SANTA ROSA DEL GUAMUEZ, Colombia Villagers vividly recall the planes swooping in at treetop level, trailing a fine mist of herbicide over fields of coca, corn and banana, with combat helicopters clattering overhead.
For the governments of the United States and Colombia, the aerial spraying mission in the Indian village of Santa Rosa del Guamuez was among the first in a controversial counterdrug effort in the world's largest cocaine-producing region.
But already the strategy is running into problems and fueling deep resentment. The planes killed not only coca the base ingredient of cocaine but the food crops and pasture.
"The helicopters came with a great noise. They were heavily armed. You could see the machine guns," recalled resident Virgilio Queta of the morning of Jan. 6.
Obencio German Criollo, a traditional healer of the Cofan Indian tribe, shows a corn field that was fumigated by accident while government planes were fumigating a near by coca field in Santa Rosa del Guamez, in the southern state of Putumayo on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2001. While fumigating the coca fields adjacent crops of corn, yucca and other crops are being dying from the herbicide. The Putumayo is the principle coca growing region in Colombia and is ground zero for Plan Colombia, President Andres Pastrana's anti-drug initiative which Washington is financing with 1.3 billion dollars.(AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)
Government investigators are inundated with complaints from farmers, and are finding that some complaints of non-drug crops being sprayed are true.
Juan Martinez, of the government ombudsman office, confirmed that some pasture sprayed with herbicide had died. Even the pasture of the mayor of La Hormiga, the main town where the missions have centered, was fumigated.
A three-hour hike by Martinez and Associated Press journalists around Santa Rosa showed that the herbicide landed mostly on the coca crops, many of them on farms smaller than an acre. The government and U.S. officials had given assurances that mainly large-scale "commercial" plantations would be targeted.
The fields in Santa Rosa looked like moonscapes, with only deadened branches of the formerly robust green bushes sticking above the brown ground.
Adjacent food crops were shriveled and yellowed from the herbicide, as well as some of the jungle. Tribal fish farms were also sprayed, the Indians said.
Santa Rosa's residents, members of the Cofan and Paez tribes, resent the spraying and wonder if their ancestral lands will recover.
"We are natives here," Angelina Queta, a 58-year-old Cofan woman, told Martinez. "If this land is ruined, we are not going to ask the government to relocate us from our homeland so treat it with respect."
Plan Colombia President Andres Pastrana's anti-drug initiative that Washington is financing with $1.3 billion including helicopters and training for Colombian troops envisions a mass-scale fumigation of Putumayo, the state where Santa Rosa sits.
An average of 2.7 gallons of the herbicide glyphosate is sprayed on each 2½ acres of coca. There are at least 138,000 acres of coca in Putumayo, said Gonzalo de Francisco, Pastrana's point man for the state.
De Francisco is trying to get small-scale coca producers to eradicate their crops manually in exchange for government development aid, and said he already has signed up 2,000 families. A week after Santa Rosa was sprayed, its residents agreed to destroy the rest of their coca in return for aid.
Children play in a fumigated coca field at a Cofan Indian farm in Santa Rosa del Guamez, located in the southern state of Putumayo, on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2001. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)
Unless more do so, thousands more gallons of herbicide will fall on Putumayo, a verdant Amazonian region bordering Ecuador. De Francisco defended the fumigation strategy, saying it was preventing far greater environmental damage caused by the coca producers.
In addition to the vast acreage of rainforest that has been felled for the planting of coca, 10.8 million gallons of pesticides, herbicides and agents such as gasoline, sulfuric acid and ammonia are used in Putumayo annually to grow coca and convert it into cocaine, the government said.
Resistance to the campaign by leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitary gunmen who "tax" cocaine production has been muted so far. De Francisco said the aircraft had received only four bullet hits, with no injuries to crew members, since fumigation began around Christmas in Putumayo.
Most of the missions are in areas where paramilitary forces have ousted the rebels in recent fighting. The paramilitary members are loosely allied with the military, and have said they don't plan to resist the fumigation missions.
But the rebels are ready to battle the U.S.-supplied helicopters.
"If they fly low around here, we'll be throwing lead up at them," vowed a young rebel who manned an ambush point alongside a highway an hour's drive from La Hormiga.
© Copyright 2001 The Associated Press