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Cover story

Colombia’s Drug War

On the Colombia/Ecuador border

The day terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon Sept. 11, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was scheduled to visit Colombia to assess progress in another anti-terrorist campaign, the war on drugs.

Powell had to cancel his trip as, inevitably, Colombia and international drug trafficking took a back seat to the war in Afghanistan and efforts to counter biological terrorism in the United States.

The shift in priorities has some in Colombia worried, particularly since the Colombian government has resumed spraying herbicide on coca and poppy crops --sources of cocaine and opium -- along the country’s southern border with Ecuador.

Those who oppose the spraying worry that the U.S. war against global terrorism could prompt the United States to step up its support of President Andres Pastrana and his efforts to counter insurgent rebel groups, who often finance their operations by trafficking drugs. Three of 31 groups recently named by Washington as foreign terrorist organizations are based in Colombia.

Pastrana himself, concerned about waning support in Washington, was to visit officials there Nov. 8-11 seeking more support for Plan Colombia, the recipient of $1.3 billion in U.S. aid so far. A recession in Colombia, prompted by a precipitous drop in the price of coffee, Colombia’s economic mainstay, threatens to bring social unrest and increased support for armed rebel organizations in the months ahead.

Meanwhile, the spraying goes on, despite complaints that the action is ineffective in fighting drug crops, endangers local residents and causes extensive harm to food crops and livestock.

On July 27, Bogotá Civil Circuit Judge Gilberto Reyes Delgado ordered a temporary halt to the spraying of poppy and coca crops in response to a complaint filed by the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon. He lifted the suspension Aug. 6, however, saying there was no evidence that the herbicide was harmful to human health or the environment. That decision came after Anne Patterson, U.S. ambassador to Colombia, warned that the suspension had jeopardized U.S. aid.

The spraying, accomplished largely with U.S. equipment, has drawn protest from various international organizations, including the United Nations.

Pastrana has much at stake. He was elected three years ago on his promise to achieve a cease-fire in the country’s 37-year-long, drug-funded civil war.

The United States, too, has much at stake. Colombia, a democracy, under siege, is the primary source of illegal drugs in the United States.

The war in Colombia, involving government security forces, right-wing paramilitaries and left-wing guerillas, has claimed more than 35,000 lives in the last 10 years and left some 1.2 million people displaced. Both right- and left-wing groups finance operations by trafficking drugs.

Plan Colombia was intended primarily as an intense development program aimed at ending the violence that has plagued the country, especially in the past 10 years. In addition to spraying, the program offers financial incentives to coca farmers who replace their illegal crops with legal ones.

Critics, though, say that spraying with herbicides has in fact thwarted the very development it aims to boost. Further, some critics in Colombia, including some Catholic bishops, see the plan as a U.S. attempt to consolidate its political, economic and military power in the area.

“They want to steamroll over Putumayo, to wipe everything out, then they’ll come with their oil-drilling rigs, pipelines and highways and, despite the hunger and poverty, say they’re rebuilding civilization,” said Bishop Gonzalo López of Sucumbíos, the Ecuadorian province that borders Putumayo, where the bulk of Colombia’s coca cultivation is done.

“If they say 3 percent is for human rights and legal reform and no more than 10 percent is for development of the region, and that the rest goes for helicopters, soldiers, military advisers and spraying of coca crops, they’re not talking about a peace plan or a development plan,” said López.

Of the U.S. aid to Colombia, 70 percent is earmarked for military equipment and training to counter the drug trade -- mostly for helicopters and training for Colombia’s counternarcotics troops. The helicopters, which provide protective cover for crop dusting planes, are an important part of Colombia’s spraying campaign.

Further, the Bush administration has proposed an additional $882.3-million plan called the Andean Regional Initiative that would provide more aid to Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela, Brazil and Panama. While the funds would be almost evenly split between development programs and counternarcotics aid, critics in the Andean region say it will promote more spillover of the violence in Colombia, destabilizing the entire region.

Coca spraying that began in December has focused on the Putumayo area, where guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia -- known by its Spanish initials, FARC -- and right-wing paramilitaries allegedly protected by the Colombian military both control large areas where coca is planted.

According to Gabriel Martínez, political attaché at the Colombian Embassy in Ecuador, the coca crop spraying carried out December through February after Plan Colombia went into effect destroyed 20,000 hectares of coca, equivalent to about 254,000 doses of cocaine. Some 150,000 gallons of glyphosate, under the commercial name Roundup Ultra, were used.

Ironically, according to the Catholic bishops in the Colombian border provinces of Ipiales and Tumaco, Bishops Arturo Correo and Gustavo Girón, as well as Fr. Alfonso Palacios, apostolic vicar of Putumayo, coca cultivation increased during the recent round of spraying, because local farmers, forewarned of the eradication effort, planted more crops as a hedge against damage.

Palacios said the spraying has also damaged traditional food and commercial crops including coffee, bananas and cassava. He added that the coca plants “were well protected, either under plastic tents, by spraying molasses on the leaves or by cutting the roots before they could absorb the chemicals. ... They sprayed 30,000 hectares, but no more than 10 percent of that was planted in coca.”

The bishops voiced their concerns at the Tenth Border Ministry Conference in June. The meeting drew representatives of dioceses along the Colombian-Ecuadorian border. The conference ended with a statement in which the bishops expressed their rejection of Plan Colombia, especially the aerial spraying. The bishops said they support eradication of coca and poppy crops, but with “procedures that respect the ecosystem, biodiversity and especially human life.”

In the municipality of Valle del Guamez in Putumayo between late December and February, there were reports that 4,289 people suffered from chemical poisoning, rashes and other skin problems, as well as vomiting and diarrhea caused by inhaling or coming into contact with the herbicide. In addition, 178,377 animals were reported affected, along with 7,252 hectares of coca, banana, cassava, corn, rice and coffee, according to local police.

In the first two months of this year, in the municipality of San Miguel, also in Putumayo, there were 1,443 complaints of symptoms. Of these, 1,164 -- 80 percent -- said that one or more family members had been affected by the spraying.

‘It’s hard to breathe’

“About an hour after the planes go over, we start smelling something like gasoline. It’s hard to breathe,” said Kléver Aguinda, a peasant farmer from San Miguel. “Then we get headaches, as if we had a hangover, and our eyes burn. Then the kids start crying and feel sick. Then comes the fever.”

Colombia’s minister of the environment, Juan Mayer, said he was unaware of harm to humans or the environment caused by the spraying with Roundup Ultra. He also downplayed the herbicide’s toxicity. But according to a study by biologist Elsa Nivia, executive director of Rapalmira Colombia, a branch of the international Pesticide Action Network, the combination of glyphosate, POEAs (polyoxyethylamines, a surfactant compound) and Cosmo-Flux gives the compound 22 times the toxicity of glyphosate alone, making it hazardous to health even in the 1 percent concentration commonly used in the United States. According to Nivia, concentrations as high as 26 percent are used in Colombia.

Cosmo-Flux, a product of Britain’s Imperial Chemical Industries, makes the glyphosate less likely to be blown in the wind and more likely to adhere to the crops.

Nivia said her information is based on technical data provided by Monsanto Co., which manufactures Roundup Ultra. “The symptoms described in the manufacturer’s studies correspond to those reported in Valle del Guamez,” she said.

Because of Roundup’s toxicity and high rate of dispersion, the instructions advise that it be applied from a distance of no more than 30 centimeters from the target. In Colombia, however, the spraying is done from light aircraft. According to the Rapalmira study, with aerial spraying, 41 percent of the herbicide drifts away from the target, a proportion that can rise to 85 percent if winds are strong. This, researchers say, is what is happening along the Colombian-Ecuadorian border in Putumayo.

“When our glyphosate products are used according to directions, they have a long history of safe use,” said Janice Armstrong, corporate spokesperson for Monsanto. Although the company has a policy of not disclosing to whom it sells its products, Armstrong said glyphosate is used in more than 130 countries around the world.

“The glyphosate herbicides that we market have one of the most extensive worldwide human health, safety and environmental data bases ever compiled for a pesticide product, and our glyphosate herbicides have been thoroughly reviewed and registered by the EPA and by regulatory agencies around the world,” Armstrong said

A study carried out on the Ecuador side of the border by the Quito-based environmental organization Acción Ecológica found the same symptoms the Rapalmira study reported among residents of indigenous communities in the provinces of Sucumbíos and Orellana.

The symptoms appeared “after a dense cloud came, with a strong odor, that made our eyes burn,” according to Abelardo Sáez, a leader of a farmers’ organization in Puerto Aguarico in Sucumbíos.

In April 38 peasant organizations that form the Union of Associations of Orellana and Sucumbíos denounced the harm to their crops and their health from the spraying in Colombia. “Neither the Health Ministry nor the Agriculture Ministry nor the military has wanted to listen,” Sáez said.

Acción Ecológica registered the complaints as part of its studies of the effects of the spraying on six border communities in Sucumbíos, located two, five and 10 kilometers from the site of the spraying in Colombia. “We wanted to identify the pathologies most common in the population affected by the spraying and analyze them in relation to their distance from the sites of the spraying,” said Dr. Adolfo Maldonado, who coordinated the study.

The study was based on toxicological information from 144 of the 2,000 community members. That data was crossed with information from the hospital in Lago Agrio, the capital of Sucumbíos, and health centers operated by the San Miguel diocese, as well as observations of environmental damage in the communities.

The researchers found that 100 percent of the community members within two kilometers of the spraying sites showed the same symptoms as the Colombians at the site, as did all the residents of communities five kilometers from the site. At 10 kilometers, the incidence dropped to 89 percent.

Losses to other crops

According to Acción Ecológica, the communities also suffered losses in their coffee harvests, which were down by as much as 90 percent from the normal level. Farmers said the plants flowered but fruit did not form. The farmers reported that between 85 and 90 percent of the rice crop was also lost.

Martínez of the Colombian Embassy in Ecuador questioned the credibility of the Acción Ecológica study. “Similar illnesses existed before the spraying, and they are only problems endemic to tropical regions. Similarly, substantial crop losses occur because of poor crop management,” he said.

The U.S. State Department and Colombian officials have suggested that drug traffickers or the nation’s rebel insurgents are the source of the complaints. The State Department said in a statement, “We believe that the illegal armed forces are the source of many of the complaints. These groups receive vast sums of money from narcotraffickers to protect illicit crops and therefore have a significant interest in maintaining opposition to the spray program.”

However, Sáez said, “I’ve lived on the border for 30 years and have never seen ... the illnesses we’re seeing now. I want reparation for the damages and harm this has caused us, for our children’s illnesses, for our burned crops, for our dead animals. We don’t want [the government] to improve our income; we just want it to let us survive. We don’t want to pay for something we haven’t done.”

Maldonado also disputed the Colombian diplomat’s claims. “If we have a series of pathologies that occur with great frequency near a particular point and decrease as the distance from that point increases, it means there is -- or was -- something at that point. That’s just common sense, especially if the symptoms differ completely from pathologies found in other areas with similar characteristics,” he said.

After the report by Acción Ecológica was released, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador called on government officials to visit the zone. While the administration of President Gustavo Noboa refused to schedule a visit, in July it sent a diplomatic message to Colombia asking that the neighboring country “abstain from aerial spraying with glyphosate in areas located less than 10 kilometers from the border.”

Also in July, the United Nations asked the Colombian government to halt aerial spraying and to stop using glyphosate in areas populated by indigenous groups. But Martínez said the spraying in Putumayo was focused on industrial coca plots in areas controlled by right-wing paramilitaries.

“It isn’t true that 100 percent of the population has been affected. It isn’t true that the aim has been to harm indigenous communities. Nor is it true that legal crops are these communities’ economic mainstay. The spraying must be understood as necessary in the context of the Colombian conflict,” Martínez said.

Pastrana, the Colombian president, has made it clear he plans to continue the spraying and extend it to poppy crops in the Andean province of Nariño.

Colombia at a glance

Location: Northern South America, bordering the Caribbean Sea, between Panama and Venezuela.
Population: 40.3 million
Area: 439,700 square miles, about the size of Texas
Capital: Bogotá
Religion: Roman Catholic, 90 percent
Leading legal exports: coffee, oil
Government: Republic, with dominant executive branch. President, vice president elected by popular vote for four-year terms.
Independence: July 20, 1810, from Spain
Political issues: A 40-year campaign by insurgents to overthrow the Colombian government escalated in the 1990s, in part with support from illegal drug trade. Large sections of the country are under guerilla influence. Neighboring countries worry about violence spilling over as the government tries to broker peace with rebel groups.
Economic factors: Lack of public security is a major impediment to investment. President Andres Pastrana is seeking continued international support for his efforts to achieve peace with insurgents and boost the economy.
International issues: Colombia is a leading producer of illegal drugs, supplying about 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States, it is also a major supplier of heroin to the U.S. market.
Source: CIA World Factbook

Related Web sites

Acción Ecológica

Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador

Monsanto Company

National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia

Pesticide Action Network International

U.S. Department of State -- Plan Colombia

Previous NCR articles about Colombia

Catholic groups join U.N. in push to end small arms trade, July 27, 2001
Cover story: U’was vs. ‘Oxy,’ Sept. 8, 2000
Panama owns canal, related headaches: Concerns include U.S. military debris, spillover from Colombia’s civil war, May 5, 2000
Analysis: Doubts multiply about U.S. aid to Colombia, April 14, 2000
Analysis: In Colombia, violence is a way of life, Oct 1, 1999
Church leads Colombian peace campaign, June 5, 1998
Delegation visits Colombia to devise plan to curb violence, March 27, 1998
Nun caught in Colombia’s cruel war, Nov. 14, 1997
Economics fuels return of La Violencia: Colombia’s religious human rights groups seek end to slaughter, Oct. 24, 1997

Luis Angel Saavedra writes from Ecuador. The story was translated for NCR by Barbara Fraser, editor of Latinamerca Press.

National Catholic Reporter, November 16, 2001