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April 17, 2006 - Boston Globe (MA)

US Giving More Coca Eradication Planes To Colombia

By Hugh Bronstein

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

BOGOTA, Colombia - The United States will give three additional planes to Colombia this year to help its fleet of 21 aircraft already spraying defoliants on plants used to make cocaine, a top U.S. official said on Monday.

The planned move follows a report showing an increase in coca crops in the Andean country and a request from Colombian President Alvaro Uribe for more anti-drug assistance.

The U.S. government's 2005 survey of Colombia's coca crop found 26 percent more land dedicated to coca cultivation than in 2004 after nearly doubling the area surveyed.

Washington has given Colombia about $4 billion in aid since 2000, aimed in large part at combating the country's huge cocaine trade.

"There are more spray aircraft slated for Colombia, the number is three at the moment," David Murray, policy analyst at the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, told Reuters.

Uribe called on Monday for the United States to increase its eradication assistance and said Colombia's national police would revise its anti-drug strategy in light of the U.S. report, which found that coca plants in the same areas surveyed in both 2004 and 2005 fell by about 8 percent.

The primary growing areas surveyed by the U.S. government in past years are concentrated in the southwest of the country. The areas surveyed for the first time in 2005 extended north and northeast from those original areas.

"We had been looking at roughly 10.4 million hectares 925.7 million acres) in the past and that was increased to 19.8 million 948.9 million acres) last year," Murray said.

The survey area was increased in order to detect lands newly planted by coca farmers who had been forced out of areas already sprayed, he said.

"We wanted a sense of how much expansion was going on out of the dense areas that had been hard hit by eradication," Murray said. "We felt it would be good to cast a wider eye."

Critics of the spraying say it forces farmers to hurt Colombia's ecosystem by cutting into previously uncultivated jungle. Murray dismissed this criticism, saying cocaine producers tend to expand cultivation areas with or without spraying.

Areas under eradication pressure saw a 10 percent reduction in coca plantation, he said.

"Where we spray it works," Murray said. "We are gradually tightening the noose."

Colombia, in a four-decade-old guerrilla war in which both left-wing rebels and far-right paramilitaries use the drug trade to fund their operations, is the source of 90 percent of the cocaine that ends up on U.S. streets, according to the U.S. government.

Thousands are killed and tens of thousands are forced from their homes by the war every year.

The paramilitaries are giving up their arms in return for reduced prison sentences under a peace plan negotiated with the government. But human rights groups say the militias are not being forced to dismantle their drug smuggling and extortion networks as part of the deal.

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