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April 8, 2004 - The Daily Barometer (OR Edu)

Peasants Pay The Cost Of 'War On Drugs'

Colombian Peasant Leader Addresses Detrimental Costs Of U.S.-Backed "Plan Colombia"

By Katie Gill

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

When Miguel Cifuentes returns to the Middle Magdalena region of Colombia in May, his fate will be questionable.

As the executive secretary of the Cimitarra River Valley Peasant Association, Cifuentes could be in a dangerous position due to the public stance he has taken in speaking out about human rights violations occurring throughout Colombia .

Cifuentes spoke to a group of OSU students, faculty and Corvallis community members on Wednesday afternoon. His focus was on "Plan Colombia," a U.S.-funded program that supplements the "War on Drugs."

The program entails fumigating coca fields; however, rice, corn and vegetable crops meant for peasant consumption are not immune to the fumigation, thus results of this plan have done more harm than good, according to Cifuentes.

The affects have been detrimental to peasant farmers and rural communities.

"We are proposing the gradual and manual eradication of coca, accompanied by the implementation of alternative crops so that the farmers are able to provide for their families," Cifuentes said.

"The 'War on Drugs' is used to justify political corruption and fumigation. With financial, military and technical support, the U. S. is generating a battlefield in Colombia," he said.

According to the peasant association, for every acre of coca sprayed, between one and four acres of food crops are also affected.

The peasants suffer from health problems, including intestinal, skin and eye irritations.

Because of this, more than 25,000 people have come together through the peasant association to protest the fumigation of their land.

However, their calls for justice have not been well received by the government or the paramilitary.

"Because we speak out in contradiction to these policies, we are accused falsely," Cifuentes said.

According to Cifuentes, two members of the board have been killed and another six have warrants out for their arrest.

Those who speak out are threatened by the paramilitary through messages sent via local TV and radio stations or telephone calls.

This is the case not only for members of his group, but for all social and political groups, such as the Coca-Cola workers union and student organizations, who oppose government policies, Cifuentes said.

Since 2000, the U.S. government has given more than $2 billion to the Colombian military and police, who in turn retain close relationships with the paramilitary.

In the Middle Magdalena region, military checkpoints have been set up; preventing the movement of food, health products and people for the past three years.

More than 500 peasants have disappeared at these checkpoints, Cifuentes said.

Cifuentes had his own terrifying experience in the spring of 2003.

"At 6:30 p.m. on March 4, I was traveling in a canoe from Cimitarra to Barrancabermeja. There was a group of 12 heavily armed men chasing me. Fortunately, only one bullet grazed my index finger," he said.

Cifuentes spent the entire night hiding along the river, and was not rescued by fellow human rights workers until 7:30 the following morning.

Cifuentes and his fellow activists have proposed several substitutions for coca growing in attempts to curb the fumigation, but he said the government has not been receptive.

Their proposals include using land for cattle ranching, and biodiversity projects within the tropical rainforest.

"The media say that things are advancing in Colombia, that the paramilitary is dying off," he said, "but the paramilitary will continue to carry out the dirty work for which they were created."

Thus, when Cifuentes returns home after his month-long tour of the Northwest, his fate will be questionable for numerous reasons; death threats await him, the government ignores him and there is a constant presence of poison in the land on which he lives.

Yet he continues to live with this so "that the reality I know be understood," he said.

Katie Gill is the international affairs editor for The Daily Barometer. She can be reached at or 737-6376.

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