Yahoo News by JOSHUA GOODMAN, Associated Press Writer,
October 11, 2006
SAN JOSE DEL FRAGUA, Colombia - The United States
is quietly cutting back economic aid in a region where cocaine production is
surging, a strategy critics say hurts Washington's $4 billion effort to try to
wean Colombia off the illegal drug trade.
In an internal memo obtained by The Associated
Press, the U.S. Agency for International Development blames unacceptable
security risks for its workers and a lack of private investment partners for its
pullout from Caqueta, a former rebel stronghold in impoverished southern
Six years and more than $4 billion in American
tax dollars after Plan Colombia was launched in Caqueta, Colombia's army is
still fighting rebels here, and coca, the raw ingredient of cocaine, is still
the region's No. 1 cash crop.
But the alternative development programs meant to
provide farmers with a profitable alternative to growing coca are vanishing in
the state — a symptom, critics say, of how Plan Colombia has failed to persuade
enough coca growers to switch to legal crops even as coca production reaches
volumes unseen in years.
Washington spends $70 million annually on
development projects in drug-producing areas of Colombia. While such projects
win praise, the
Caqueta and neighboring Putumayo state produced
24 percent of the 356,000 acres of coca detected by the most recent U.S. survey
— contributing to a 26 percent surge last year nationwide. Yet Caqueta has seen
only a trickle of U.S. development aid — $5.6 million since 2000.
And now even that is drying up.
As part of the U.S. strategy to win over coca
growers, almost 20 percent of annual assistance is devoted to nonmilitary social
programs and development projects. Managing this "soft side" of diplomacy is
USAID, whose mission in Colombia is its biggest in the hemisphere.
But under the agency's new five-year $350 million
plan for development projects, Caqueta and four other Amazonian states where
coca production is rising won't receive a penny.
"It's a complete contradiction of Plan Colombia,"
said Luis Fernando Almario, a congressman from Caqueta who supports President
Alvaro Uribe's aerial eradication drive. "Instead of investing generously to
eliminate dependency on the illegal drug trade, we're being shunned."
A USAID official at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota
said resources from Caqueta would be channeled to other areas with a greater
likelihood of sustaining development long-term. He spoke on condition of
anonymity because he is not authorized to comment publicly on the issue.
But critics say that by writing off the south,
the U.S. and Colombian governments are leaving the region with little
alternative to coca.
Despite USAID's pessimism about the region's
economic prospects, at least some foreign investors are still committed: the
multinational Nestle SA, with aid from the United Nations, plans to double the
capacity of a dairy plant in Caqueta.
"It makes no sense for residents of a historical
guerrilla stronghold to be subjected to a strategy of all stick and no carrot —
combats, mass arrests, searches and fumigation, but no aid," said Adam Isacson,
an analyst at the Washington-based Center for International Policy.
The drying up of development aid is in contrast
with the tens of millions spent on aerial eradication efforts that have barely
curtailed coca cultivation in the region.
Some 400 coca farmers gathered here recently for
a coca-growers' congress. In sweltering heat, normally tight-lipped peasants
railed for hours against the lack of government aid even as a U.S.-supplied crop
duster dumped clouds of the herbicide glyphosate on nearby fields.
Since June, when the latest round of spraying
began, six peasants in the area have been arrested for having coca on their
"All the government ever does is fumigate and
fumigate — it's their own fault we grow coca because they never show their face
to offer alternatives," said Juan Carlos Mazabel, one of the organizers.
Instead of more spraying, Caqueta's 450,000
residents want financial support, their representatives say.
The war on drugs was expanded in 2001 to target
rebels who profit from the cocaine trade. A legion of U.S. soldiers and
contractors have since passed through Caqueta to train and assist 20,000
The rebels have largely retreated into the
mountains, restoring a dose of safety to cities and roads. But that hasn't led
to new jobs for impoverished residents.
The U.S. Embassy says security constraints and
limited private interest are also thwarting its work in Putumayo, at $65 million
the top recipient of Plan Colombia economic aid among Colombia's 32 states.
Some projects already have faltered. In the town
of Orito, an animal-food concentrates plant has been idle for nearly a year, its
machinery rusting since the U.S. abandoned the project.
"We're worried," says Putumayo congressman
Orlando Guerra, "because we have no idea what is going to happen."