|VOICE OF AMERICA|
SLUG: 2-326168 Colombia / Drug Program (L-O)
TITLE=COLOMBIA / DRUG PROGRAM (L-ONLY)
DATELINE=RIO DE JANEIRO
HEAD: Colombia Offers to Buy Coca From Farmers
INTRO: Colombia is offering to buy coca plants from small farmers no questions asked. Carmen Gentile reports for VOA from Rio de Janeiro that the government program to buy the plant from which cocaine is made is being criticized for being contrary to Colombia's professed effort to stop the illegal drug trade.
TEXT: Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has offered to buy illegal coca plants used for making cocaine from farmers in an effort to stem the drug trade.
Mr. Uribe told farmers to go to the nearest police station or army outpost and turn over the plants to officers and soldiers. Prices for the crop will be negotiated on the spot.
The idea, according to Colombian officials, is to get the coca off the market so it cannot be processed into cocaine, while still providing farmers with an income.
Farmers can also turn over poppy, the plant used to make heroin.
The Colombian president said it is as simple as handing over the crop and taking the cash, no questions asked. The offer however is only available in Colombia's central Meta region.
Mr. Uribe said the decision to begin the program in the region was made after the government found that an ongoing battle between the military and leftist rebels forced small coca farmers to seek new buyers for their crop.
The rebels usually purchased the coca for cocaine to finance their armed struggle against the Colombian government.
However the president said recent losses at the hands of the military have forced the rebels into hiding thereby leaving the coca farmers without buyers.
The controversial program has come under harsh criticism from lawmakers like Senator Rafael Pardo, who says it will, in fact, worsen the drug trafficking dilemma in Colombia.
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Mr. Pardo says buying the cocaine will not benefit the large drug cartels, but it will benefit small farmers who will be encouraged to grow more just to sell it to the government.
Over the last five years, the United States has spent three-point-three billion dollars on coca plant eradication through equipment and military training for Colombian soldiers.
Despite the expenditure, a recent White House report showed that coca production actually increased in Colombia in 2004. (signed)
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