Facing loss of U.S. aid, Colombia vows to eradicate 2 key drug crops by 1997

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BOGOTA, Colombia -- After more than a decade of criticism over its efforts to combat illegal drugs, Colombia has launched a program designed to destroy every poppy and coca plant in the country within two years.

The government of President Ernesto Samper also has promised to strengthen the prosecutions of drug traffickers by tightening plea bargain agreements that judicial officials concede often are too lenient.

In many ways, however, Colombia's latest efforts in the seemingly endless drug war appear targeted more at Washington, where U.S. frustration with Colombia's inability to control its illicit narcotics trade is at the heart of increasingly acrimonious relations between the nations.

"Operation Splendor," as the nearly 3-month-old eradication program is called, uses U.S.-supplied planes and fuel and U.S.-trained pilots to spray Colombian fields with the herbicide glyphosate. It is sold in the United States under the brand name Roundup.

Colombian officials describe it as their most ambitious eradication plan to date in a bitter war that has resulted in thousands of deaths, including those of top government officials and drug barons, while doing little to stem the flow of cocaine from the Andean nation.

But carrying out the new policy will be difficult at best. Farmers in coca-growing regions have already marched on towns, blocked roads and shut down airports. Growing coca, the farmers said, is the only way they can earn enough money to survive.

In response, the government has promised not to spray fields of less than seven acres. Lt. Col. Jose Leonardo Gallego, head of the anti-narcotics police, said troops would remove plants from those plots -- a promise that will be almost impossible to fulfill.

Colombia long has been the world's leading producer of cocaine, refining paste made from Bolivian and Peruvian coca plants.

But Colombian coca crops have increased alarmingly in recent years, to an estimated nearly 100,000 acres. Some U.S. officials believe Colombia has surpassed Bolivia as the world's second-largest coca grower.

Meanwhile, Colombia is the leading South American producer of opium poppies, with about 50,000 acres in production. Thousands of other acres are devoted to marijuana cultivation.

This latest program to combat the drug trade has been timed to coincide with the annual debate in the White House and Congress on whether to continue current levels of financial aid to Colombia.

To publicize his concern, Mr. Samper recently assembled an audience of ambassadors and top military leaders in the presidential palace to present them with a list of recent results: He claimed that that seizures of cocaine had quadrupled during his six months in office and that eradication of drug crops had doubled.

Congress requires the U.S. president to certify annually that certain drug-producing countries, including Colombia, are cooperating with the United States in the drug wars. Half of a country's aid not earmarked for narcotics control is withheld pending that certification.

For Colombia, that represents a tiny fraction of the more than $100 million in various forms of aid it receives each year from the United States. Most goes to fight the spread of illegal drugs.

More significantly, decertification requires the United States to vote against Colombia if it seeks aid or loans from international financial agencies such as the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund.

Colombia also could lose its preferred-trade status with the United States, and lose any chance of being included in the North American Free Trade Agreement.

"They're interested, but it would be virtually impossible to get Colombia into NAFTA if it's seen as a nonperformer," said a U.S. official in Washington.

Certification recommendations from various agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration, State Department and the Defense Department, are expected this month. President Clinton's recommendation is due March 1.

U.S. officials concede that there is a growing perception on Capitol Hill that the drug war has failed in Colombia. Several incidents in 1994 did little to change that opinion.

In May, the country's highest court ruled that Colombians legally could carry a "personal dose" of marijuana, cocaine or barbiturates. For two weeks, crowds of teen-agers gathered in Bogota parks to smoke marijuana.

Fearing an outbreak of public drug consumption, the government quickly banned drug use in public places and announced plans to modify the constitution to ban all drug consumption.

More damaging were charges that drug kingpins gave millions to Mr. Samper's election campaign. Mr. Samper conceded being offered money by the Cali cocaine cartel, but denied taking it. A Colombian judicial investigation cleared him.

In his inaugural address in August, he vowed to continue the drug fight. But a month later the retiring local chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Joe Toft, told Colombian television that Colombia was a "narco democracy" and that he believed the charges against Mr. Samper.

Although State Department officials quickly disavowed Mr. Toft's statements, the comments further strained relations between the countries.

Meanwhile, surplus Boeing 727s packed with tons of cocaine continue to take off from Colombian airfields. They land in Mexico and their cargo is smuggled into the United States.

While Colombian drug seizures did rise last year, an estimated 1,000 tons of Colombian cocaine made it to the United States and Europe.

Further, since Mr. Samper took office, no leading members of the Cali cartel -- said to control up to 80 percent of the world's cocaine -- have been arrested.

And last month, the Justice Ministry released a report chastising judges and prosecutors for overly generous plea bargain arrangements for drug traffickers.

The report said minimum sentences often were given and then reduced further when defendants confessed or agreed to provide information about other drug suspects, even if that information proved useless.

As a result, the report said, nearly 40 percent of convicted drug traffickers were released on parole without serving a day in prison.

Yet, U.S. officials clearly are pleased with Operation Splendor.

"It shows real will on the part of the Colombians to deal with the issue of illegal crop production," said U.S. Ambassador Myles Frechette.

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