Tuesday, November 13, 2001

PUERTO ASIS, Colombia An aid worker in a U.S.-funded program to eradicate drug crops in Colombia is kidnapped by guerrillas, accused of spying for the military, and executed.
A colleague is abducted and forced to play Russian roulette while being interrogated. Another, a 60-year-old agronomist, is kidnapped and tied to a tree.
Attacks on development workers are the latest snag to emerge in Washington’s $1.3 billion anti-drugs initiative in Colombia, which produces most of the world’s cocaine.
Plan Colombia began last December when U.S. crop-dusters sprayed a blanket of herbicide on coca plantations in southern Colombia’s Putumayo state, ground zero for the war on drugs. The planes left in February to spray elsewhere and are expected back soon.
In the interim, aid deliveries were supposed to have begun to tens of thousands of peasants who agreed to eradicate their plantations of coca the main ingredient in cocaine.
But most farmers have not received any aid, so many have nursed their fumigated fields back into acres of robust coca bushes. And now, danger for aid workers threatens to paralyze a U.S.-funded alternative development program, just as it was finally getting started.
Juan Carlos Espinoza, who manages the aid program in Puerto Asis, Putumayo’s largest town, suspended field visits by his staff after the attacks by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Security concerns are forcing other aid organizations to avoid rebel-infested areas.
The FARC, which earns huge profits by taxing the cocaine trade, has grown suspicious that the aid workers may be spies for the military or its paramilitary allies, Mr. Espinoza said. Fueling the rebels’ paranoia, officials said, is the fact that visits by some aid workers have been followed by military attacks on the same areas.
The problems come as Colombia’s government is seeking more support from Washington, where the drug war has taken a back seat to the war on terrorism.
Colombian President Andres Pastrana met with President Bush on Sunday. Last Thursday and Friday, Mr. Pastrana met with U.S. lawmakers and officials including Attorney General John Ashcroft, telling them the drug trade is financing terrorism.
Washington’s aerial fumigation of Putumayo, a lush expanse of jungle and hills bordering Ecuador, has bruised its cocaine-fueled economy. Many migrant workers have lost their jobs stripping the shiny green leaves off coca bushes and hauling them to processing labs hidden in the jungle. From farm-supply stores to brothels, many businesses are reeling.
U.S.-trained troops, meanwhile, have destroyed hundreds of the clandestine labs and made it harder for traffickers to slip in and out of Putumayo with cash and cocaine.
But like the hardy coca bush, Colombia’s drug business stubbornly hangs on.
U.S. officials believe some 60 percent of farmers whose crops were sprayed during the December-February blitz have replanted. They say many farms must be repeatedly fumigated.
Coca is also sprouting in other parts of the country, and U.S. officials don’t expect big reductions in Colombia’s coca crop until 2003.
About 38,000 farmers whose crops represent two-thirds of the coca in Putumayo have pledged to destroy their plants in return for aid to develop legal businesses such as medicinal herb farms, cattle ranches and fish hatcheries.
The government also promised short-term aid about $850 worth of seeds, livestock and tools per family. But even that has not arrived.
Private Colombian organizations distributing aid for the government blame delays on bureaucracy and the need to survey every family’s needs. The aid groups say they expect to begin deliveries later this month, but admit it could be many months before they reach every family.
There is deep mistrust on both sides. Some Colombian officials doubt the peasants will tear up their crops as promised. Many farmers suspect the government is making empty promises or doubt that alternative development will succeed in a region with poor soil and few roads.
“Coca is the only thing worth planting here,” Wilmar Ospina said while weeding coca bushes behind his house near the Putumayo town of La Hormiga.
When the planes sprayed his field in January, Mr. Ospina quickly pruned the plants before the herbicide seeped in.
On a recent cool morning, he stood amid chest-high coca bushes and smiled. “Today they are prettier than ever,” he said.

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