

FORERO: Miles away, in the foothills of the Andes, killers would throw their victims into the Patia River, off the best known landmark in the town of Egido, the Red Bridge. 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 is a local government official.

Mr. YONI SANCHEZ: The people need markets, and they need to transport their produce to the big cities. And we don't have roads, we don't even have the good telecommunications, and I think it's very expensive.

FORERO: 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 I approached here, he said he planned to give up coca and the drug trade.

Recently, the police raided and burned down the lab where he and others turned coca into coca paste.

(Soundbite of splashing liquid)

Mr. MAXIMILIANO VALDEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: An associate of his stirred what was left, a noxious barrel of chemicals. And Valdez lamented ever being involved in the drug trade.

Mr. VALDEZ: (Through translator) This is going to end.

FORERO: But the next day, there he was, shaving coca off coca bushes with his bare hands. Valdez grinned when he saw me.

Mr. VALDEZ: (Through translator) 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. That doesn't exist. Here, there's nothing else to do.

FORERO: And so Valdez says farmers will continue to plant coca, even if the fumigation continues.

Juan Forero, NPR News, Narino, Colombia.

BLOCK: How do drugs get to the U.S.? You can explore an interactive map at npr.org. Tomorrow, we continue our series The Forgotten War. NPR's John Burnett reports on programs in this country to cut the demand for drugs.

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