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Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos will meet President Trump this afternoon at the White House. They're expected to discuss a huge spike in cocaine production in Colombia. But rather than launching a new drug war, Santos will push for more U.S. aid for his peace process with drug trafficking rebels. John Otis has more from Colombia.
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: On an Andean mountain slope, a Colombian farmer uproots a coca bush, whose leaves provide the raw material for cocaine. President Santos, who came here shortly before his trip to Washington, then replaces it with 3-foot-tall plantain tree.
OTIS: The ceremony, near the village of Pueblo Nuevo, kicked off the Colombian government's signature anti-drug program. Some 60,000 farmers have agreed to destroy their coca and plant food crops. In exchange, they will receive technical support and monthly stipends of about $350 over the next year. Farmers who reject the plan will have their coca forcibly uprooted by government workers.
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PRESIDENT JUAN MANUEL SANTOS: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: In a speech, Santos called his plan the definitive long-term solution to Colombia's cocaine problem, but the problem has stymied numerous Colombian presidents. Many coca-growing regions were controlled by FARC rebels. Previous crop substitution programs floundered due to rebel attacks and a lack of roads.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: For example, before a gravel road was built here two years ago, crossing the mountains from Pueblo Nuevo to the nearest market town required six hours on the back of a mule. Along the way, plantains, yucca and tomatoes often spoiled.
OCARIZ AREIZA: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: "That prompted us to take the decision to grow coca," says farmer Ocariz Areiza. Aerial fumigation briefly reduced Colombia's coca crop, but the spray planes were grounded in 2015 amid concerns that the herbicide might cause cancer. Last year, the crop covered nearly half a million acres, enough to produce 700 metric tons of cocaine. But under a peace treaty signed last year, the FARC rebels are disarming, and they have agreed to support anti-drug programs. That will make all the difference, President Santos tells NPR.
SANTOS: Before, we were in the middle of the conflict. Now there's a fundamental change with peace and with the FARC helping us - helping to organize their communities.
OTIS: The U.S. government is providing $450 million to support Colombia's peace process over the next year. But President Trump has suggested slashing the overall U.S. Foreign Affairs budget by 37 percent. So when the two leaders meet this afternoon, Santos is expected to push President Trump to stay the course on aid for Colombia.
For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Pueblo Nuevo, Colombia.
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