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Insects may be new weapon in drug war

The Bush administration is studying a new option in the Latin America drug war: unleashing swarms of tiny insects into the jungles of Peru and Bolivia to devour the sturdy green shrubs that are the raw material for cocaine. At the urging of drug control director William Bennett, the administration recently more than quadrupled, to $6.5-million, the budget for a secretive Agriculture Department program to develop chemical and biological agents for the destruction of drug crops.

The funds will be used for a variety of exotic projects, including testing a red dye that kills marijuana plants and a soil fungus that wipes out coca. But the principal focus of the stepped-up effort is the malumbia, a white moth that, in its caterpillar stage, gobbles the green leaves of the coca plant.

Since the inch-long malumbia is an indigenous pest of the coca, growers in Peru's Upper Huallaga Valley _ the source of more than half the world's cocaine _ are already dousing their crops with large quantities of malumbia-killing insecticides, U.S. officials say. But researchers believe that if they can breed the insect in mass quantities, hundreds of millions of malumbia eggs or caterpillars can be air dropped in the coca-growing regions to thwart growers' efforts.

"It looks promising," said Waldemar Klassen, associate deputy administrator for the Agricultural Research Service that oversees the project.

Klassen contends that the mass breeding of malumbias poses such a menace to drug cartels that the USDA has decided to keep most details of the project under wraps.

As a general rule, U.S. officials say, the introduction of so-called "biological control" agents _ particularly if they are indigenous organisms _ is considered less environmentally hazardous than other techniques such as spraying with herbicides, which the U.S. once planned to do to the coca crop.

But there has been so little study of the malumbia or its impact on the environment that it is impossible to know the consequences of introducing them on a mass scale, according to Robert Poole, a USDA research entomologist.

As a result, critics said, there is the possibility a mass influx of malumbias would destroy other plants, bring out a swarm of natural predators such as wasps, or even migrate into other regions.