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Colombian soldier advances in a field of cocaine while a plane sprays glyphosate. The Colombian government is continuing the fumigation of illegal crops despite the protest of indigenous communities and local authorities because the herbicides ruin other crops and the water.

BARBACOAS, COLOMBIA: 12 September 2000, a Colombian soldier advances in a field of cocaine while a plane sprays glyphosate. The Colombian government is continuing the fumigation of illegal crops despite the protest of indigenous communities and local authorities because the herbicides ruin other crops and the water. ( LUIS ACOSTA/AFP via Getty Images)

Plan Colombia: Mixing Monsanto's Roundup With Bush's Sulfur

Stephen Fleischman

The FARC - the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - is in the news, again.

The FARC has been a thorn in the side of the Colombian government since the 1960s when it was organized after a period of political violence in the country called "La Violencia."

The organization has grown stronger since those days and now is considered to be a terrorist, Marxist, guerrilla group threatening the Colombian government. It is accused of financing its activities through cocaine trafficking and kidnappings.

This week, the Colombian military invaded Ecuadorian territory and killed Raúl Reyes, FARC's international spokesman and considered to be FARC's second-in-command. In this operation, at least 24 guerrillas were killed. It is believed that Raúl Reyes was in Ecuador negotiating the release of some kidnap victims they had been holding, including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.

The action led to a breakdown in diplomatic relations between Ecuador and Colombia, and between Venezuela and Colombia. Both Ecuador and Venezuela massed troops on the southern and northern borders of Colombia and for a while, it looked grim.

President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, who called George W. Bush "the devil" at the UN General Assembly in 2006, and said the podium still smelled of sulfur after Bush spoke there, claimed that Colombian policies are made in Washington.

The US is hip-deep in this mess since it has taken the Colombian government under its wing in 1999 with what has been called "Plan Colombia"- a way to give the Colombian government $1.3 billion dollars a year to fight the war on drugs, the lion's share of which goes to the Colombian army to fight the FARC guerrillas.

Somebody got the bright idea, probably the Monsanto Company, the world's leading producer of the herbicide glyphosate, marketed as "Roundup," that by fumigating the coca plants with this herbicide, they could stop the flow of cocaine into the United States.

The glyphosate spray not only kills the coca plants but also just about everything else growing around them including agricultural crops. There is evidence that the spray causes lesions and other ill effects in children and adults. It was a boon, of course, for Monsanto, but did little to alter the price of cocaine on the streets of America.

Coca plants are not immune from the economic laws of supply and demand. If the supply of coca leaves goes down, the price of cocaine, across the world, goes up. Enterprising entrepreneurs rush into the market, disperse and grow more coca to take advantage of the higher price. This has been the experience of coca spraying for the past thirty years. There is more coca being grown in more places than ever before.

I went to Colombia, a few years back, as a member of a human rights delegation sponsored by the Colombia Support Network of Madison, Wisconsin, to investigate the effect of fumigation on the farmers or campesinos where the spraying was taking place.

In the southern province of Putumayo, where the heaviest concentration of coca is grown and where the FARC is strong, we interviewed dozens of campesinos and campesino leaders. We saw the devastation of the countryside caused by the fumigation and saw the effects of the spray on children and adults in the region.

Back in Bogota, we went to the US Embassy to show our evidence to then US Ambassador to Colombia, Anne Patterson. At the meeting, we showed the Ambassador a flyer put out by the US Department of State telling the people of Putumayo that "Roundup" was perfectly harmless to one's health. Wasn't this flagrantly misinforming the Colombian people? The question wasn't answered but an extensive dialogue ensued about the relative toxicity of the various chemicals involved. Dueling scientists had divergent opinions on the subject. It brought to mind the debate that raged over the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam.

The Ambassador's bottom line was that US drug policy aimed to reduce the amount of cocaine smuggled into the US by cutting down the amount of coca leaves grown. Also, a standard answer, "We were invited in by the Colombian government to do this."

Feelings ran high at meetings of the Organization of American States (OAS) in regard to the current crisis caused by Colombia's violation of Ecuadorian sovereignty last Saturday.

Ecuador's President, Rafael Correa, said the killing of the rebel leader may have ruined chances for the release of 12 hostages held by his rebel group. Ecuador's Foreign Minister, María Isabel Salvador, said that Colombia's apology for the incursion was insufficient and that the organization should send a special commission to investigate.

The Los Angeles Times reports that a US intelligence official in Washington said he could not confirm reports that American spies had tipped off the Colombian authorities that Raúl Reyes was using a satellite telephone that allowed him to be tracked.

Only George W. Bush rushed to the defense of his only ally in Latin America. On Tuesday, Bush told reporters that he telephoned Colombia's president, Alvaro Uribe, and told him that "America fully supports Colombia's democracy, and that we firmly oppose any acts of aggression that could destabilize the region."

By Wednesday, the OAS approved a resolution declaring the military raid into Ecuador a violation of sovereignty in a move aimed at easing a diplomatic and military crisis.

The resolution was approved in Washington after talks in which the United States was the hemisphere's only nation explicitly supporting Colombia.

You could smell the sulfur.

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Stephen Fleischman

Stephen Fleischman

Stephen Fleischman was a writer-producer-director of documentaries. He spent thirty years in Network News at CBS and ABC.  In 2004 he wrote his memoir A Red in the House: The Unauthorized Memoir of SE Fleischman. Stephen died in 2011 at age 92.

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