We thought we'd lost the interview because they told us that he would have to be rushed away for security reasons. But an hour later his secretary called and invited us to his house where we spent about four hours with him. I said, "I was surprised that you landed." He replied, "I can't be cowardly. If I send troops into battle I have to be at the forefront."
Not many heads of state would do that. He was probably one of the most intense characters I've ever met. To the extent that I experienced him, he was fearless.
When he speaks of sending troops to battle, he's not exaggerating. I understand you accompanied law enforcement officers on a helicopter mission to destroy a remote cocaine lab, and while your trip didn't end in combat, many others do.
They are busting coke labs in the jungles almost on a daily basis, and spraying the coca fields with defoliant. They don't always take press people along, and it was pretty intense. Keep in mind that these are cops performing these dangerous missions. The job description for cops in Colombia is somewhat different than in much of the rest of the world.
How is this anti-coca effort affecting Colombian farmers?
Many farmers are really struggling with it, because the coca plant is one of their most lucrative sources of income. These are people who are already at very low levels of income and they are being directly targeted by these anti-cocaine efforts. They are frustrated, because America and the Colombian government are spraying and destroying their coca and they don't have many viable alternatives.
I spoke to a number of farmers who had given up growing coca because they didn't want to deal with the hassles of growing an illegal crop. But their living standard certainly hasn't improvedthey've taken an economic beating. Others say, 'We won't stop, but we would if there was an alternative.'
On the other hand, the spraying is working and the amount of coca crop has been reduced pretty significantly, though it has not yet changed the street price of cocaine.
How did the Colombians you met feel about the U.S. efforts in their country?
Most Colombians I met are grateful for this U.S. involvement. They say it's necessary and they are so sick of what's been going on for decades that they welcome any amount of support. Colombia has created a culture of lawlessness, so much so that people seek fast money and don't care how they get it. That's why it's scary.
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