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U.S. backs civilian projects to fight drugs in Colombia

Part of the once luxurious country estate of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, Hacienda Napoles, has been turned into a Jurasico theme park complete with life-sized concrete dinosaurs. 

DAVID ADAMS | Times

Part of the once luxurious country estate of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, Hacienda Napoles, has been turned into a Jurasico theme park complete with life-sized concrete dinosaurs. 

PUERTO TRIUNFO, Colombia — Two decades ago, the sprawling ranch near this town was the nerve center of Pablo Escobar's drug cartel, the place where he entertained corrupt politicians at his private zoo and plotted to assassinate judges while planes packed with cocaine took off from the ranch's airstrip.

Today, these rolling hillsides offer a more peaceful panorama. A theme park called Jurasico just opened with refurbished life-sized concrete dinosaurs that Escobar built for his fantasy land. Nearby, a cooperative farm grows an alternative, albeit less lucrative export for the United States — chili peppers.

With U.S. taxpayers' help, Escobar's former playground is being turned into a laboratory of experimental civilian projects to tackle the intractable drug war.

For almost a decade the U.S. Congress poured more than $5-billion into "Plan Colombia," mostly in military training, weapons, helicopters and aerial spraying of drug crops. But this year, $236-million — almost half the total allocated — went to "soft side" spending on social and economic development.

Small projects have sprouted across the country.

• On the Pacific Coast, U.S. aid money is helping farmers grow cacao and coconut trees.

• In the south, Colombian army engineers are building roads and farmers are experimenting with biofuel crops.

• Farmers in the north are growing rubber trees.

Even longtime critics of U.S. drug policy recognize that "Plan Colombia II," as some refer to it, offers new hope. A string of military victories against left-wing guerrillas and the demobilization of 16,000 paramilitary fighters have greatly improved security around the country.

"You can't solve the problem with military means alone," said Bruce Bagley, an Andean drug expert at the University of Miami. "Plan Colombia II is just what the doctor ordered."

In Tumaco, a town of 20,000 on the steamy southwest coast that has been hard hit by the conflict, many residents are Afro-Colombian farmers who fled rural hamlets because of violence. U.S.-financed aerial spraying of coca fields also undermined the rural economy.

"The Americans have to understand that they are destroying the livelihood of the peasantry," said Yaden Castillo, 44, who abandoned his fumigated fields two years ago and now lives with friends in a cramped stilt house, eking out a living as a fisherman.

As violence in the region diminished, officials with the U.S. Agency for International Development began working directly with local community councils under a groundbreaking program designed to wipe out drug crops with sustainable, market-driven alternatives.

The program claims to have planted 126,000 acres with legal crops, creating 30,000 full-time jobs.

"It's been slow progress," said Oscar Alzate, program director in Tumaco. The program has been delayed by security concerns and theft of equipment, including boats, he said.

On Oct. 4, guerrillas blew up a power transmission tower outside Tumaco, cutting off electricity to the town. The guerrillas laid mines, hampering repairs.

Alzate said the U.S. spray planes also accidentally hit one of the USAID-funded cacao projects. He estimated losses at $100,000. USAID confirmed the cacao project was sprayed by mistake, but said the damage was "not as dramatic as stated."

• • •

A semblance of normalcy has returned to the dusty farm town of La Macarena in southern Meta province, which was occupied by left-wing guerrillas until a government offensive in 2001. Some 9,000 army troops now control the region and have virtually eradicated coca cultivation.

But unemployment is 57 percent and little aid has reached the town. "The peasants here are screaming for assistance," said Mayor Eliecer Vargas.

La Macarena is Colombia's largest municipality, with a population of 27,000 spread over 4,400 square miles. There are no paved roads in the region.

Vargas flew to Washington this year to lobby with aid officials for a $10-million to $15-million credit to start up a modern dairy farm to produce cheese. The mayor, who has a degree in agricultural economics, is also testing castor oil plants to produce biodiesel.

"This green petroleum can replace the old drug crops," said Alzate. He is working with a private Colombian company seeking to invest $25-million in a commercial biodiesel project involving 1,000 families.

The newly formed Colombian Army Corps of Engineers has also started grading the main road out of town, but has a budget for only the first 2 miles. The nearest major town is 100 miles away.

"It's a start," said Lt. David Ramirez.

David Adams can be reached at dadams@sptimes.com.

Maria Mejia, 45, never imagined she would end up having a financial stake in Pablo Escobar's former hacienda.

"Don Pablo's" former house cleaner, she quit working for him in the 1980s when his battle with the law began to heat up.

Now she is one of 80 families benefiting from a U.S.-financed cooperative to grow chili peppers.

"It fills me with gratitude because I see a good future here," she said.

Many workers are former armed combatants, whose past makes companies wary of hiring them. Others simply fled the fighting.

Mejia's mother was killed by left-wing guerrillas. She returned to the ranch after Escobar was killed in 1993, curious to see what the government would do with the land.

After years of wrangling the 1,500-acre property was split up. Part of it is used as pasture rented out to local cattlemen, while another portion is preserved as forest. A dinosaur theme park just opened, and the government plans to build a maximum-security jail.

But the highlight is the Peppers for Peace project, which occupies 116 acres.

"Who would have thought chili peppers on Pablo Escobar's old toy ranch?" said U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield.

The first harvest was bought by a Colombian firm that provides peppers to Louisiana-based McIlhenny Co., makers of Tabasco sauce.

"This project is about much more than peppers," said Diana Martinez, the co-op secretary and a green-eyed former paramilitary. "We are sowing a new future for Colombia."

U.S. backs civilian projects to fight drugs in Colombia 10/12/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 14, 2008 7:43am]

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