Here, thanks to my intern David, is a translation of a Cambio magazine column written in late December by Colombian Senator Antonio Navarro Wolff. The second-highest vote-getter in Colombiaâ€™s last legislative elections, Sen. Navarro is a former leader of the M-19 guerrillas, which disbanded in a 1990-91 peace process. He is a key figure in the PÃ³lo DemocrÃ¡tico political party, which also includes BogotÃ¡ mayor Luis Eduardo GarzÃ³n.
This column, which calls into question the on-the-ground effectiveness of herbicide fumigation, closely parallels what I and others have seen when traveling to Colombiaâ€™s coca-growing zones in the past year or two. It inspired U.S. Ambassador William Wood to respond with a letter of his own, which appears on the embassyâ€™s website.
Senator Antonio Navarro Wolff
Cambio magazine (Colombia)
Three months ago, the President invited all the members of Congress from NariÃ±o [a department in Colombiaâ€™s far southwest, near Ecuador] to a security conference at the airport in Pasto [the capital city]. We were sitting next to the most powerful peopleâ€”the ministers who deal with security issues and the regionâ€™s police and military commanders.
An issue that had to be addressed during the meeting was illegal crops. Over the course of the conversation, a surprising fact emerged: the Anti-Narcotics Police data on the presence of these crops in the department did not coincide with the information maintained by the provincial government and people familiar with the territory. While the police talked about 13,000 hectares [33,500 acres] of coca, the governorâ€™s office estimated three times that amount. When comparing data from individual counties, the surprise was even greater. While the national data spoke of zero hectares of coca, all of us at the conference who were familiar with the region knew that these counties had thousands of planted hectares.
Later, I told them my personal experience from a visit I made in mid-2004 to Orito, Putumayo, where they were electing the mayor and my party, the PDI, had a candidate. As soon as I got on the helicopter that took me from Puerto AsÃs to Orito, the pilot told me that the land we would be flying over was full of coca. I didnâ€™t believe him. Plan Colombia had begun in Putumayo [in 2000], and at some point former Interior Minister [Fernando] LondoÃ±o had said that there were no coca bushes left there. Yet the pilot showed me tons of crops on the way. Later, I spoke with many people who gave me the same information. Finally, by chance I met with an army official, who confirmed my thought that there was almost as much coca now as when Plan Colombia had started. When I finished the account of my trip, Uribe did not want to believe it. He lost his temper and asked that the official who had spoken to me be investigated.
Days later, the Chief of the Anti-Narcotics police visited NariÃ±o and, I assume, Putumayo, where he was able to see for himself that the information they had did not correspond to the facts. Everything points to the fact that is a severe underreporting of the number of coca crops throughout the country.
This begins to cast a seed of doubt on the optimistic figures regarding eradication of coca as a result of the intense [aerial herbicide] fumigation of the last three years. Other facts point in the same direction. The amount of drugs seized on their way to the international market has reached the highest level in history. In 2004, all records in this area were broken.
Those who defend the success of fumigations believe this is due in large part to the increased presence of the Armed Forces throughout the country, making interdiction efforts much more effective. This could be true, but it can also be explained by the fact that production has not decreased significantly.
On the other hand, a study [PDF format] conducted by the U.S. based NGO WOLA [the Washington Office on Latin America] showed, among other things, that the price of drugs on U.S. streets had gone down in recent years. According to WOLA, this shows that supply has not decreased. The State Department replied that this conclusion was not true, since the drop in price could also explained by a drop in demand.
The truth is that the policy of fumigation â€œat any costâ€ is at a critical point. Its defenders hope for an abrupt decline of coca crops in Colombia in 2005. If this does not happen, has the time come to replace this policy? Will Bush accept this?