A leading US Democratic senator has denounced Washington's billion-dollar anti-drug policy in Colombia as an expensive failure which has boosted rightwing paramilitaries while achieving "negligible" results.
Condemnation of the policy came amid reports that the area in Colombia used for the production of coca, the raw material used to make cocaine, dramatically increased last year despite extensive crop-spraying and military operations.
In a broad attack on the US's Plan Colombia, an ambitious anti-narcotics strategy to which it is contributing more than a billion dollars, Senator Patrick Leahy criticised the exemptions granted the Bogota government from human rights conditions on the disbursement of aid.
The senator said: "We give more aid to the military. They give more aid to the paramilitaries. The paramilitaries are involved with atrocities. Guerrillas are too. Drug lords seem to flourish, but the paramilitaries are now working as sort of semi-drug lords too."
A U.S. special forces Green Beret soldier, rear, helps train a Colombian anti-narcotics battalion, in Larandia, a military base about 235 miles southwest of Bogota, Colombia Friday, May 4, 2001. The training is part of the U.S. backed Plan Colombia, a $1.3 billion aid package. (AP Photo/Scott Dalton)
Since the human-rights waiver was granted, he said, "the paramilitaries have doubled in size. The number of massacres have increased."
Responding to the senator's criticism, the secretary of state, Colin Powell, denied that the US was supporting paramilitaries, and insisted that Washington was committed to the maintenance of human rights in Colombia.
"We speak candidly to the Colombian government," Mr Powell said. "And in my conversations with my Colombian colleagues, I make the point that human rights are an essential part of our strategy."
Critics of Plan Colombia say that it is being used to fight leftwing guerrillas, rather than to solve the underlying social and economic pressures which push farmers into coca cultivation.
Moreover, a Bogota newspaper, Cambio Revista, said that a survey jointly commissioned by Colombia and the UN and conducted by satellite, found that the area devoted to grow ing coca grew 60% to 162,000 hectares (400,000 acres) in the year ending December 2000.
A spokesman at the UN's Drug Control and Crime Prevention agency in Vienna, would not confirm the figures.
However, according to several reports from Bogota, the survey found that far more cocaine was being produced in Colombia than had previously been thought. If confirmed, it would suggest that the widespread crop-spraying has dramatically failed to reduce production.
Meanwhile, crop-substitution programmes aimed at providing local farmers an alternative to coca have yet to get off the ground, according to Colombian municipal officials and aid workers.
Lisa Haugaard, of the Latin America Working Group, said that the small number of families who signed pacts with the government agreeing not to grow coca in return for subsidies had yet to receive any aid.
"Our concern is the fumigation part and the military part of Plan Colombia is moving ahead, but the alternative development part is lagging behind," Ms Haugaard said.
Without humanitarian and alternative development assistance, coca-growing families may soon be facing famine, a local researcher said.
Senator Leahy also questioned the safety of the pesticide being used for crop-spraying, glyphosate. While its manufacturer, Monsanto, says it is safe, it recommends that livestock be kept out of the area for two weeks after spraying and that people stay away until it dries.
Community leaders in the Puntamayo region, where much of Colombia's coca is grown, said that villagers exposed to the pesticide had developed rashes and fevers, and that it had killed off livestock, fish and birds.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001