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Cocaine Production Falls in Colombia - 2002-03-04

New police statistics in Colombia show cocaine production in fell for the first time last year. But a new U.S. government report says Colombia's voluntary eradication program for small farmers is doomed to failure.

The soft arm of Colombia's drug eradication program took a hard knock this week, when the investigative arm of the U-S Congress released a report arguing that alternative crop development in Colombia is doomed to failure.

The General Accounting Office report observed that anti-drug programs in Peru and Bolivia -- projects that offer farmers incentives to switch from illicit crops to legal ones -- have only worked where the government had tight control over the regions where drug crops were grown.

But in Colombia, most of these regions are under the control of left-wing rebels or right-wing paramilitaries. Therefore, the report concluded, the $100 million the United States is investing in these Colombian projects has little hope of success.

In response, the head of Colombia's alternative development agency, PLANTE, came out swinging. "How can they judge a program that has not had even one year of operation," argues agency director Maria Inez Restrepo. "The United States helped Peru and Bolivia for almost 20 years," she says. "We just received our first U.S. aid last October."

She says much of the U.S. aid is going to Puumayo -- a region in southern Colombia where an estimated 25-percent of the world's coca leaf -- the raw material for cocaine -- is grown. Ms. Restrepo pointed out that since last July, 30,000 farmers in Putumayo have signed agreements promising to abandon coca in exchange for food and help developing new crops.

She says most of these farmers got into coca out of desperation, and deserve more time to help them find other crops. "It is difficult to work in these regions, but it is possible she says, and we are doing it," says Mr. Restrepo. The director also says the guerrillas have never killed or taken hostage any of her agency's employees because they have the trust of rural farmers.

Despite the U.S. criticism of the eradication program, there is some indication anti-drug efforts are working.

Colombia's Justice Minister Romulo Gonzalez released new figures this week showing that the area of coca cultivation in Colombia fell last year -- by close to 17-percent. Although most of that success was due to forced eradication -- crops destroyed by aerial spraying -- officials at PLANTE believe by next July, their voluntary eradication projects will also begin to bear fruit.