Needed: more drug eradicators

Robert Novak
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Posted: Jun 26, 2006 12:01 AM
Needed: more drug eradicators

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.

In the absence of additional planes, the CNP sends out teams of jungle fighters for manual eradication -- a slow and bloody business. An operation requires 300 men cutting coca plants, protected by 1,400 armed police. Their defoliation of five acres in a day compares with 200 acres sprayed in the same time by an aerial eradication team, suffering ambushes by narco-guerillas and heavy casualties. Brig. Gen. Jorge Baron, director of the CNP's anti-narcotics division, told me he would entirely depend on aerial eradication if he only had the planes.

The casualties taken by ground eradication operations are inflicted by the FARC leftist militia and new, supposedly right-wing paramilitary units that now operate side-by-side in the area hit by Wednesday's aerial eradication. Antonio Costa, Vienna-based head of the United Nations' anti-narcotics office, told me in Colombia last week that he considers both groups criminal organizations without political content.

At least, the FARC's Marxist-Leninist orientation has been eclipsed by its role as a narcotics kingpin. Colombians I saw here, including critics of President Alvaro Uribe's regime, are outraged that Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts called FARC's murderous, hated attacks a "civil war."

During the June 9 House debate, floor manager McGovern and other left-wing Democrats harped on the May 10 drug-related slaughter of 10 crack national anti-drug policemen by the army's High Mountain Battalion. The unit's commander, Col. Bayron Carvajal, has been imprisoned and removed from jurisdiction of military court martial (which has a conviction rate of 4 percent). Carvajal is being prosecuted by Colombian Attorney General Mario Iguaran, who has evidence of the colonel's ties to drug trafficking.

In response to this evidence of Colombia's escape from degradation as a narco-terrorist state, Democrats in the House voted 161 to 28 for McGovern's disastrous cut in U.S. aid. The House Republicans saved Colombia, but ardent young officers of the National Police are anxious to win this war. They need more help from Washington, and they deserve it.