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In Colombia, farmers are growing bumper crops of coca leaf, the raw material for cocaine. In response, the Colombian government is deploying teams of eradicators to uproot the coca one bush at a time. As John Otis reports, the work is slow, dangerous and potentially pointless.
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Most of Colombia's coca fields are located in remote jungle regions, so the eradication teams must be flown in by police helicopter.
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OTIS: From the air, we can see vast fields of green coca. When we touch down near the village of La Guayacana close to the Ecuadorian border, the eradicators dig in. With shovels, they slice through the roots of the plants, then yank each coca bush out of the ground. Police with automatic rifles stand watch. That's because drug gangs sometimes fire on the eradicators or rig the fields with explosives. Since 2006, these attacks have killed more than 60 eradicators and wounded nearly 400 nationally.
JESUS BASTIDAS: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: Jesus Bastidas, the leader of this eradication team, says that just last month, he stepped on a land mine. It failed to detonate. His team's campsite has also been hit by gunfire and homemade rockets.
Colombia used to deploy crop-dusters to spray coca with weed killer, which is faster and safer than manual eradication. But the spray planes often killed food crops by mistake. In 2015, the program was halted over concerns that the herbicide glyphosate might cause cancer.
Since then, Colombia's coca crop has ballooned. Last year, farmers grew a record 422,000 acres of coca. That's enough to make nearly 1,500 tons of cocaine, according to a recent U.N. survey. As a result, Colombia may go back to aerial fumigation. It may also deploy drones, which could be more accurate, says Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America.
ADAM ISACSON: They fly about one meter over the coca crops. They can run for about 10 or 15 minutes before they need a recharge. But if you have thousands of those around the country, then the effect might be similar to massive spraying from aircraft.
OTIS: Still, the government has spent two decades destroying coca fields with little to show for it except deforestation. That's because drug farmers often move on to other parts of the jungle to chop down trees and plant more coca.
MIGUEL CANO: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: Miguel Cano, our owner of this 15-acre coca field that the eradicators have targeted, explains the crop's attraction.
CANO: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: Due to a lack of roads, he says it costs three times more to transport yucca and other food crops to market than farmers are paid for them. By contrast, drug traffickers go door to door buying their coca, which makes the crop easier and more profitable.
CANO: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: "You don't get rich, but at least coca allows you to survive," Cano says. This is the second time Cano and his coca farming partners have lost their drug crops to the eradication program.
OTIS: In fact, they're so familiar with the drill that they've befriended the men cutting down their plants. During a break, they serve them pastries and hot chocolate. Still, as soon as the eradicators pack their shovels into the helicopter and pull out, the farmers say they'll plant more coca. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in La Guayacana, Colombia.
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