BOGOTA, Colombia, MAR. 24, 2001 ( Colombia is caught in the middle of two wars: one against the guerrilla forces of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the smaller National Liberation Army; another against drug producers responsible for the country´s best-known export -- cocaine.

The two conflicts are linked, given that the guerrillas derive a good part of their finances from selling drugs. The guerrillas now control wide areas of the countryside, but according to many observers, drug production is the greatest threat. "The cancer that is killing Colombia," is how The Telegraph newspaper of England on March 15 referred to drugs.

About 600 tons of drugs, mostly cocaine, are smuggled out of Colombia every year, the Telegraph reported. In turn, the revenue fuels the civil conflict. The paper calculates that the guerrillas, and also the paramilitary groups, derive 70% of their income from drugs. One of the consequences is a level of violence that sees about 26,000 deaths every year.

The big drug groups, such as the Medellín and Cali cartels, were destroyed, but drug trafficking continues and is now much more decentralized, making it even more difficult to combat.

A tactic now used by the Colombian government is the destruction of the coca fields by aerial spraying -- a method criticized by many. The New York Times reported March 17 on efforts backed by the United States to wipe out production in Putumayo province. But, according to the governor of the neighboring Nariño province, "What the fumigation did was to transfer the phenomenon from Putumayo to Nariño."

According to the Times, opposition to spraying is so strong in southern Colombia that mayors, Church officials and others have been pushing President Andrés Pastrana´s government and the United States to stop the spraying.

The Americans say that by the defoliation they hope to contain the spread of coca. The plan is "intended to apply pressure in more places simultaneously than previously possible," said Jim Mack, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement.

The spraying effort has the goal of halving the estimated 336,000 acres of coca in five years. Backed by an American aid package, the operation eliminated 75,000 acres of coca in Putumayo in two months.

But the destruction caused an estimated 10,000 people to flee Putumayo. Many coca growers are left with no income, and while there are aid packages to encourage the shift to other crops, making the change is not easy.

Reuters reported March 13 that four Colombian governors went to the United States to press for a stop in the use of herbicides. The governors of the four most affected provinces -- Putumayo, Nariño, Cauca and Tolima -- called for an end to the aerial spraying and more funding for social programs to encourage farmers to turn to legal crops. The governors also said that the chemicals are causing health problems among the population.

However, American officials said glyphosate, the chemical used in the spraying, was the most widely used herbicide in the world, commonly sprayed in gardens in the United States to kill weeds. They said there was no serious evidence of any impact on human health. The State Department said, nevertheless, that it has agreed with the U.S. Congress to study whether the spraying has had a health impact.

The U.S. government did acknowledge that the spraying may have damaged farm crops. But William Brownfield, deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, explained that drug crops were often camouflaged among legal crops.

Experience with eradication programs in the Chapare region of Bolivia shows that it is not enough to just wipe out the coca crops. The Financial Times on March 14 reported how in 1989 Bolivia launched a project to wipe out the $500-million-a-year cocaine production in Chapare.

Bananas, palm hearts or pineapples, among others, were introduced to replace it. Farmers received $2,500 for each hectare of coca destroyed. But, as Angel Zambrana, the head of a local farming association, commented, "The danger is that if there is no market [for alternative crops], people will return to coca-growing."

Banana cultivation, for example, requires expensive steel railing to move the freshly picked bananas from the plantation to the packing station. Cleaning and packing is costly and time-consuming. Transport to the main export market in Argentina also requires $25,000 refrigerated trucks to conserve the fruit on the journey.

"No single crop is yet as profitable as coca," concedes Carlos Sarabia, who leads the U.S. Agency for International Development´s alternative development project in the Chapare, but he maintains the new crops will prove lucrative.

Doubts over U.S. aid

Last year the U.S. Congress approved a $1.3 billion emergency aid package to fight drug trafficking from South America. Most of the funds were earmarked for military hardware and training to help wipe out drug crops in Colombia. At the time, and since then, many doubts have been raised over U.S. involvement in the drug war in Colombia.

Some fear that the military part of the package, involving training of anti-narcotics battalions in the Colombian army by U.S. forces, will lead to involvement in the civil war. Others are concerned that the U.S.-trained forces, and the military equipment sold by Washington, will be used by military forces that have little respect for human rights. In part, due to objections over the military dimension of the campaign, European countries have been reluctant to approve the U.S. intervention or contribute funds to support the eradication program.

Colombia´s neighbors, according to an analysis in the March issue of The World Today, are concerned about what effects the U.S.-backed campaign may have on them. They fear that if the campaign is successful, drug production may simply hop over the border. Countries such as Panama and Ecuador do not have sufficient military forces to close their boundaries.

Pastrana visits Bush

In February, Colombian President Pastrana went to Washington to meet with President George W. Bush. Pastrana, according to the Financial Times on Feb. 27, called for a renewal and enhancement of the 1991 Andean Trade Preferences Act when it expires in December. The legislation, which lowered U.S. tariff barriers for goods from Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, has created 140,000 jobs in Colombia in the last 10 years.

Pastrana also called for speeding up to 2003 the completion of negotiations on the hemispherewide Free Trade Area of the Americas, a position shared by the United States, Canada and Chile, but resisted by Brazil.

During the meeting the U.S. president reaffirmed the commitment to fight drug trafficking. But, according to Reuters on Feb. 27, Bush refused Pastrana´s request to join in the peace talks with Marxist guerrillas. "This is an issue that the Colombian people and the Colombian president can deal with,´´ Bush told a press conference.

Bush also said he would support the renewal of a regional trade agreement that gives goods from Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia lower tariff barriers to the U.S. market.

In the debate over how to best resolve the problems in Colombia only one thing is certain: There are no quick solutions for an end to the civil strife and drug trafficking that are dividing the country.