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Colombian Church Reluctant Player in Drug Crop Substitution Program

History of corruption hampers reform of Mexican government

BY RICARDO OLVERA

September 1, 1996 Issue | Posted 9/1/96 at 1:00 PM

 

BOGOTA, COLOMBIA—As more than 50,000 peasants protest against the Colombian Government's efforts to wipe out cocaine fields in Guaviare and Putumayo, the Church has agreed to collaborate in the crop-substitution programs.

PLANTE, as the program has been dubbed, seeks to stop the cultivation of cocaine and other narcotics through fumigation and/or an agreement with the producers to replace these crops with legal ones with financial and technical assistance from the government.

The Church is not entirely satisfied with the program. Bishop Belarmino Correa Yepes, apostolic vicar of San Jose in Guaviare, is recognized for his broad knowledge on the subject. “If we don't eliminate interest in cocaine production,” he says, “the people aren't going to consider other alternatives, and that's the problem with PLANTE. There has been plenty of good will, funding, and a fairly good strategy on the part of the government, but the people are simply unwilling. Another problem is that some growers receive money from the program, but since growing cocaine is more attractive, they figure out a way of diverting the money in that direction….”

The Colombian Episcopate has expressed its own concern about the inadequacy of the program.

PLANTE director, Hector Moreno Reyes, has asked the bishops and to collaborate with the program. According to Reyes, “cooperation with the Church was sought from the very beginning, but unsuccessfully, and so the program lacked the Church's authority and ability to bring people together.”

Bishop Fabian Marulanda of Florencia (Caquet·) has publicly responded to PLANTE's request that Church participation should be seriously considered: “They have looked to the bishops to consider continuing PLANTE with the infrastructure of Pastoral Social, (a Church social action body) which has worked with the community, knows it well, and would provide a sense of spirituality. But we're hesitant to get involved because people might think we're wedded to the government's way of thinking, and that we're working for the government.”

“The Church,” the bishop says, “wants to end the cocaine growing and drug trafficking in general in Colombia. We have to find the best and most appropriate way of helping.”

Bishop Belarmino Correa has made it clear to the directors of PLANTE and the government that, despite the government's wish for “the Church to act as a moderator, this cannot be because there would be too many implications involved.” The church's most valuable role, the bishop said, would be “in creating an awareness in the community,” and guaranteeing “the correct use of the funds invested in the program.”

These comments led to the drafting of a threepoint program that was completed at the end of July. Msgr. Hector Henao, director of the Pastoral Social in Colombia, explained the program's three points: “First, all illicit plantations need to be eradicated. Second, citizen-based watch groups need to be created; these would receive support from the Church. The Church will participate only if the programs are feasible and realistic. Third, solid plans that respond to the needs and desires of the people of the region need to be determined, all according to what is legally permitted.”

At the moment, the situation is serious and delicate. Protests have led to clashes with the police and army; the cocaine producers complain that the solutions proposed by PLANTE do not meet their needs. Two weeks ago army troops clashed with farmers in Putumayo. Four farmers died of gunshot wounds.

Then on Monday, Aug. 20, further clashes between farmers and the military left two dead and at least 30 wounded. Among the wounded were two local (Caquet·) police officers.

Fabian Giraldo is based in Bogota, Colombia.