Sun, Mar 13, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Colombia's virgin rain forest is drug war's newest front


The newest battle in Colombia's drug war is being fought in one of the largest tracts of virgin rainforest in the Americas, an expanse of stunning beauty where crystalline rivers weave around mountains hugged by a blanket of trees.

Harried by eradication campaigns elsewhere, drug gangs have been moving into the remote region, bringing in millions of seedlings for coca -- the bush used to make cocaine -- to be planted by peasants who are felling patches of trees.

US crop-dusters, which helped wipe out more than a quarter-million acres of coca last year in other parts of Colombia, have begun fumigating the new fields in their costly cat-and-mouse struggle with traffickers.

An Associated Press team, squeezed alongside door gunners, flew over the region Thursday aboard a helicopter gunship to get a look at the new front in the war.

Stretching as far as the eye can see, the rainforest in Choco state reaches into neighboring Panama. It is one of the planet's wettest regions, penetrated by few roads.

As the Vietnam War-era "Huey" helicopter clattered deeper into the isolated region, evidence of the drug gangs became apparent. A machine gunner pointed to an ugly gash in the trees. Then another, and another. Some of the fields carved from the jungle were green with budding coca. Others were brown after being poisoned by spray planes. Bright-green seedbeds could also be seen.

Cocaine producers turned to this rainforest, bordered on the west by the Pacific Ocean and the east by the Andes Mountains, after being hit by extensive coca eradication campaigns in southern, northern and eastern Colombia.

Analysts learned of the encroachment by examining satellite photos, which showed the new coca fields popping up, said Captain Miguel Tunjano of the Colombian Counternarcotics Police. Small amounts of coca were first noticed in Choco by police in 1999, but then came a sharp increase, Tunjano said. Operations to crush it were quickly mounted in an effort to prevent a "balloon effect" -- where drug production pops up in a new area after being squeezed in another.

Three years ago, this happened when spray planes wiped out coca crops in southern Colombia's Putumayo state and drug gangs moved their fields to Narino state in the southwest.

"Back then, we focused the spraying in Putumayo and it boomed in Narino," Tunjano said. "If we don't attack the problem in Choco now, the same thing will happen there."

Major Juan Pablo Guerrero, commander of police counterdrug operations in Choco, said traffickers -- who use peasant farmers to grow the coca -- are making a major move into the region.

So far, 3,420 acres of coca have been detected in Choco and 1,075 acres have been sprayed, Guerrero said at a forward operating base in Tulua, near the southeastern edge of the rainforest.

Government troops recently carried out a raid in which numerous drug labs and seed beds were destroyed, he said.

"We found 152 seed beds with 10,000 plants in each one," Guerrero said. "That's more than 1 million plants. This represents only what we've found thus far -- and we are just starting to penetrate this area."

Guerrero said the budding cocaine operation in Choco is controlled by the Rastrojos, a private army of the Northern Valley drug cartel, and by two leftist rebel groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the National Liberation Army.

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