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Gasoline on a fire

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Many Americans fear to tread in war-torn Colombia, the most violent country in the hemisphere. The Rev. Allen Proctor, Presbyterian campus minister at N.C. State University, says that after learning about Washington's $1.3 billion contribution to "Plan Colombia," a counter-drug campaign that emphasizes military measures, he had to go. "Everything I had read up to that point caused me to be concerned about the effects of U.S. policy there, and I needed to see it for myself and sort it out," Proctor says.

In mid-January, he and five other North Carolinians joined a 25-member Witness for Peace delegation to Colombia, where they investigated the real-world consequences of the lofty drug-war rhetoric we hear on the home front. After a visit to ground zero, Proctor likens the new military aid package to "throwing gasoline on a fire."

The group visited the coca-rich department of Putamayo in the south, where contract pilots hired by the U.S. State Department are flying regular fumigation raids, spraying farmers, families, livestock, water sources and, yes, coca plants with the herbicide Roundup. "We heard reports of fish dying, skin blistering, people with kidney problems," Proctor says. "These are subsistence farmers, with 10 or 15 acres--10 in coca, five in food crops--and when they spray it kills everything, including the food crops."

The delegation pressed that point in a two-hour meeting with the U.S. ambassador to Bogotá, Anne Patterson, and an aide who oversees the fumigation program. "The embassy staff response was that this was the consequence of growing coca, that that's the farmer's responsibility," Proctor says. The officials insisted that the glyphosate compound used in the raids has been proven "absolutely safe" in similar applications, and they dismissed the campesinos complaining of crop loss as "unreliable sources" only interested in coca profits.

The environmental and public health consequences of fumigation will probably pale in comparison to those resulting from the next phase of Plan Colombia: the ground war. Next month, U.S. Army-trained "counter-drug battalions" will descend into Putamayo and neighboring departments on a search and destroy mission against coca producers and the country's main rebel group, the FARC.

On January 16, the Witness for Peace delegation joined Colombian human rights activists in a vigil outside the U.S. Embassy. The group presented a symbolic offering of fruits, vegetables, bread and paper doves, urging the United States to replace the military aid package with development funds and to support a negotiated settlement to Colombia's civil war.

Events surrounding the visit brought terrible reminders that violence against civilians has escalated since the Plan Colombia funds began flowing last fall. On the day before the vigil, right-wing paramilitary troops--which are protected and sometimes assisted by the U.S-backed armed forces--pulled 10 men from a bus in western Colombia and summarily executed them. The day after the vigil, a similar squad bludgeoned 26 men to death in the northern village of Chengue.--jon elliston

On Feb. 10, Witness for Peace and other Colombia solidarity groups will stage a rally and protest near Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, which is home to the Army Special Forces troops that are advising Colombia's military. For more information, contact Peace Plan Colombia (phone: 928-9828; e-mail: peacecolombia@hotmail.com).

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