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An effort to combat drugs and rebels could be a model for the US in Afghanistan.
But drugs and insurgents, he said, “are all one problem and you have to have all of the tools to address it at the same time.”
Long before the United States became bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, Colombia — which has received more than $6 billion in U.S. aid over the past decade — was Exhibit A for the disjointed and piecemeal approach.
Much of the U.S. money was funneled into programs to forcibly eradicate coca. Fumigating drug plantations, the thinking went, would squeeze the rebel money supply and cripple the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the nation’s largest rebel group (known as the FARC).
But drug eradication far outpaced follow-up efforts to provide coca farmers with emergency food and incentives to switch to legal crops. Thus, frustrated peasants replanted coca. Others wanted to get out of the drug business but couldn’t.
“I was ordered by the FARC to either plant coca or leave the area,” said Leonardo Cuestas, 43, who eventually abandoned his farm on the outskirts of Vista Hermosa.
For its part, USAID steered clear of the most treacherous parts of the countryside. Though coca crops in those zones were being eradicated, the agency decided it was pointless to sink development money into regions that lacked decent security.
By 2007, authorities had made little headway as farmers continued to grow bumper crops of coca. And though the FARC had suffered a series of military defeats, the insurgents remained entrenched in the Macarena region.
Though it lies just 100 miles south of Bogota, the area is a longtime rebel stronghold. For generations, Bogota politicians ignored the zone and actually ceded Vista Hermosa and four other nearby townships to the guerrillas during peace talks that ended in failure in 2002. By then, the Macarena region had turned into one of the most prolific drug-producing zones, thanks to fertile soil that can produce up to six harvests of coca per year.
“This is probably the most important place in the country for the FARC,” said Jaramillo, the deputy defense minister. “So how was it possible that we hadn’t managed (to resolve) this problem?”
Thus, in October 2007 the Colombian government settled on a three-pronged, carrot-and-stick strategy. Soon after troops attacked the guerrillas and teams of eradicators cut down drug crops, aid workers moved into the newly secured zones to provide food, crop substitution programs and public works projects for farmers who had long depended on coca.