Last Updated:3/8/02
Response from U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Anne Patterson to Witness for Peace inquiry, February 22, 2002

February 22, 2002

Mr. Steven J. Bennett
Executive Director, Witness for Peace
1229 15th Street N.W.
Washington, DC 20005

Dear Mr. Bennett,

I am pleased to respond to the concerns raised in your letter to Secretary of State Powell dated December 7, 2001 (which was signed by you and members of several other organizations), regarding our aerial eradication program in Colombia. I apologize for the delay in responding.

We discussed some of the concerns raised in your letter and report in our meetings with Witness for Peace delegations on January 22 and 25. I welcome this opportunity, however, to provide more detailed responses to your questions as well as to provide you with more recent information regarding our ongoing efforts to monitor and investigate reports of safety concerns.

Recent Aerial Eradication in Putumayo Department:

You expressed concern that areas subject to social pacts, crops of less than two hectares, and food crops were improperly sprayed by the Antinarcotics Directorate of the Colombian National Police (DIRAN) in the spray operations that commenced in Putumayo on November 13, 2001.

Prior to December 2000, the Government of Colombia permitted only very limited spraying in Putumayo. As a result, coca cultivation there skyrocketed, increasing almost twelve-fold over the eight-year period 1993-2000 (from 4,000 to 47,200 hectares). Accordingly, Putumayo was an important focus of initial Plan Colombia efforts. The first significant aerial eradication operations there took place between December, 2000 and February 2001. During the months that followed, many families signed on to the social pacts to which you referred in your letter and report. Delivery of government resources under the final pacts to be signed began on July 26, 2001. The signers have twelve months from the date that resources were first delivered to manually eradicate their coca. Any new coca planted after that date is not covered by the pacts and is subject to spraying.

Beginning on November 13, 2001, aerial eradication recommenced in Putumayo. The Government of Colombia allowed the DIRAN to spray (1) new coca in areas under social pacts that was planted after July 26, 2001 in violation of the pacts; and (2) all coca in regions not covered by social pacts. Your report states that you found no evidence that the DIRAN gathered information on locations of the pacts prior to the spraying. In fact, however, Colombian and U.S. officials conducted a comprehensive investigation, taking the greatest care to identify areas where only new coca, not subject to the social pacts, was concentrated. In October and November, 2001, the Colombian consultant to the Narcotics Affairs Section (NAS) on the aerial eradication program -- an agricultural/environmental engineer with over 12 years of experience with coca cultivation and eradication, and the former Government of Colombia Environmental Auditor -- participated in two very detailed reconnaissance missions over southwestern Putumayo with officials from DIRAN and the National Plan for Alternative Development (PNDA). These flights included low-level overflights in a spray plane and helicopter. The team observed at least 13,000 hectares of coca that, by virtue of plant size, had to have been planted after the final social pact went into effect in July.

The photographs taken during these low-level overflights are dramatic. The difference between the extensive fields of recently planted coca and the older plants is marked. Moreover, there is little evidence that anything other than coca is being planted, although a significant amount of inter-cropping of coca with corn and yucca was observed. A great many seedbeds, containing coca seedlings ready to be planted, were also noted. Enclosed are some representative photographs of very young coca. If your in-country colleagues wish to review the detailed reports of the two reconnaissance flights, including many more photographs, we invite them to come to the Embassy to do so. I think you will find the report and photographs illuminating.

We do not target coca crops of less than two hectares in size for spraying. To the contrary, the pilots ignore small isolated fields that take longer to spray. If several small plots are adjacent to one another, however, they are impossible to identify as individual plots but will appear from the air as one large extension, and (if in a zone in which we have received permission to spray) may be sprayed.

Your letter and report state that you observed cases in which legitimate food crops were sprayed. Although the spray pilots are very well-trained, and we believe mistakes are rare, human error will inevitably result in some mistakes. In such cases, the farmers should be compensated fairly and rapidly.

As we told your colleagues in our meetings with Witness for Peace on January 22 and 25, 2002, the Government of Colombia has always had a process by which such claims are investigated. With Embassy support, this process has recently been improved to provide for faster investigation and resolution of complaints. If sufficient evidence is presented to identify the site and details in question, farmers who have suffered damage to legal crops will be compensated for the market value of the lost crops. Although the initial burden is on the claimant to come forward with enough information to verify the complaint, the level of proof required is not unduly strict, and in close cases the investigators will err in favor of awarding compensation. If you or your colleagues are aware of such cases, you should provide the information to the Dirección Nacional de Estupefacientes (National Office on Dangerous Drugs, or DNE), the Government of Colombia entity responsible for managing the compensation process. During our meeting with Witness for Peace on January 25, 2002, one of your colleagues gave us one such report from a farmer in Los Angeles vereda in Putumayo, which we have passed to the DNE with a request that it be investigated as soon as possible and that we be kept informed of its status.

Human Health Concerns:

There is overwhelming scientific evidence that the spray mixture is safe. The glyphosate we use is one of the most common weed killers in the world. It is widely used in the United States in commercial agriculture. The glyphosate applied in the coca and opium eradication program is only about 13 percent of the glyphosate applied in Colombia. About nine times as much glyphosate is used annually in just one U.S. state as we use in our spray program (and that state is one-third the size of Colombia). Glyphosate has been registered by the United States Environmental Protection Agency since the 1970's. USEPA says it is of low toxicity, non-carcinogenic, and does not cause mutations or birth defects. The World Health Organization and the International Programme on Chemical Safety report similar findings.

The glyphosate formulation we use consists of glyphosate, water, and a surfactant blend. This formulation is further mixed with water and a Colombian-manufactured and approved surfactant called Cosmo-Flux 411F. The surfactants help the herbicide penetrate the waxy surface of the leaves of the coca or opium plants. Although Cosmo-Flux 411F is not registered in the United States, the USEPA says its ingredients are within accepted tolerances for use on food products. The application rate we use for our spray mixture is within the limits prescribed by the manufacturers.

Despite the large body of scientific evidence that supports our position that spraying risks to humans and animals is minimal, there have been health complaints about the aerial eradication program. Because of our commitment to safety, we have tried to investigate them. As we told your colleagues in the two recent meetings, we investigated the death of the 11-month-old child mentioned in your report, together with that of a 4-year-old child, very shortly after the reports of these deaths were made. The children's parents attributed the deaths to spraying when reporting them to the local "personero." Both occurred in the township of Argelia, in La Hormiga municipality in Putumayo.

We first reviewed the records of the spray flights that took place in the Argelia region on the dates of the claimed exposures. On November 15, the date the 11-month-old was reportedly exposed, spraying did occur in La Hormiga municipality, but not in Argelia - the closest spraying was three miles away. On November 21, the date the four-year-old was reportedly exposed, the closest spraying was more than twenty miles away. Thus, the children were too far away to have been exposed to spraying.

Even if they had been exposed to spray drift, however, such drastic effects have never been described in the scientific literature on glyphosate, even in cases of much more significant and direct exposures. To the contrary, that literature indicates that, although glyphosate and surfactants can cause some acute effects (mainly eye and skin irritation), those effects are short term and reversible even in those who directly apply the product. One of the best examples of this is data from one of the large agricultural states in the U.S. with a very strict environmental and health surveillance regimen. In over 6,100 cases of bystander exposure to all pesticides over a twelve-year period, only 12 (0.2 percent) were the result of glyphosate exposure. (Bystanders are persons exposed indirectly, for example through spray drift, as opposed to workers who directly apply the glyphosate formulations.) Ten of the 12 cases consisted of temporary skin or eye irritation and two were cases of general headache and nausea. Of all exposure cases involving glyphosate (including direct applicator exposure), none required an overnight hospital stay. This is in a state where 3.5 million pounds were applied in 1999 in contrast to the approximately 500 thousand pounds applied in the eradication program in Colombia last year.

In addition, the course of the children's illnesses and their medical histories strongly suggest other causes of death. We hired Dr. Jorge Botero, a physician who formerly served as chief of toxicology with the Colombian Ministry of Health, to investigate the deaths. He spoke to the physician who treated the children and reviewed the medical records. The 11-month-old child suffered symptoms of acute diarrhea, dehydration, and fever for about 24 hours before his death on November 16. His parents reported that he was outside on their patio on November 15 when the spray planes went by, but there were no details as to whether he was actually exposed to spray. Dr. Botero concluded that the cause of death was most likely the severe dehydration caused by the diarrhea, common in the rural regions. Even if the child had been exposed, the very diluted glyphosate-based spray mix would not have such an effect. Dr. Botero said that certain neurological symptoms described in the child's records (bodily instability and vision problems) suggested that the child may have had a hydroelectrolytic imbalance or incipient meningitis. Finally, the child's brother and grandfather had suffered the same symptoms and, since there was nothing to indicate they may have been exposed to spraying, Dr. Botero stated that the child's illness may have been a contagious infection.

The second death was a 4-year old boy who had symptoms of vomiting, diarrhea, and fever for about 12 hours before his death on November 22. There was no information about the nature of his exposure to spraying, if any. On autopsy, a massive quantity of parasites (worms) was observed. Dr. Botero said that, although the cause of death could not be conclusively determined from the information available at the time of study, he suspects the parasites led to a serious infection that caused death. He said that this manifestation of symptoms is not consistent with glyphosate exposure, especially the minimal exposure that a bystander would get from spraying. A copy of Dr. Botero's report is enclosed.

These results are similar to previous cases that we have investigated. Many are ruled out just by comparison of the spray locations and dates to those of the reported exposures. For example, in December 2000 a Dutch journalist wrote of an "epidemic" of spray-related skin ailments in Aponte in southern Colombia. The Embassy hired medical experts to review the relevant health records. They found that most of the complaints were made before spraying began or long after it ended. In all but four cases, the diseases were parasitic or bacterial in origin. In the other four cases the symptoms were not serious, and the treatments prescribed suggested the illnesses were not spray-related. None of the medical records mentioned exposure to spraying as a possible cause of the patient's condition. A copy of the Aponte report is enclosed.

In another case, a Nariño mayor attributed the case of a child born without limbs in the municipality of San Bernardo to illicit crop spraying. We contracted Dr. Adriana Zamora of Clinica Uribe Cualla, Colombia's national poison control center, to investigate this case. Dr. Zamora met with the mayor and the child's parents, reviewed relevant medical records, and examined the child. She also consulted with Dr. Camilo Uribe Granja, director of Clinica Uribe Cualla, and Dr. Carlos Martín Restrepo, Chief of the Genetics Unit at the University of Rosario Medical School.

Dr. Zamora verified that the child was born on May 15, 1999 -- three full months before aerial eradication first took place in Nariño, on August 14, 1999. Therefore, any connection with aerial eradication was ruled out based on these dates alone. Even if that were not so, however, more than twenty-five years of scientific research on glyphosate and its commercial formulations demonstrates that these products do not cause birth defects. Despite the lack of any link with our spray program, we asked Dr. Zamora to consider other possible causal agents that might enable the child's physicians to better treat him. Unfortunately, she concluded that the causes of his condition were unknown. The mayor and the child's parents readily accepted that there was no possible connection between his medical condition and aerial eradication upon learning that no spraying took place until after he was born. A copy of Dr. Zamora's report is enclosed.

The sad fact is that children become ill and die every day in rural Colombia from a multitude of causes. Living conditions in these remote regions are harsh and unsanitary. Access to health care is poor or nonexistent. Moreover, many families, especially in Putumayo, use a wide variety of deadly chemicals such as paraquat in the cultivation of illegal crops (often storing them in their homes) without taking any safety precautions. Colombia's rural families deserve medical attention for the many real problems they face, and they are not well served when unfounded claims of illness or erroneous information obscure a search for the true causes of their health problems.

We understand that mayors and other local officials in southern Colombia have raised similar health concerns with you. Please keep in mind that these officials come from desperately poor areas where many people depend heavily on the coca trade and where economic options are limited. Clearly, the people who make a living growing and processing coca and opium poppy oppose aerial eradication and will go to great lengths to generate opposition to it. These efforts include attempts to pressure, and even inflict violence, on elected officials. In the last 13 years, two hundred Colombian mayors have been killed and almost 1,000 kidnapped, making this position one of the most dangerous in the world. Of course, there are also a number of people and groups, like yours, who have entirely legitimate questions about the spray program. I am more than happy to answer them, and confident that as you study the facts, you will understand that what we are doing is safe.

I would like to address one additional matter that you did not directly mention in your letter or report, but that has been cited as a cause for concern in a number of media and NGO reports. This is the concern that the concentration of glyphosate in the spray mix may be higher than recommended for agricultural use. This is not the case. The misconception has arisen from confusion between the concentration of the main glyphosate-based formulation and glyphosate itself. As noted above, the main glyphosate-based commercial formulation in the spray mix contains glyphosate, water, and a surfactant. The amount of that formulation that ends up on a sprayed field is 10.4 liters (2.75 gallons) per hectare. The active ingredient (glyphosate), however, is less than half of that formulated product. Only 3.74 kilograms of glyphosate itself ends up on the sprayed field. These concentrations are well within recommended limits for woody plants.

Finally, one has to ask why so few complaints have come from the regions of Colombia or the United States where glyphosate-based herbicides are used in commercial agriculture. If serious health effects were as common as alleged in some of the press and other reports we have seen, surely they would also be coming from the regions where vastly greater amounts of glyphosate-based products are used. Just as unfounded health complaints should not result in real medical needs going unmet, we also need to ensure that the debate over the spray program does not obscure the real threat from narcotics use, narcotics-related corruption, and the environmental catastrophe that occurs as millions of gallons of narcotics processing chemicals are dumped into Colombian rivers each year and vast areas of fragile forest are slashed and burned to make way for coca cultivation.

Delivery of Alternative Development Resources:

One thing should be very clear at the outset. The whole system of social pacts for voluntary eradication in Putumayo is a Government of Colombia concept that has been developed and implemented by Government of Colombia institutions (e.g., PNDA, municipal mayors) and local communities in Putumayo. Financial resources from Colombian peace bonds through the "Fondos de Inversion Para la Paz," totaling some $30 million, have been made available through five government-contracted NGO's to pact-signing communities for immediate food security (seeds, tools, small animals). With the exception of a USAID-funded layer hen program for $1 million implemented with 1,800 pact signers during the period May - September 2001, we have not provided any complementary funding to the Colombian food security program, nor were we expected to. The delivery of immediate food security to the 35,000 pact signing families has always been the responsibility of the Government of Colombia and will continue to be into the future.

In light of slower-than-expected delivery of immediate food security assistance to pact signers in Putumayo by the Government of Colombia, USAID initiated an early eradication program in concert with the governor of Putumayo, mayors of nine municipalities, PNDA, and local communities. Agreements for $17.3 million with civilian communities and $16.6 million with indigenous communities were signed in December. They call for immediate voluntary eradication and immediate provision of funding for productive activities and community-based rural infrastructure. It is expected that these two new early eradication programs will considerably expand and accelerate assistance to pact signers and voluntary coca eradication over the ensuing six months.

I hope this information is helpful, and I trust that you will make it available to the many other signatories to your letter. I would be happy to answer any further questions you may have about our counternarcotics policy in Colombia.


Anne W. Patterson

General Gustavo Socha Salamanca, Director, Antinarcotics Directorate of the Colombian National Police
Dr. Gabriel Merchan, Director, National Directorate of Dangerous Drugs
Dra. Maria Ines Restrepo, Director, National Plan for Alternative Development


Senator Patrick Leahy
Senator Mitch McConnell
Senator Russ Feingold
Senator Paul Wellstone
Representative Cass Ballenger
Representative Jim Kolbe
Representative Nita Lowey
Representative John Conyers
Representative James McGovern
Representative Jan Schakowsky
Representative Christopher Shays
Representative William Delahunt

Search WWW Search ciponline.org

Financial Flows
National Security

Center for International Policy
1717 Massachusetts Avenue NW
Suite 801
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 232-3317 / fax (202) 232-3440