BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Colombia is overhauling its anti-drug strategy, aiming to boost alternative development efforts and relying more on manual eradication to replace U.S.-backed aerial spraying of the crop used to make cocaine.
In unveiling the new strategy Tuesday, President Juan Manuel Santos played down concerns that Colombia is easing up on cartels by ending the aerial eradication program, which has been a fixture of the drug war for two decades.
"Colombia doesn't need to continue being the biggest exporter of coca on the planet and we're going to prove it," he said in a speech that follows months of internal deliberations.
Santos decided in May to end aerial spraying of herbicides on coca crops after a research arm of the World Health Organization reclassified glyphosate as a probable carcinogen. More than 4 million acres of land in Colombia have been sprayed with the popular weed killer over the past two decades to kill the plants whose leaves produce cocaine.
As part of the new plan, growers who abandon coca will receive financial and technical assistance, as well as land titles after five years, to switch to alternative crops. Forced manual eradication will be used as a last resort for communities that don't live up to their commitments.
Instead of pursuing poor farmers, law enforcement will focus on individuals higher up the criminal chain, Santos said.
Critics have questioned the wisdom of abandoning aerial spraying, with the nation's autonomous inspector general warning that Colombia could soon be swimming in coca.
Even in advance of the spraying program's end next month, coca production had been rising: After six years of steady or declining production, the amount of land under coca cultivation in Colombia rose 39 percent in 2014 to 112,000 hectares (about 276,000 acres), according to the U.S. government.
While scientists have questioned WHO's findings about glyphosate, the fumigation of large swaths of Colombia by American-piloted planes has long outraged leftists who liken the program to the U.S. military's use of Agent Orange herbicide during the Vietnam War.
American supporters of aerial spraying quietly acknowledge that the program's utility may have reached a point of diminishing returns as criminal gangs find ways to avoid crop dusters. Fully 34 percent of coca production observed by the United Nations last year was in national parks, Indian reservations and other special areas where spraying of any herbicide is banned.
U.S. officials have insisted they will stand with their staunch ally in this new chapter and through USAID already supports several initiatives to supplant cocaine production through local economic development programs.
"We look forward to continuing our dialogue with the Colombian government to see how we might continue our alternative development for such efforts under Colombia's new drug strategy," the U.S. Embassy said in a statement Tuesday.
Peru and Bolivia, the world's two other cocaine-producing nations, have avoided use of chemical herbicides, preferring manual eradication instead.
Colombia destroyed just 12,496 hectares of coca crops manually last year, a decline of 44 percent compared to 2013 and less than a quarter of the amount of land sprayed with glyphosate.
Scaling up a labor-intensive strategy in Colombia faces enormous obstacles, chief among them tens of thousands of land mines laid by leftist rebels who rely on the drug trade to fund their insurgency.
Santos said the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia can play a key role in eliminating coca crops if two-year-old peace talks conclude successfully. Both sides are already working on a pilot land mine removal program and have committed to jointly combating drugs in the event of a deal to end the country's half-century conflict.
Joshua Goodman on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apjoshgoodman
Associated Press writer Luis Alonso Lugo in Washington contributed to this report.