Colombia Starts Drug Eradication

BOGOTA -- Colombia, a leading producer of cocaine, marijuana and opium poppy, has embarked on the most ambitious eradication program the world has ever seen to wipe out most of its drug crops in two years, according to U.S. and Colombian officials.

Under the plan, known as Operation Radiance, Colombian police will spray up to 90,000 hectares of illicit plantations with herbicide from the air over the next two years.

Police estimate that Colombia grows around 40,000 hectares of coca, 30,000 hectares of opium poppy -- the raw material for heroin -- and 5,000 hectares of marijuana. The program's target figure includes repeated spraying of some areas.

"This is the biggest drug-eradication program in the world," said U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Myles Frechette in an interview. "The Colombian government has asked for our help and we will provide it."

If fully successful, the plan would quadruple drug-crop destruction from present levels. In the whole of 1994, Colombian police figures show, just 10,000 hectares of illicit plants were destroyed.

"This plan shows the total commitment of the government to the fight against drugs," said Colombia's National Narcotics Director Gabriel de Vega Pinzon. "It is the most ambitious eradication program in the world."

Washington will give the Colombian government $15 million of assistance including spray planes, fuel, pilot training and free supplies of the herbicide, Frechette said.

The idea of Operation Radiance, Colombian government officials said, is to hit hard the traffickers' source of raw materials. The plan was first announced by President Ernesto Samper on Feb. 7 but is only now getting fully under way.

Colombian drug traffickers used to import almost all the coca they needed to make cocaine from Peru and Bolivia, but during the last five years the amount of coca leaf grown domestically has risen dramatically. At the same time, drug dealers have diversified into new narcotics such as the opium poppy.

"Colombian traffickers are today well on the way to becoming self-sufficient in raw materials for their drugs," said De Vega. "Operation Radiance will stop that by making it uneconomic to grow illicit drugs in Colombia."

Fulfilling the plan's ambitious goals will not be easy, diplomats and government officials said.

Government efforts to eradicate coca bushes in the eastern plains province of Guaviare and the southeastern jungle territory of Putumayo last year ignited angry protests by peasants who said they had no other way to make a living.

The demonstrators occupied towns, took over airstrips and set ablaze oil-storage tanks belonging to the state company Ecopetrol before the government negotiated a settlement by promising to increase public spending in the affected areas.

Pilots flying the Turbo Thrush spray planes also face a military threat from drug traffickers and Marxist guerrillas who guard coca and opium poppy plantations in some areas.

Government officials said traffickers are offering a reward of $200,000 for each spray plane shot down. During the last year and a half, they added, pilots have escaped without serious injury.