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The BBC's Rageh Omaar in Colombia
"For nearly forty years violence has torn Colombia apart"
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Thursday, 31 August, 2000, 08:57 GMT 09:57 UK
Colombia changes tactics in drugs war
'Plan Colombia' will support the building up of the Colmbian army to combat illegal drugs
The Colombian army is fighting the illegal drugs trade
By Jeremy McDermott in Putumayo

Plan Colombia is President Andres Pastrana's grand scheme to put his beleaguered country back on its feet.

The plan will tackle the scourge which Mr Pastrana sees at the root of the country's problems: Drugs, and the money from them that is fuelling the country's 36-year civil conflict.

President Clinton visited Colombia on 30 August to discuss the US contribution to Plan Colombia, some $1.3bn of mainly military aid.

It is centred on the creation of three anti-narcotics battalions, trained and equipped by US special forces with 60 helicopters to give the force mobility.

They are to be based in Putumayo and plan to eradicate the 60,000 hectares of coca. the crops from which cocaine is derived.

After more than 20 years of fighting the drug trade, the US has had little success in stopping or even denting the flow of drugs from Colombia to the US, estimated to be more than 500 tonnes of cocaine every year.

New plan

Patrana: Wants to rid his country of drugs problems once and for all
Patrana: Wants to clean up his country's bad reputation
It has decided to change tack and plans to build up the Colombian army so that it can take on the drug trade at source, on the ground in Putumayo.

They also want to hit at the income that fuels the insurgency and illegal armies.

General Fernando Tapias, commander-in-chief of the Colombian Armed Forces, insists that Plan Colombia would not take the guerrillas and drug dealers head on.

"What we are trying to do is to repeat the strategy that was successful, to economically weaken these groups, to destroy them economically," General Tapias says.

While they had money they would never fall, corrupting all the authorities, corrupting all the institutions.

We are ready for the gringo imperialists. We will turn this into another Vietnam for them

Commandante Christian, FARC commander
However, there are those that see the Plan Colombia as fundamentally flawed.

First of all, Putumayo is a stronghold of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), the country's largest rebel army.

It is also home to the Farc's most fearsome fighting unit, the Southern Block, known to number at least 3,000.

The terrain they inhabit is mostly jungle and perfectly suited to guerrilla warfare.

"We are ready for the gringo imperialists. We will turn this into another Vietnam for them," Commandante Christian, a Southern Block commander, told us.

Peasants at risk

The second factor is that many believe the aerial eradication programme will not hit the Farc finances nor dent the supply of coca as more forest can be cleared and planted in weeks.

Most peasants grow coca not to be a multimillionaire but just to survive and maintain their children

Cecilia Anaya

Instead, the most vulnerable, poor peasants, could be hit.

Cecilia Anaya has worked the land in Putumayo for most of her long life.

She is now president of a peasant support group, designed to help the small farmers find alternatives to coca.

"Most peasants are involved in growing coca not for a love of money or the desire to be a multimillionaire, nor to be a drug dealer, just to survive and maintain their children," she says.

"People need to realise this, the whole world needs to realise this, because there is absolute poverty in Putumayo," Cecilia says.

Wounded FARC guerilla: The rebels are warning against American intervention
Wounded FARC guerilla: The rebels are warning against American intervention
Not all of the Colombian authorities are convinced the US-inspired plan will work.

German Martinez is a government-appointed official in Putumayo.

He believes that Plan Colombia reveals a flawed understanding of the drug trade, which he breaks down into three elements: The grower, the dealer and the consumer.

He believes Plan Colombia should be tackling the dealers, guerrillas and smugglers, who make more than 1000% profit on the small price they pay the growers for coca.

He also believes the consumer in the US is far more guilty that the grower, who is simply fighting for survival.

"Plan Colombia is not responding to the vision of Bogota, but to the drug and counterinsurgency interests of the United States, and the peasants will pay the price," Martinez says.

Already caught between guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries, the people of Putumayo may now have to face a state on the offensive with US supplied forces.

They do not see an end to the war, just an escalation and more death, displacement and further recruits for the warring factions.

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See also:

23 Jun 00 | Americas
US funds anti-drugs war
15 Aug 00 | Americas
US seeks to boost regional democracy
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