MARIQUITA, Colombia -- At the Colombian National Police (CNP) base here last Wednesday morning, a small air fleet took off. Hours earlier, a Fairchild Metroliner intelligence plane scouted poppy fields in the jungles 40 miles northward. Now, several well-armed Huey helicopters embarked. They were followed by three Turbo fixed-wing aircraft, spraying fields to eradicate plants producing narcotics destined for U.S. and European users. Taking off last to complete the day's operation was a Blackhawk helicopter, fulfilling "search and rescue" requirements.
Such hazardous operations -- subject to ground fire from narco-guerillas -- take place in the Colombian Andes every day, amid disapproval from Western European government officials, Democrats in the U.S. Congress and critics inside Colombia. In contrast, CNP officers asked for more eradication aircraft paid for by U.S. taxpayers. While that would be small change compared with massive outlays in Iraq, the extra money is not forthcoming.
Colombia provides 50 percent of the American market's heroin and 90 percent of its cocaine. It is the only South American country that permits aerial eradication of its poppy fields. Yet U.S. spending here is frozen, in size and shape. The CNP hears nothing positive when it pleads to launch a maximum assault on the drug fields by expanding the air fleets from three to five.
That abandoned opportunity is frustrating to Gen. Jose Serrano, the former CNP commander who is now Colombia's ambassador to Austria (and was in Bogota last week).
"It is the campaign, all over the world, of the drug traffickers to claim there is environmental damage (resulting from aerial eradication)," Serrano told me. He credits the narco-terrorists influencing the European Union's refusal to participate in aerial eradication, though close to half of Europe's heroin supply comes from Colombia.
Figures by both the United Nations and the U.S. State Department show poppy production slightly increasing, but American officials admit privately that is largely a statistical aberration based on an original acreage underestimate. But enough additional aircraft are needed to hit coca crops throughout the country in all of the year's four growing cycles to finally root out the plants. Col. Henry Gamboa, chief eradication officer at the CNP, told me 15 more planes would meet this goal.