It is a long way from the cornfields of Guárico, in central Venezuela, to the cocaine labs of Colombia. But Venezuelan farmers and the drug cartels are linked in a curious way -- to the detriment of the farmer.
Urea, a nitrogen-rich fertilizer vital to crops from corn to tomatoes, is also used to fertilize the coca plants that provide the raw material for cocaine. A thriving black market that diverts the fertilizer from legal crops to coca has reduced agricultural production, contributing to Venezuela's increasing dependence on imported food.
It may be no coincidence that alleged Venezuelan drug kingpin Walid Makled -- he's in a Colombian jail awaiting possible extradition to the United States -- used to hold a contract to distribute urea for the state-owned petrochemical firm Pequiven.
The Venezuelan government, which wants Makled to stand trial in Caracas instead, admits much of the fertilizer never reached the farmers it was intended to benefit.
On paper, the country produces at least twice as much urea as it needs. The government subsidizes its use -- subsidies amounted to about $100 million last year. But farmers say they don't get enough of the fertilizer, especially when the main planting season begins in May.
"Here in Portuguesa state,'' said rice farmer Antonio Pestana, "we have to start stockpiling urea from January, with all that implies in warehousing costs. Even so, we face a 10 to 15 percent shortfall.''
The states of Portuguesa and Guárico vie for first place as prime farming areas.
Pestana said the shortfall is even worse in Guárico where farmers have 25 to 30 percent less urea than they need.
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