Colombia suspends drug eradication program

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) –Colombia is temporarily suspending its drug crop eradication program, the government announced Wednesday in a direct response to Washington’s decision decertifying it as an ally in the war on drugs.
Colombians were infuriated by the Clinton administration’s decision, for a second straight year, to brand the country as uncooperative in fighting narcotics, placing it in a league with outlaw states including Burma, Nigeria and Iran.
Joaquin Polo, head of the national anti-drug office, said in a radio interview Wednesday that “fumigation work has been temporarily suspended while, as the government has announced, the entire topic of international cooperation with the U.S. government is reviewed in view of last week’s decision.”
He did not say how long the program would be suspended.
In Washington, State Department Spokesman Nicholas Burns said the U.S. Embassy in Bogota had been informed of the decision Wednesday morning but received no explanation.
“We hope this decision has been taken for technical reasons only and not policy reasons,” he said. “We certainly urge a resumption of the eradication operations as soon as possible.”
When U.S. officials made the decertification announcement Friday, they said a main reason for the decision was a 30 percent increase in coca cultivation in 1996. The Colombians dispute the figure in a report released last week on their anti-drug efforts, but do not offer one of their own.
Washington also criticized high-level corruption in President Ernesto Samper’s administration, saying jailed drug kingpins are allowed to traffic in illegal narcotics from their cells. Samper denies U.S. claims he actively solicited $6 million in drug money in winning office in 1994.
Colombian officials are angry that the United States has blamed them for problems with an eradication program largely paid for by Washington — it includes U.S. pilots contracted by the State Department and Turbo Thrush planes donated by the Americans — and is closely coordinated with Washington.
Samper’s international affairs adviser, Diego Cardona, complained in an interview with the Associated Press on Tuesday that the United States does not share the raw satellite data it uses to evaluate the efficacy of the eradication of cocaine, opium poppy and marijuana.
He said Colombia was making a “temporary break” in anti-drug cooperation with the United States to evaluate priorities. Colombian officials have denied reports they might retaliate for decertification by expelling U.S. drug or CIA agents.
Cardona complained that the State Department did not notify Colombia of last year’s alleged increase in coca cultivation before announcing it publicly last month.
He said his government was demanding the United States be more cooperative and was seeking an arrangement for independent verification by a satellite from a third country, perhaps Canada or France.
Colombian officials say crop-spraying planes were in operation only five months last year because of disagreements with the United States over which herbicide to use. Security concerns for new U.S. pilots and unusually heavy rains also compromised the program. Guerrillas who guard drug crops frequently fire on the planes.
Colombia is the world’s leading exporter of cocaine and in 1995 became the No. 2 grower of coca, from which cocaine is produced, behind Peru.