By Luis Jaime Acosta
TARAZA, Colombia (Reuters) - Dozens of Colombian soldiers dug up coca bushes under the tropical sun on a steep hillside near the Caribbean coast. Shovels in hand and guns slung across their backs in case of a sniper attack, they are part of their government's stepped-up efforts to slash cocaine production under pressure from Washington.
Alongside them, paid civilians in blue uniforms also dug on the hillside in the northwestern Antioquia province. Under protection from the army and police, they must uproot plants by hand because Colombia's top court banned aerial spraying with herbicides four years ago due to public health concerns in the world's largest cocaine producer.
The civilian workers earn about $530 per month, roughly double minimum wage, for the dangerous work. In addition to possible sniper attacks by drug gangs, antipersonnel mines buried among the coca bushes have killed or injured several people this year.
Every day, the team of around 50 soldiers and 20 civilians destroys between two and three hectares of coca plants, a tiny fraction of the more than 200,000 hectares of plantations in Colombia last year, according to U.S. government figures.
"I came to work because I need to survive: I need the money for my family," said Jorge Eliecer Ortiz, 47, a civilian. "If it were up to me, I would not do this because this is a very dangerous job, but you take risks to support your family."
Under pressure from Washington, the year-old government of President Ivan Duque has quadrupled the number of eradication teams to 100 since taking office. It aims to raise that to 150.
So far this year, nine soldiers and civilians involved in coca eradication have been killed with almost 50 injured, mostly mutilated by landmine explosions, according to Defense Ministry statistics.
Authorities do not hire local workers, fearing drug gangs could target them for reprisals. Instead, they bring in laborers from distant parts of Colombia to work two to three months at a time to clear coca plantations in the jungle and mountains.
Ortiz said the hardest part is spending so long away from his family: "I hope I do not have to tread on a mine to hug them again!"
Many had hoped a peace deal signed in 2016 with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) would sharply reduce cocaine production. The Marxist rebel group had used kidnapping and drug trafficking to finance a five-decade campaign against the government, part of a conflict which has left 260,000 dead.
Instead, the area dedicated to coca cultivation skyrocketed during peace negotiations led by former President Juan Manuel Santos, leading to criticism from Washington and warnings it could withdraw funding for the drug war.
During peace talks, Santos pledged to prioritize voluntary replacement of coca over forced eradication. Many peasants then planted coca in hope of receiving subsidies, according to security sources.
In 2017, Colombia reached a record 209,000 hectares of coca crops and production of 900 tonnes of cocaine, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy of the White House (ONDCP), prompting criticism from U.S. President Donald Trump's administration.
Last year, following the election of Duque's centre-right government, production decreased slightly to 887 tonnes of cocaine, the ONDCP reported in June. It was the first year since 2012 the crop had not increased.
The White House praised Duque for escalating eradication efforts.
This year, Colombia set an ambitious goal to eradicate 80,000 hectares of coca - a third more than in 2018. By the end of August, it had reached 52,707 hectares, close to the 60,000 hectares destroyed last year.
Yet with Trump's administration seeking more progress, Duque faces stark challenges.
After the peace deal was signed, the disarmament of FARC fighters left a power vacuum in several regions. Other illegal armed groups such as the rebel National Liberation Army (ELN) and criminal gangs formed by right-wing ex-paramilitaries and FARC dissidents, stepped into the void.
One such region is Antioquia, strategic for traffickers because of its proximity to the Caribbean and Central American transportation routes to the United States. Armed groups have promoted planting of coca and established laboratories to produce cocaine. They earn millions of dollars from drugs and illegal gold mining.
"This is an area of criminal interest and an area in conflict," said General Juan Carlos Ramirez, commander of the seventh division of the army, which is eradicating coca plantations in the region.
"We have to slash illegal income for organized armed groups," said Ramirez at the command post of the Achilles Task Force, which battles the still-active National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels and criminal drug trafficking gangs such as the Gulf Clan.
Despite criticism of poor results under the previous government, Washington in August certified Duque's efforts to reduce coca crops, guaranteeing Colombia access to some $344 million in U.S. counter-narcotics funding in fiscal year 2020.
Duque may have a trump card to play: return of aerial fumigation with the herbicide glyphosate, a practice suspended in May 2015 because of health concerns.
In July the Constitutional Court opened the possibility of resuming the program if the government reduces environmental and health risks. Duque is pushing for it, and in coming weeks the government expects approval from the National Council of Narcotics, opening the door to a significant reduction in coca crops.
"We fight drug trafficking because it is our moral duty against a crime that has only generated sadness and desolation in our country," Duque said recently.
The national police estimate that, despite risks of long-range firearm attacks on aircraft, spraying can eradicate coca crops faster and more safely than the current approach. In 2006, airplanes sprayed more than 172,000 hectares of coca leaf.
"We would avoid the deaths of our soldiers, our police, and the civilians who collaborate in the task," said General Oscar Gomez, regional commander of the national police.
One big challenge will be preventing replanting after coca crops are destroyed. Officials say eradication teams are sometimes forced to return just months after ripping up the crop.
The coca gets replanted by farmers, under pressure from armed groups or on their own initiative, because they have no other way to earn a living.
(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by David Gregorio)