U.S. HUNTS FOR EVIDENCE OF SUPERCOCA PLANT
By Dan Molinski
BOGOTA, Colombia. Authorities suspect a new threat is lurking in
the mountains and jungles of Colombia. Not a new rebel cadre, but
altered coca plants that are bigger, faster-growing and produce more
of the compound that gives cocaine its kick.
U.S. drug agents are trying to confirm the existence of the
rumored plant in this Andean nation, the world's prime supplier of
cocaine. The U.S. Embassy said it has seen no evidence that it
But a scientist who advises Colombia's narcotics police says he
has already spotted it in prime coca-growing regions, with the new
plants towering over conventional ones, which typically reach heights
of 5 feet. Others say that they also have seen the bigger, more
"What we hadn't been able to do is find evidence of the plant,
but now we are finding it," said Camilo Uribe, the scientist.
Mr. Uribe said that he found the new plants, rising 7 to 10 feet,
in the Sierra Nevada in northern Colombia and in La Macarena, a
region of savannah and jungle in central Colombia.
"They were giant bushes, with really big leaves," Mr. Uribe said,
adding that the leaves produce higher concentrations of alkaloid, the
compound that gives cocaine its high.
Giant coca plants also have been spotted in the state of
Putumayo, historically a major coca-growing region in southern
Colombia, where locals call the new varieties White Bolivian and
In a recent forum in Bogota, Eder Sanchez, a peasant leader from
Putumayo, said that the Black Bolivian variety is more resistant to
herbicides than Tingo Maria, which for years was a favorite among
If an herbicide-resistant plant has appeared, it could weaken a
pillar of Washington's multibillion-dollar counternarcotics effort in
Colombia the massive aerial fumigation of Colombia's coca
plantations that aims to keep cocaine off U.S. streets by attacking
"We are currently looking at allegations of leaves that are more
resistant to spray," a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration official
said from Washington.
Peasants who grow coca, which is "taxed" by rebels and their
right-wing paramilitary foes, have for years tried to fend off the
effects of herbicide by glazing the leaves with sugar water before
the spray planes arrive, or by cutting the bush near ground level
after spraying, in hopes that it will grow back.
While it is not clear whether drug traffickers have created an
herbicide-resistant coca bush, Mr. Uribe said that he has seen
unofficial reports that suggest they are investing to develop such
Experts say scientists theoretically could manipulate coca bushes
to be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, which is used in the
fumigation campaign in Colombia and a version of which is sold
commercially by the U.S. company Monsanto under the name Roundup.
Brent Sellers, an expert in weed science at the University of
Missouri, said that a new strain of coca plant could be developed
that is resistant to Roundup, based on the fact that Monsanto sells
corn, soybeans and canola that are bio-engineered to resist it. Such
products, called "Roundup ready," permit farmers to spray for weeds
without harming their food crops.
Mr. Sellers also said that even without manipulation, "if you
spray any plant species over and over and over again," it can develop
resistance to the herbicide.
Phyllis Powers, director of the U.S. Embassy's Narcotics Affairs
Section, said yesterday there is no evidence of attempts to
genetically engineer coca plants.
"We regularly hear rumors that narco-traffickers are working to
create a transgenic form of coca, but there is no scientific proof
that they have undertaken such research, nor that they have produced
a coca plant that produces a higher concentration of alkaloid and is
glyphosate-resistant," she said.
This article was mailed from The Washington Times
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