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U.S. cuts economic aid for Colombia area

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 Colombia.

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

United Nations and development groups lament their limited scope.

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 land.

"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 counterinsurgency troops.

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."