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Coca-eating caterpillars: the neutron bomb in war on drugs

Pierre Trudeau, who used to be prime minister of Canada, once compared living next door to the United States to a mouse trying to sleep in the same bed with an elephant _ if you're not careful, you can get squashed. Well, as anybody who's been to Canada knows, it's a successful and dynamic country with attractive, bustling cities. If people in a place like that feel vulnerable being our neighbor, imagine how they feel in Latin America, which for the most part isn't very successful or dynamic.

Which brings me _ quite naturally _ to the malumbia caterpillar, our latest ploy to win the hearts and minds of our neighbors to the south.

It seems that some enterprising scientists at a government research center near Beltsville, Md., have been working on a secret plan to deploy vast swarms of malumbia caterpillars in South America. The idea is that these caterpillars would somehow be instructed to destroy all the coca plants in Peru and Bolivia and not anything else _ a sort of neutron bomb in our war on drugs.

Coca, as most of you know, is used to make cocaine, America's drug of choice these days.

What the scientists in Maryland have discovered is that the malumbia caterpillar's favorite food is coca leaves and that it happens to be indigenous to Peru's Upper Huallaga Valley where about half the world's coca plants grow. The trouble is that there aren't enough of these caterpillars around and the farmers in the valley have been able to control what's there with pesticides.

So the scientists are now trying to figure out how to breed millions _ maybe billions _ of these things and make them more resistant to normal pesticides. Then we could send in the planes, drop the caterpillars, and pretty soon we wouldn't have a drug problem any more. That's the theory, anyway.

Now put yourself in the shoes of your average Latin American leader when the American ambassador walks in and asks permission to cover your country with millions of genetically engineered caterpillars that won't die unless you shoot them. Is this the kind of deal you'd go for?

The leaders of Peru and Bolivia are no fools and let it be known Wednesday that they'd have nothing to do with any gringo plot to drop caterpillars all their countries.

As Carlos Guillen, the spokesman for Peruvian President Alan Garcia, so elegantly put it: "The worm isn't needed here."

Instead, Guillen suggested, the Bush administration should send the money it will take to persuade Peruvian farmers to get rid of the coca themselves and substitute it with crops such as coffee and palm oil.

This isn't just an idle demand. About 300,000 farmers in Bolivia and 200,000 in Peru depend on coca for their livelihood. Send in caterpillars to put them out of business and the leaders of those two countries are going to have a political problem on their hands.

You really have to ask yourself who in the Bush administration dreamed up this caterpillar scheme. Whoever it is, the president had his spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, and his drug czar, William Bennett, out defending it this week.

Fitzwater went so far as to assure nervous Latin American leaders that even though the caterpillars were not really such a bad idea, Washington was "not undertaking any biological war. Neither troops nor caterpillars will go in without prior request and consultation," he promised.

Coming a little over two months after we invaded Panama without anybody's permission or advice, you can excuse Latin American leaders if they're a bit skeptical.

This whole thing reminds me of some of the zanier plots we cooked up to get rid of Fidel Castro in the early 1960s. In one of them, the CIA came up with fancy exploding cigars that were supposed to blow off the Cuban leader's head. My own personal favorite was the one in which we would slip some mysterious gas into Castro's scuba diving tanks that would make his beard fall off. This, it was explained at the time, would make him lose face in Cuba's macho-oriented society.

One of the men behind some of these harebrained schemes was E. Howard Hunt, who went on to fame _ if not fortune _ by taking part in the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and the Watergate burglary in 1972. That first piece of derring-do, you may recall, disgraced the presidency of John F. Kennedy. The second forced the resignation of Richard Nixon, the first ever by an American president.

Let's hope the Bush administration doesn't have another E. Howard Hunt on its hands. Those genetically engineered caterpillars make me wonder, though.