Governors from key cocaine-producing regions in Colombia on Monday condemned a U.S.-backed plan for aerial spraying of drug crops, saying the operation would imperil the livelihood of thousands of poor peasants.
With U.S. funding, the Colombian army is set to launch a massive military push in the country's south to combat the Andean nation's booming drug industry.
The almost $1 billion in mostly military aid for President Andres Pastrana's "Plan Colombia," approved by the U.S. Congress last July, is aimed at eradicating illicit fields of coca and cutting the funding of leftist guerrillas who protect and profit from the trade.
But a group of governors on the frontline on the war against drugs said they would present in an upcoming meeting an alternative plan urging Pastrana's government to stop aerial spraying of herbicides and instead fund crop-substitution programs to wean peasants from their dependence on drug crops.
"The real problem is the terrible situation in which thousands of peasants live in Colombia," said Guillermo Alfonso Jaramillo, governor of the southwestern province of Huila. "We can't run over their livelihoods without giving them opportunities to grow other crops," he told Reuters.
HUMAN RIGHTS GROUPS SAY BLOCK AID
On Friday, major human rights groups called on U.S. President Bill Clinton to block what remained of the Washington aid package, accusing Colombia's army of not severing ties with right-wing death squads.
Right-wing paramilitaries, who often target civilians suspected of collaborating with leftist rebels, were blamed for the execution-style killings of at least 20 peasants in separate attacks throughout Colombia over the weekend, police and local media said.
The governor's plan, which is to be made public at a national meeting of governors scheduled for Feb. 15-16, is backed by at least six governors, including the governor of Putumayo, which grows 50 percent of the country's coca leaf - the raw material for cocaine.
On the lawless southern border with Ecuador, jungle-covered Putumayo is seen as ground zero for the offensive, which would employ Black Hawk helicopters to transport anti-narcotics battalions.
Colombia, the world's No. 1 producer of cocaine, is in the grip of a four-decade conflict that has left 35,000 civilians dead in the last 10 years. The war pits leftist guerrillas against right-wing paramilitaries and the armed forces.
U.S. and Colombia drug officials say the country's main guerrilla force, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), takes in millions of dollars a year from the drug trade.
The United States has insisted it wants to target drug traffickers and not be drawn into an expeditionary guerrilla war.
In neighboring Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez on Monday urged Clinton's successor, President-elect George W. Bush, to think again about supporting Plan Colombia. "I hope that the new (U.S.) government will reconsider Plan Colombia," Chavez said in a televised address to Congress.