November 21, 2006
The United States is pulling some of its resources out of a key battleground in the war against drugs.
By Steven Dudley
BOGOTA - After several years of trying to wean farmers from the drug trade in the conflictive southern province of Caquetá, the U.S. government is winding down its funding of alternative development programs in the region.
The pullout comes amid a flurry of criticism of U.S.-backed efforts to eliminate illegal drug production in Colombia, and just before the U.S. Congress is expected to vote to continue aid for counter-drug programs in this nation of 41 million people.
Colombia remains the largest supplier of cocaine to the U.S. market, and recent reports have suggested that production is increasing despite some $4 billion in U.S. aid for the military, crop eradication and economic development programs since 2000.
The Caquetá development programs are a small part -- $9 million in U.S. funds went to the province in five years -- of this annual aid package, but the region carries symbolic weight as one of Colombia's poorest and most notoriously guerrilla-ridden provinces.
For decades, the leftist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known as the FARC, have dominated the area, which has 410,000 people and is a little more than half the size of Florida. They have used it as a training ground for new recruits and a launching pad for attacks.
Given its background, Caquetá became a laboratory for the counter-narcotics program known as Plan Colombia, designed to dry up coca, the raw material for cocaine, and replace it with viable alternatives. The overall plan included billions in U.S. aid for military training, intelligence equipment and hardware like helicopter gunships as well as money for economic projects and infrastructure.
At first, the plan seemed to be working in Caquetá. Under President Alvaro Uribe, the Colombian military launched an unprecedented offensive of 17,000 troops that pushed the guerrillas from their traditional strongholds in Caquetá and elsewhere, and disrupted the coca economy.
Colombian police data shows a drop in coca farming in the province from 59,000 acres in 1999 to 12,000 last year. U.S. and Colombian economic programs followed, including $5.6 million from the Agency for International Development (AID), $3.9 million of which went to a project for rubber trees that benefited 579 families.
But now both parts of the effort seem to be in retreat. According to politicians from the area and analysts of the military, the Colombian army is quietly withdrawing some troops from the province. The armed forces do not comment on troop movements.
Meanwhile, the United States has stopped funding economic development programs in the Caquetá region.
''There are serious doubts about the impact of the program,'' said Alfredo Rangel, a former consultant with the Colombian military who now runs a think tank on security issues. ``The impression is that these programs are very inefficient.''
Caquetá politicians are dismayed by the U.S. government's decision. They say the programs helped undercut the coca economy during the military offensive, but still need time to take root.
''When the coca left, the economy went into crisis,'' said Luis Fernando Armario, a longtime congressman for Caquetá. ``Now is when we need the economic help.''
The U.S. pullout from Caquetá comes just months after reports by the State Department and the United Nations said the total coca acreage in this country is growing again. In March, the State Department said coca acreage had increased by 26 percent; in June, a U.N. report showed an 8 percent rise.
U.S. officials say that their latest survey, done primarily through satellite photos, covered more land than previously and say coca acreage is down since the plan began.
One U.S. embassy official here also said the Caquetá pullout -- which doesn't affect other much smaller programs in the region that focus on human rights and internally displaced people -- is part of an AID effort to refocus U.S. assistance.
''We're not pulling out of Caquetá,'' said the official, who wished to remain anonymous because the official is not authorized to speak in the name of the U.S. government. ``That [alternative development] program came to its natural close.''
Farmers in the area disagree. Pablo Emilio Piñeda, the head of a rubber producing cooperative, says the project is far from finished. He worries that many of his colleagues will now return to growing coca.
''With this decision, many of these families are in limbo,'' Piñeda wrote The Miami Herald in an e-mail. ``They could easily return to sowing illegal crops.''
The U.S. decision appears to have been based on a set of factors more complex than officials have publicly acknowledged.
A State Department memo on the alternative development projects in Caquetá, obtained by The Miami Herald and previously reported in Colombian media, offers a view of some of the difficulties that U.S. officials face.
The document states U.S. government workers were advised not to travel to one project in Caquetá because of guerrilla activity, and one project dealing with livestock in Caquetá had to be moved to another province because of ``security concerns.''
The document also outlines the economic challenges AID is facing in places like Caquetá and argues that the same money in other provinces could benefit more families. The U.S. embassy official said this document was one of many that was used to analyze the situation in Caquetá and come to the decision to leave.
''Instead of saying this didn't work, what the mission concluded, in conjunction with the [Colombian] government, is that we can do this better,'' the official said.
But critics of U.S. policy in Colombia contend that the decision to shut down development programs in Caquetá reflects a larger problem in the overall strategy.
Adam Isaacson of the Washington-based Center for International Policy says that close to 80 percent of U.S. funding for Colombia continues to be for military aid, leaving little for alternative development.
Of the $700 million annual U.S. package, for instance, AID receives around $130 million per year for projects ranging from economic development to training for justice officials and investigators.
''When they think of Plan Colombia, they don't think of job opportunities and strengthening of governments,'' Isaacson said of rural coca farmers. ``They think spray planes and helicopters, and I think this decision to leave Caquetá reinforces that image.''
Local farmers like Piñeda agree. ''It seems like they're betting on war, and that's the saddest thing about all this,'' he said in the e-mail.