Bogota battles to root out the drug habit

in Mazamorra sees Colombian forces struggling to curb the spread of coca, marijuana and poppy cultivation
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We could barely make it out until we were hovering just above it - what looked like a cabbage patch, a lighter shade of green than the rest of the highland landscape of Colombia's Eastern Cordillera.

Only as we jumped from the helicopter, covered by a door gunner manning a heavy machine-gun and 100 commandos and police on the ground, could we see the array of red, white, pink and purple buds. A field full of poppies, nearly 6,000ft above sea level, heroin in the making and the latest problem for a Colombian government long taken up with the battle against the world's most productive cocaine laboratories.

"The guerrillas are close but we've got the place secured," said Colonel Leonardo Gallego, head of the national police's anti-narcotics commandos. He had already told us how Marxist guerrillas in cahoots with narco-traffickers regularly spray his helicopters with gunfire - they shot one down in April and have hit a dozen this year - and that 3,000 policemen, almost one a day, have been killed in the anti-drug war over the past decade.

"Stick to that path, across the gully," he yelled. A peasant family, the only sign of life for miles around, watched from the porch of a hillside wooden shack as the colonel stood among the metre-high poppies for an impromptu briefing to a group of foreign reporters. Some of his men, draped in ammunition belts and wearing assorted headbands and bandannas, had attached poppy flowers or buds to the barrels of their Israeli-made Galil rifles.

We were going to see two police light aircraft spray the field with glyphosate, the colonel said, a deadly chemical that is part of the government's US- backed Operation Splendour to destroy poppy, coca and marijuana crops.

"Don't look up," said one of his men as two twin-propeller aircraft appeared out of nowhere, buzzed us and sprayed the field - commandos, reporters and poppies - with a liquid that smelt like a dentist's mouthwash. "It'll kill off the poppies but it's harmless to humans," said Luis Parra, a government forester appointed to observe the crop destruction. We wanted badly to believe him.

"There's about a fifth of an acre here, maybe 2,000 square metres,'' Dr Parra said. ``That's about $80,000 [pounds 50,000] down the drain for somebody. These poppies are of the Papaver Somniferum variety, from the Golden Triangle of South-East Asia. The chemical destroys the poppy bulb, which produces the gum for heroin, almost immediately."

But the narco-traffickers, protected by the guerrillas and assisted by penniless local peasants, replant or move on as quickly as the illegal crops are destroyed. The authorities estimate 300,000 peasants are cultivating illegal crops, usually forking out 30 per cent of their profits to the guerrillas who control remote highland areas.

While the government of Ernesto Samper may be making inroads into the Cali cartel, exporter of 80 per cent of the world's cocaine, the spread of poppy fields and coca leaves has opened up a new front in the drugs war. Traditionally, the coca was grown further south, in Peru and Bolivia, and only processed in Colombian labs. But the Colombian drug lords, paying far more than peasants can earn from corn, beans, rubber or fruit, have encouraged the growing of coca leaves to cut their transport costs and rationalise cocaine as a home-grown industry.

The anti-drug squad has destroyed more than 7,000 hectares of poppies and 2,000 hectares of coca leaf so far this year but officials estimate that five or six times more territory is being used to produce illegal drugs, and that the area is growing. The fact that the traffickers, or more directly the peasants and guerrillas who tend and protect the crops, often cut down six or seven hectares of forest to create one hectare of cultivatable land is also of major environmental concern for Mr Samper's government.

"This is a brave programme. These policemen and soldiers are brave men," Dr Parra said while crossing himself as our helicopter ran into thick cloud and rain amid 8,000ft peaks on the way out. "But this thing seems unstoppable."

When one of the four Vietnam-era helicopters in the group - gifts from the US - made an emergency landing, ours swooped down to provide potential covering fire against any guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

"When they hit these choppers, the bullets tear right through," Dr Parra said, pointing out that only the pilots' seats were armoured. A machine- gunner, Jose Vicente Garcia, swept his M-60 from side to side across the forested highlands until the other helicopter solved its problem and returned to the air. Every fifth bullet in his band was orange-tipped, a tracer round to allow him to follow the path of his fire. "It's hard to see these guys when they shoot at you,'' he said. ``They can stay pretty well hid in these highlands."

The drug cartels - including the big one from Cali, emerging new drug lords in Medellin and an increasingly-powerful group known as the Northern Valley cartel - are encouraging poppy growth because of the profits. They can be six or seven times that from cocaine at all levels, from cultivation to street sale.

The government is trying to encourage peasants to stay away from poppies and coca and to plant alternative crops but the profits and the coercion gives the authorities a difficult task. Illegal crops are already the main source of income in many areas and there have been several protests against crop destruction.