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I've got 23 ziplock bags filled with coca leaves laid out on the rickety table in front of me. It's been seven hours since the leaves were picked, and they're already secreting the raw alkaloid that gives cocaine its kick. The smell is pungently woody, but that may just be the mold growing on the walls of this dingy hotel room in the southern Colombian jungle. Somewhere down the hall, a woman is moaning with increasing urgency. I've barricaded the door in case the paramilitaries arrive.
I drop half a milliliter of water into a plastic test tube and mash a piece of a leaf inside. As the water tints green, I notice that my hands are shaking. I haven't slept for two days, and the Marxist guerrillas have this town encircled. But what's really making me nervous is the green liquid in the tube.
Over the past three years, rumors of a new strain of coca have circulated in the Colombian military. The new plant, samples of which are spread out on this table, goes by different names: supercoca, la millonaria. Here in the southern region it's known as Boliviana negra. The most impressive characteristic is not that it produces more leaves - though it does - but that it is resistant to glyphosate. The herbicide, known by its brand name, Roundup, is the key ingredient in the US-financed, billion-dollar aerial coca fumigation campaign that is a cornerstone of America's war on drugs.
One possible explanation: The farmers of the region may have used selective breeding to develop a hardier strain of coca. If a plant happened to demonstrate herbicide resistance, it would be more widely cultivated, and clippings would be either sold or, in many cases, given away or even stolen by other farmers. Such a peer-to-peer network could, over time, result in a coca crop that can withstand large-scale aerial spraying campaigns.
But experts in herbicide resistance suspect that there is another, more intriguing possibility: The coca plant may have been genetically modified in a lab. The technology is fairly trivial. In 1996, Monsanto commercialized its patented Roundup Ready soybean - a genetically modified plant impervious to glyphosate. The innovation ushered in an era of hyperefficient soybean production: Farmers were able to spray entire fields, killing all the weeds and leaving behind a thriving soybean crop. The arrival of Roundup Ready coca would have a similar effect - except that in this case, it would be the US doing the weed killing for the drug lords.
Whether its resistance came from selective breeding or genetic modification, the new strain poses a significant foreign-policy challenge to the US. How Washington responds depends on how the plant became glyphosate resistant. That's why I'm here in the jungle - to test for the new coca. I've brought along a mobile kit used to detect the presence of the Roundup Ready gene in soybean samples. If the tests are inconclusive, my backup plan is to smuggle the leaves to Colombia's capital, Bogot?, and have their DNA sequenced in a lab.
In my hotel room, I put the swizzle stick-sized test strip into the tube filled with mashed Boliviana negra. The green water snakes up the strip. If the midsection turns red, I'll know that the drug lords have genetically engineered the plant and beaten the US at its own game. If it doesn't, it'll mean that Colombia's farmers have outwitted 21st-century technology with an agricultural technique that's been around for 10,000 years.
I first learned about the possibility of herbicide-resistant cocaine eight weeks before I arrived in South America. I was having a quiet Sunday brunch at home in California with a few friends and their Colombian guest. It was a beautiful day; we sat on the deck and chatted about upcoming vacation plans over waffles and grapefruit juice.
The conversation changed when the guest began talking about how he'd spent three years working in the military intelligence branch of the Colombian army, which has been waging a civil war against the guerrillas for four decades. His main assignment was to prevent insurgents from importing weapons and military technology.
After the US helped the Colombian military dismantle the Medell?n and Cali cocaine cartels in the '90s, the guerrillas moved in and took over much of the drug trade. By the late '90s, rebels controlled more than a third of the country and had the financial clout to intensify the war and protect their newfound position as narcotraffickers. It's an extremely lucrative business. The coke habit in the US alone was worth $35 billion in 2000 - about $10 billion more than Microsoft brought in that year.
But the most intriguing development he mentioned was regular reports of Roundup Ready coca. "We started to hear about this plant three years ago," he said. "We understood then that the spraying was not killing it, but nobody wants to talk about it because it might put an end to American aid money."
US aid to Colombia totaled more than $750 million last year and has been flooding in since 2000, when Congress approved the Clinton administration's Plan Colombia, a regional anti-narcotics package. About 20 percent of the money was devoted to maintaining a fleet of crop dusters and support planes that make almost daily sorties over the Colombian countryside. (The rest of the money went to economic support, military aid, and police training.) The crop dusters fly high, out of artillery range, until they reach a designated coca field, and then descend to spray the plants with a coating of Roundup. The concept is simple: Kill the coca and there will be no cocaine.
The day after our brunch, I looked up the Herbicide Resistance Action Committee and spoke with Ian Heap, the committee's chair. Heap is a global herbicide watchdog. If a farmer in Thailand notes that a certain weed is surviving repeated herbicide applications, local scientists will collect a sample and ship it to Corvallis, Oregon, where Heap runs a private laboratory. He is funded primarily by herbicide manufacturers who want to know how effective their products are. I figured he would know something about the reported resistance in coca. "So they've finally done it," he said with a breezy Australian accent. "I've been waiting for a call like this for a long time."
They aren't RoundUp ready. It's even more amazing than that.
-------------------- I keep it real because I think it is important that a highly esteemed individual such as myself keep it real lest they experience the dreaded spontaneous non-existance of no longer keeping it real. - Hagbard Celine
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