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October 24, 2006 - Pulse of the Twin Cities (MN)

Colombia: Getting Beyond The Stereotype Of The Narco-Trafficker

By Meredith Aby

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Both presidents Clinton and Bush have given the third highest amount of military aid in the world to the right-wing Colombian government in the name of "fighting the war on drugs ." In reality, the aid the U.S. sends is spent on a counterinsurgency war against the Colombian people. Along with other local and national activists, I went to Colombia this past summer to investigate the reality of the "war on drugs."

This particular "war" has been used to label leftist rebels and farmers as "narco-traffickers" or "narco-guerrillas." But Colombia is also a country rich with natural resources, including oil, its location is a geo-politically strategic one for transportation between North and South America, and it is a site of interest for any future canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans; for these reasons it is of particular interest to the ruling elite of the U.S.

The truth is, many peasant farmers (campesinos) do grow coca. Their families have grown it for generations -- historically not for export but rather for its medicinal uses. They also grow coffee, corn, yucca, bananas and plantains.

Although they do not earn much from growing coca, it earns them far more than their other crops, which perpetuates their need to grow it.

Eberto Diaz, the president of FENSUAGRO, the national campesino union that hosted our tour this summer, explained, "Coca is a primary component of cocaine, like wheat is to flour.

It is not a drug by itself ... only 10 percent of the value even goes to Colombians. Ninety percent of the profits go to drug dealers in the U.S. You've seen the poverty and misery of the campesinos....They have no alternative to growing coca."

In our interviews this summer in southwestern Colombia, and in 2004 in the department of Arauca and in the Magdelena Medio region, campesinos explained why they grow coca. First, they can farm this hardy plant on their small plots of poor-quality soil up the side of a mountain.

They don't have access to the good land and infrastructure of the large landowners in the valleys.

Second, because of the demand in the U.S, they get more money for coca than for even growing coffee.

They repeatedly said that they would be interested in a crop substitution program, if they could afford it economically. Finally, in the most remote areas, the coca buyers actually come to them to buy their coca leaves. Many farmers told me of times that they had tried to take their other legal crops to market but that the crop was ruined by the time they could get through the horrible roads and the dangerous government and paramilitary check points.

By contrast, in the area around the FENSUAGRO national training center a couple hours outside of Bogota, I saw NO coca fields and I was surprised. I asked the FENSUAGRO activists about this, and they said that folks here didn't need to grow coca because the roads were maintained and they could get their produce to market.

Not only do the campesinos have no alternatives to growing coca, any supposed benefits in this fight against drugs have not been forthcoming. The Washington Office on Latin America's (WOLA) memo to Congress this June concluded that U.S. efforts are a truly failed policy: "The U.S. government's own data indicate that coca cultivation is expanding in Colombia, cocaine remains readily available in the United States, and cocaine use is steady, if not rising, including among youth." Nor are there data supporting aerial fumigation as a practical method of eradicating coca or for decreasing the demand for cocaine in Colombia nor in the rest of Latin America, as shown by recent WOLA Rand Corp. studies.

In Colombia we heard repeated testimony of the effects of the failed six-year policy that is Plan Colombia. When the Colombian government, using U.S. forces, support, training and materials, fumigates the crops of campesinos, it destroys all the food crops in the area -- including those of campesinos not growing coca. The rainforest is damaged because the chemicals drift.

The government sprays over people in their homes and fields, and over rivers and streams that provide needed water and that feed the Amazon River.

The spraying displaces already poor farmers because the land becomes toxic and military repression follows.

The campesinos move further into the jungle, or into protected rainforest areas and continue to grow coca. This further contributes to deforestation of the ecologically crucial rainforest. This environmental damage has yet to be fully understood. When we asked people when food crops could be grown again on fumigated land, people said they didn't know -- they had not yet been able to replant successfully.

As one campesino explained to us, "I would love to stop growing coca. Your government assumes I want to grow coca. In reality, I want to feed my family.

If I had roads to get my crops to market and could feed my family off of what I'd earn growing something else then I wouldn't grow coca. Why can't your country just help with that instead of threatening to fumigate my land?" So, why does the U.S. government send in chemicals and armed helicopters when building roads would do better?

It's important to understand how fumigation is used in the so-called "war on drugs." Even though there is a lot of coca grown in Colombia, the areas that have been the most fumigated are areas where the Colombian government views the civilian population as "guerrilla sympathizers." Fumigation is used like Agent Orange was in Vietnam -- as a defoliant to expose the rebels and to starve their supporters.

It is also used in areas where the land is contested and multi-national corporations are interested in pushing the poor off their land for "mega-projects." Spraying is not done in the northern areas under paramilitary control and where large landowners grow coca. (Or where the paramilitary or the military are themselves involved in trafficking coca.) In reality, the U.S. is not fighting a war on drugs, the U.S. is funding and fighting a counterinsurgency war on the Colombian people, and most of this war takes place in the countryside.

Fumigation is a threat that campesinos in Colombia face every day. At La Miranda farming collective in Cauca, we were shown their alternative organic farming projects and told, "All of this could be lost tomorrow if they came and fumigated." But people don't give up. In Colombia, you never get any guarantees, except that when the people work together beautiful things happen.

Organizations like FENSUAGRO and the Miranda Collective are two striking examples of resistance in the face of adversity.

Meredith Aby is a member of the Anti-War Committee ( in the Twin Cities, and is on the steering committee for the Colombia Action Network ( She has led two human rights delegations to Colombia for the CAN -- one in 2004 and one last summer. Look for her upcoming piece on the Colombian revolution.

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