Thursday, August 4, 2005

RIO DE JANEIRO — Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who met with President Bush in Texas yesterday, has implemented a program to buy coca plants from small-time growers who otherwise would sell their crops to drug traffickers to make cocaine.

Farmers also can turn over opium poppies, the plants used to make heroin.

Under the plan, farmers can go to the nearest police station or army outpost and turn over the plants to officers and soldiers. Prices for the crop will be negotiated on the spot.

“Hand over the coca and take the cash, similar to a country fair: Hand over the pig, take the cash,” Mr. Uribe said of the program earlier this week.

The farmers must sign a legally binding agreement to halt cultivation, said Mr. Uribe, who has made a name for himself as a hard-liner bent on cracking down on the nation’s Marxist rebels and cooperating with the United States on drug eradication.

Yesterday, Mr. Uribe visited Mr. Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, to discuss bilateral efforts in the war on drugs.

Mr. Bush is urging Congress to renew Plan Colombia, a five-year-old anti-drug-trafficking program started under President Clinton.

The United States has given Colombia more than $3 billion in anti-drug aid.

Mr. Uribe’s coca and opium purchase plan is available only in Colombia’s central Meta region, where an ongoing battle between the military and rebels has forced small coca farmers to seek new buyers for their crops.

Rebels in the region typically traffic in the coca to finance their armed struggle against the Colombian government. Mr. Uribe said recent military operations have forced the rebels into hiding, leaving the farmers without buyers.

The program has come under harsh criticism from lawmakers such as Colombian Sen. Rafael Pardo, who said it would encourage small farmers to grow more coca just so they could sell it to the government, a guaranteed and steady paying customer.

Mr. Pardo — who is a likely presidential candidate in next year’s elections — and other critics say farmers will find ways to continue cultivating illegal crops and selling them to the government, the rebels or right-wing paramilitaries that also produce cocaine for income, or all three.

“People are obviously going to plant more to sell more to the government,” said an official in a human rights group in Medellin, the cocaine-producing capital of Colombia.

The program is also likely to ruffle feathers in Washington, where lawmakers recently approved a bill increasing the funding to Colombia for drug eradication.

In the past five years, the United States has spent $3.3 billion on coca-plant eradication through equipment and military training for Colombian soldiers. The plan involves aerial spraying of existing coca crops and encouraging farmers to adopt a legal crop.

Despite U.S. efforts, a recent White House report showed that coca production increased in Colombia last year.

A separate report by the United Nations said drug production has declined in Colombia in the past few years, but was on the rise in other Andean countries, such as Peru and Bolivia.

“Our current approach is the wrong approach,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat. “We are spending a lot of money down there, and there is no accountability.”

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