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Despite Colombian government claim, opium crops persist

Despite Colombian government claim, opium crops persist

It was touted as a landmark in the U.S.-backed war on drugs: Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos took a two-foot-long machete and cut down what he said was the "last plant of opium poppy in the country."
Less than two months later, large parcels of the bright-red flowers used to make heroin can be seen growing up to a meter (yard) high along terraced ridges in the southern highlands along Colombia's border with Ecuador.
"All of us here grow poppy to survive," Wilson Ruiz, 23, told The Associated Press while using a sharp blade to extract the milky sap from some of the 1,500 flowers growing on his homestead.
Drug warriors say they have made dramatic progress in the fight against heroin in Colombia, which accounts for more than half of the drug sold on U.S. streets, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. Thanks in large part to US $4 billion in U.S. aid, Colombia's eradication campaign slashed poppy cultivation from 6,540 hectares (16,150 acres) in 2001 to 2,100 hectares (5,200 acres) in 2004, according to U.S. government figures.
But a tour of this flower-strewn battleground shows many poor farmers have little incentive to give up the cash crop. Stamping out opium poppies entirely will take more government intervention, which has been hamstrung by leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries, both dependent on drug profits.
After Afghanistan, Colombia's drug cartels control much of the world's trade in high-quality heroin, which can cost 10 times as much as cocaine.
The profits trickle down to peasants like Ruiz, who sells the sap for US$200 (euro154) a kilo (2.2 pounds) to buyers _ he says he doesn't know their names _ who regularly canvass the remote and misty Andean highlands where he lives and where the climate is not good for growing coca.
Ruiz's poppy crop produces about three-quarters of a kilo of sap in each of two annual harvests, and the labor is more painstaking and less lucrative than growing coca and processing the leaves into coca paste.
Despite the federal victory declaration, Narino state Gov. Eduardo Zuniga estimates some 1,000 hectares (2,470 acres) of poppies still grow in his mountainous state, which accounts for almost all of Colombia's production.
"The government rushed to proclaim that it had destroyed all the poppy cultivation, but the truth is that's nearly impossible," said Zuniga.
A decade ago, opium poppy plantations covered more than 15,000 hectares (37,065 acres) in Colombia _ a figure still dwarfed by the 162,800 hectares that U.S. officials say cover Afghanistan, whose President Hamid Karzai last week rejected American plans for a Colombia-style herbicide attack on the crop.
High purity heroin still flows out of Colombia, usually in hard-to-detect plastic capsules swallowed by drug "mules" who head northward to the United States on commercial flights, but sometimes in larger amounts. By contrast, most Afghan opium is sold in Europe.
In October, police made their biggest heroin bust ever when they seized 57 kilograms (125 pounds) of the drug hidden among sacks of potatoes in the Caribbean resort island of San Andres.
Gen. Jorge Baron, head of Colombia's anti-narcotics police, said shipments are likely to continue because local stockpiles of the drug stretch back three years. He insists, however, that U.S.-funded aerial fumigation of illegal crops with the herbicide glyphosate has been a resounding success.
Baron vowed that crops spared by the chemical overflights would be destroyed by hand, part of a "fly swatter" strategy "to destroy the poppy plants wherever they pop up."
If the police follow through on that threat, it could destroy the livelihood of Alirio Rodriguez, who grows poppy alongside tomatoes and potatoes on a small lot outside his tin-roofed home.
"The prices from regular crops are very low. At least the poppy provides us a small return we can live on," he said.
Rodriguez, 60, said he plans to keep on growing poppy until the government provides him a sustainable alternative _ something unlikely to happen anytime soon.
As part of Plan Colombia, as the U.S.-backed anti-narcotics strategy is known, Colombia spends millions of dollars a year encouraging farmers to plant legal crops like hearts of palm and organic coffee. But little of that money reaches Narino, one of Colombia's fastest-growing drug producing states, due to security concerns and the lack of private investment.
The area is not considered a "priority" for such projects, said Samuel Salazar, spokesman for the presidential agency that manages US$70 million in annual U.S. development aid.
Indeed, Ruiz and Rodriguez seem to be getting all stick and no carrot. Even as they hurriedly harvested their poppy, a team of police eradicators could be seen 30 meters (yards) away, chopping down a neighbor's plot.
Since the start of the year, the police crews have been combing the area near Villahermosa to eliminate whatever vestiges of the crop they can find.
Laments Ruiz: "They come to cut but never to offer us help."


Updated : 2021-04-18 14:36 GMT+08:00