Columbian farmers feel wrath of war on drugs

Thursday, September 14th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ON THE NEMAL RIVER, Colombia – The general and the peasant farmer have never met and certainly don't mingle in the same social circles.

But as relative neighbors in this sparsely populated region of southern Colombia, where most of the world's cocaine originates, the professional lives of Gen. Mario Montoya and farmer Jairo Hernández overlap in strange ways.

They find themselves on opposing sides in the U.S.-financed war on drugs. But, ironically, they share many of the same opinions about the importance of halting a trafficking industry that has immersed Colombia in warfare and made it the source of most of the cocaine and heroin sold on U.S. streets.

As the military's commander for southern Colombia, Gen. Montoya will oversee much of the $1.3 billion in U.S. counternarcotics aid destined for South America's cocaine-producing heartland. The U.S.-trained brigadier general, 51, spends much of his time flying around in helicopters and playing tour guide to reporters, members of Congress and dignitaries such as White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey.

It is quite possible that the general has overflown the dirt-floor shack where Mr. Hernández lives with his wife, infant daughter and a couple of caged guinea pigs on the banks of the Nemal River, near the town of Puerto Rico.

Mr. Hernández's daughter has persistent chest congestion, which he hopes to cure by drawing blood from a guinea pig and rubbing it on her chest like a balm. It is a time-honored cure in these parts, Mr. Hernández indicates with a confident nod.

If Mr. Hernández stuck to raising guinea pigs, he would not be on a collision course with Gen. Montoya. But the problem lies in a five-acre plot of land just down the path from the Hernández residence, where a patch of bright-green plants signals to anyone flying overhead that he is a coca cultivator.

Risky business

In four years, Gen. Montoya says, he wants to use U.S. funds to put people such as Mr. Hernández out of the coca-growing business and relocate them to other areas and other lines of work.

Mr. Hernández says he wouldn't mind switching to a less-risky business, but some major obstacles stand in the way. Foremost among them are Colombian guerrillas who profit from the drug trade and who are encouraging Mr. Hernández to continue his illicit activities.

Mr. Hernández's business is so risky that he identified himself using an apparent pseudonym.

"For us, the biggest threat is that the government will continue eradicating coca without helping us. We can't survive here. Other crops don't pay. There's not enough land for us to raise cattle," said Mr. Hernández, 25. "So what's left for people like us to do but take up arms [with the rebels] and fight in the war?"

Mr. Hernández is only one of thousands involved in coca cultivation in southern Colombia. This region already has 185,000 acres under illicit cultivation – roughly 60 percent of the total for the entire country.

"This is the triangle that produces the greatest amount of coca in the world," Gen. Montoya told reporters during a recent briefing at Tres Esquinas, in Putumayo province, where the first of three U.S.-trained counternarcotics battalions is based. Farther north, in Larandia, about 100 U.S. Special Forces trainers are working with a second battalion.

The main job of the battalions will be to fight the insurgents who protect laboratories, clandestine airstrips and large coca fields that have been targeted for aerial eradication.

While overflying a jungle area close to Mr. Hernández's home, Gen. Montoya pointed out scores of little green patches where peasant farmers have cleared fields to grow coca. The patches extend as far as the eye can see.

Just from Mr. Hernández's front yard, at least three other coca farms are visible on the steep, lush banks of the Nemal River.

Tons of cocaine

Each acre produces an average of 1.5 pounds of coca base every 60 days. The acreage under cultivation in southern Colombia, Gen. Montoya said, is enough to produce 645 tons of pure cocaine in a year. That is, southern Colombia alone can produce 20 percent more cocaine than the world currently consumes, an amount that Gen. Montoya said is 500 to 550 tons per year.

"None of us can come close to measuring the magnitude of income generated by this business," Gen. Montoya said. By his calculations, a small spread such as Mr. Hernández's is capable of producing more than 42 pounds of coca base every year.

Despite all the U.S. assistance – which was only around $65 million in 1996 – Gen. Montoya said the acreage under coca cultivation throughout Colombia is expected to increase to 370,000 acres next year. The explosion in small-farm cultivation is one of the main reasons.

"I don't think this will end," Mr. Hernández said. "The U.S. government has been working on this for a long time, and they haven't been able to do anything. They captured the biggest chiefs of the cartels, and nothing has changed."

Part of the reason is that coca farming consistently pays far higher than any other type of agricultural activity in isolated rural areas, Mr. Hernández explained.

Every 60 days, he takes his harvest to a small "kitchen" he built next to his hillside coca field. There, he shreds the leaves and drops them into a large barrel of gasoline, where they soak for a day. Then he pours ammonia into the gasoline, which isolates the coca alkaloid. He siphons off the alkaloid and mixes it with caustic soda. The mixture dries into a paste that forms the base for cocaine.

One kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, of coca base earns him about $900. That same kilogram, once refined into pure cocaine, sells in the United States for about $80,000.

Compared with other crops such as corn, coffee or yucca, coca is simple to grow, largely maintenance-free and requires little effort to transport to market, he explained.

"With coca, you don't have to reseed every season. You strip the leaves off, and they grow right back," Mr. Hernández said.

"The coca plant is little more than a weed," said Gen. Montoya. "It grows practically anywhere."

The dominant guerrilla group in the region, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, currently controls the coca market, meaning it sets the price, Mr. Hernández said. Whereas before he was required to pay a "tax" to the FARC after each visit to the market, now the rebels collect their fee before Mr. Hernández receives his payment.

Gen. Montoya said an opposing insurgent group, the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, is moving into the area in an attempt to seize control of the market. The paramilitaries pay significantly higher prices per kilogram, he added.

"When they [the FARC] say they are striving just to get a better price for the cultivators – lies. Lies. What they are doing is a business. This is a huge industry," he said.

But it is not a free market, he added, saying that anyone the guerrillas catch selling to the paramilitaries is killed, and vice versa.

"From 1998 to this year, it has been a battle between the FARC and the paramilitaries for what? Simply to see who will wind up with control over the business," he said.

The pressure it is placing on farmers, along with the looming threat of capture by the Colombian police and military, is enough to make Mr. Hernández want to get out of the business.

What keeps him in business, he said, is demand in the United States. Ultimately, he said, Colombia will be able to solve its drug problem more easily than the United States will be able to solve its.

"I think it's easier for us to give up this life, because we're tired of it. We want to do something else," Mr. Hernández said. "But they [American consumers] will never get tired of using cocaine."