World

The cocaine fight: a tale of two tactics

Canada urges farmers to switch to food crops, while the U.S. plan calls for full-scale assault

Tom Fennell February 28 2000
World

The cocaine fight: a tale of two tactics

Canada urges farmers to switch to food crops, while the U.S. plan calls for full-scale assault

Tom Fennell February 28 2000
Virgilo, an impoverished Peruvian farmer, stops picking coca leaves under the scorching jungle sun just long enough to ponder Canada’s offer. For years, Virgilo has eked out a living growing coca plants and selling the leaves to the region’s powerful drug barons who process them into cocaine. In 1999, nearly $2 billion worth of the addictive white powder was smuggled into Canada. To slow the flow, the federal government and the Canadian International Development Agency are spending $35 million on two programs aimed at helping the farmers of Peru and Colombia escape the grip of the drug cartels and switch to food crops. But Virgilo, like thousands of other farmers, is not quite ready to give up the steady income he earns in the cocaine trade. “We could cultivate corn and beans,” he told Macleans, “but there is no market for it. Where would we sell it?”

Virgilo may soon have little choice but to accept Canada’s help and switch crops. For Peruvian and Colombian coca farmers are on the front lines of an increasingly violent campaign to destroy the cocaine industry. Since the middle of last year, government planes have been swooping down and dousing coca crops with a deadly herbicide. The danger only stands to increase as the United States unleashes its war against the Marxist rebels in Colombia who guard the vast and highly lucrative tracts of coca plants. President Bill Clinton has already authorized $1.9 billion in aid to Colombia to equip anti-drug battalions. They aim to wipe out the cartels, which last year produced an estimated $90 billion in cocaine.

That also puts Washington’s tough policies squarely in conflict with Canada’s humanitarian approach. “Putting more money into the eradication of coca will not win the fight,” says Luis Zuniga, a Peruvian agronomist working with CIDA in the northern city of Tarapoto, a major coca growing region. “We need to spend more on development,” he says. “Countries should follow Canada’s example.”

Even so, Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy is trying to put some bite into Canada’s anti-cocaine program. In January, he met with Colombian President Andres Pastrana and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in Cartagena, Colombia. Following those talks, Axworthy announced that in addition to the $15 million CIDA has earmarked for Peru over the next five years, Canada will spend another $20 million battling the Colombian cartels over an unspecified period.

In early February, six RCMP officers were dispatched to Bogotá to train police officers in tracking down drug traffickers and money launderers. The idea is that Colombian authorities can apply the lessons and catch and successfully prosecute drug dealers in their country before cocaine ever reaches Canada. In the latest RCMP training session, 55 Colombian officers spent a week examining drug deals in which the Mounties had caught Colombians who had smuggled cocaine into Canada. “We want to be on the same page,” said RCMP Staff Sgt. Derk Doornbos of the force’s international affairs branch, “when it comes to approaching investigations that involve Canada.”

But the main focus of Canada's anti-cocaine drive remains persuading coca farmers to switch crops. Through the Lima-based Peru-Canada Fund, CIDA had already pumped $10 million into the program in the past decade. The fund’s 44 projects have met some success—helping more than 49,000 rural families move from coca to food crops. But change is often dangerous. Cartel enforcers have murdered farm organizers and threatened aid workers. Not surprisingly, some farmers are afraid that swapping crops may draw the cartels’ wrath. “Our help makes a difference,” says Zuniga, “but it is hard to convince the farmers, because they are suspicious.”

Don Alejandro Campos, who lives near Tingo Maria, a small jungle town in the Peruvian interior, overcame his fears to become one of the first to receive aid from the Peru-Canada Fund about four years ago. “They brought me better seeds, beans, bananas, corn, citrus fruits,” recalls Campos, a short elderly man. “And they helped me cure my sick plants.” If he continues to earn a living growing alternative crops, Campos hopes some of his neighbours will also switch to food crops. But “we have very limited financial means,” says Carlos Arevalo, an agronomist with the Peru-Canada Fund who helped Campos. “We try to concentrate our efforts on the farmers already cultivating alternative crops, so they don’t switch back to coca.”

Zuniga wishes the Peruvian government would spend less on the military and more on helping farmers. Instead, he says the government of President Alberto Fujimori is more interested in using the U.S. military aid, which amounted to $35 million in 1999, to spray coca crops. “The government does not care if the farmers are hungry, sick and uneducated,” says Zuniga, “and it does not understand this is no way to resolve the problem.

But whether employing persuasion or using an iron fist, it will be difficult to break the narco-barons’ grip on the peasants. The coca plant is easy to grow, even in poor soil, and farmers can sell its leaves at a higher price than almost any other crop. Since July, 1998, the price of coca leaves has fluctuated between $2 and $3 a kilogram. By comparison, coffee usually sells at $1 a kilogram, and bananas for 20 cents a kilo.

The drug cartels also help the isolated peasants. “The farmers who sell coca to drug traffickers have fewer transport problems than the ones who cultivate coffee, citrus fruits and bananas,” says Alejandro Pimentor, a technician working for an agricultural co-operative. “The drug traffickers come right into the jungle to pick up the coca.” And even if a farmer gives up coca and hauls other crops to market, Pimentor says he S often leaves with little to show for the trip, because Peru imports most of its I food cheaper than the peasants can produce it. “The farmer sells it to an inter« mediary,” says Pimentor, “who will buy it for almost nothing.”

In Colombia, the program Axworthy announced also has a humanitarian side. Part of the $20 million will be put towards helping the Colombians establish drug-rehabilitation clinics, while other funds will go towards assisting local efforts to keep young people out of the country’s pervasive drug culture.

Although Ottawa’s financial contributions to efforts to stem the flow of cocaine have been modest, Douglas Challborn, first secretary at the Canadian Embassy in Lima, sees positive results. “Our approach is to focus on development and human security,” he says. By creating sustainable agriculture, including marketing co-operatives that allow for more efficient sales of crops, CIDA officials believe that over time farmers will not have to return to coca production. “It is a question of doing what we do best with the resources that we have,” says Challborn.

Washington, however, has more immediate plans to destroy the coca industry with its new military aid package. The plan, which is expected to pass Congress, will finance the purchase of 63 attack helicopters, and later this year equip two 950-man, counter narcotics battalions of Colombian soldiers. A third battalion, trained by U.S. special forces, is already engaged in counterinsurgency operations. The $1.9 billion in aid money is officially targeted for the fight against FARC —the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—who control nearly 40 per cent of the country. But many analysts believe the aid is actually part of a wider U.S. war on the cocaine cartels. “If you talk to any government official here in Bogotá,” a European Union diplomat told Macleans, “the aid is solely to counter the narcotics trade.”

Washington’s $1.9-bilhon package will supply helicopters and equip battalions

The lines between FARC, which claims to be fighting to improve the living conditions of landless peasants, and the cocaine trade have become blurred. Since 1994, Clinton has allowed U.S. planes in Colombia to spray millions of gallons of toxic herbicides over the coca plantations operating under the protection of FARC. But the attacks have been ineffective because coca production since then has soared from 81,000 acres to 222,000 acres. Trafficking in the drug has become so lucrative that White House drug policy director Barry McCaffrey said about two-thirds of FARC units “are now engaged in some way in drug-related criminal activity.” FARC’s primary task, he added, is to protect coca fields, production laboratories and groups smuggling cocaine. McCaffrey also believes FARC is behind a new and more deadly crop— poppies for heroin.

To head off critics who say the United States is being too aggressive, the White House notes that the Colombian army has agreed to prevent human-rights abuses under the terms of the aid package. But some analysts counter that the army has yet to sever links with right-wing death squads that stand accused of atrocities against unarmed civilians who sympathize with FARC.

Even President Pastrana seems concerned the U.S. war on drugs could lead to a wider conflict within Colombia. To keep that from happening, he hopes to convince Washington to let his country use some of the aid to help farmers who have been displaced by coca-spraying. “There’s a very grave social problem,” said Pastrana. “We can’t look at the problem only as one of fumigation and eradication.” On that point, the Canadians working with peasants in the coca fields would certainly agree.