War and Fear in Putumayo

by Marie Delcas

Le Monde, Paris, France, January 11, 2001

World Press Review, April 2001


Under the blazing sun, the crudely blacktopped road shimmers with oil, a black strip through the tropical green of banana trees and fields of coca plants. A family drenched in sweat pushes along the burned-out carcass of an automobile. The previous day, ignoring an order issued by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) prohibiting vehicle traffic, the father had driven his 1972 Land Rover all the way to the border of Ecuador. Asked whether he resents the men of the country's main guerrilla movement for burning the tool he used to support his family and his brother's, the man casts his gaze downward. "No, I'm just grateful to them for sparing my life. About six feet away from me, they gunned down the guy driving the motorcycle behind us," he answers quietly.

When asked about the reasons for the "armed picket line" that has paralyzed highway traffic in Putumayo province in the far south of Colombia for the last several weeks, guerrilla commando Felix rattles off his answer: "The decision to interdict highway traffic is directed against the presence of paramilitary groups in Putumayo and against Plan Colombia, a plan by the government and the United States to wage war against the FARC and to displace the peasants."

This year, Washington has authorized an extraordinary aid package of $1.3 billion for Colombia as part of the war on drugs. This ambitious program to eradicate coca and poppy plots by aerial spraying is aimed mainly at Putumayo with its 138,000 acres of coca plots, representing half of all the illicit crops in the country. But this task will not be easy for the Colombian army. The FARC provides protection for the fields and the laboratories, crude facilities where the coca leaf is transformed into base paste and then into cocaine. The last major Marxist-Leninist guerrilla group in Latin America (15,000 armed men) today derives most of its resources from drugs.

Four units of the FARC, about a thousand guerrilla warriors, are currently operating in Putumayo, at the edge of the Amazon forest. The small U.S. prop planes assigned to spray the coca fields will thus be able to fly only with a military escort. At least this is the argument advanced by Washington to justify the size of the military component, which represents 80 percent of Plan Colombia, and the 60 military helicopters supplied by the Americans.

The American plan does not overly concern commander Felix and his comrades in arms. At the moment, their sworn enemies are the radical right-wing paramilitary militias, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensa Unida de Colombia-AUC) of Carlos Castano. For local authorities, the decision of the guerrillas to interdict highway traffic is nothing more than a new phase in the war for control of the region and its accursed wealth, the coca crop.

The paramilitary forces have set an objective for themselves: to succeed where the army has failed, i.e., to finish off the guerrillas. In 1997, the AUC decided to "liberate the south," beginning with Puerto Asis, a major hub for drug trafficking. For the FARC, the paramilitary forces are merely an appendage of the regular army, "the new face of state terrorism directed against the peasant masses."

Small strips of Amazon forest and charred tree trunks stand as a reminder that Puerto Asis was only recently cleared for cultivation. In the 1960s, oil wells (now practically depleted) attracted the first settlers. The building of the pipeline opened the way for farming. Since the late 1980s, the successes in eradicating crops in Peru and Bolivia, the dismantling of the major Colombian drug cartels, and the guerrillas' weapons have contributed to rapid growth of coca cultivation. The large landowners have practically disappeared, replaced by small farmers under guerrilla control. Enthroned on his plastic chair alongside a deserted road with his AK-47 on his knees, commander Felix is categorical: 'The people under the FARC...know that everything that happens here is the fault of the government."

At Puerto Asis, food is in short supply. Under pressure from local officials, the government finally set up an airlift and organized the movement of trucks under military escort. Officials in Bogota assert that 1,4()0 tons of food have been routed there. But this is a pittance. "The solution to the tragic situation we are experiencing in Putumayo does not depend on us," explains the mayor of Puerto Asis. "The guerrillas demand that measures be taken against the paramilitary groups. Therefore, it is up to the government and the guerrilla leaders to reach a settlement on this point."

After being engaged in a difficult peace process for nearly two years, the delegates of the government and FARC finally put Putumayo on the agenda for negotiations. On Nov. 14, 2000, the guerrillas' announcement of a unilateral suspension of negotiations had a chilling effect: The war in Putumayo is now set to last a long time. [In February 2001, peace talks resumed.-WPR]

It is an odd sort of war, where the combatants spend more time evading one another than fighting. If the army arrives in force (it is said to have 3,000 men in Putumayo), the guerrillas immediately move out, only to reoccupy the territory once the soldiers have their backs turned. The paramilitary militias hardly dare to venture into the countryside held by the guerrillas. While more intense than in the rest of the country, the confrontations between the FARC and the AUC remain sporadic. On the road, there are alternately soldiers, guerrillas, and paramilitary forces, sometimes one or two miles away from one another. It is indeed a strange sort of war, where the combatants resemble one another. Look beyond their military fatigues, and their faces all tell the same story of poverty. Only the boots allow an untrained eye to distinguish a government soldier, wearing laced leather boots, from a guerrilla, wearing rubber boots.

It is an ugly war, with civilians caught in the middle. The paramilitary's initial strategy was to exert pressure on the population by massacring people suspected of being in league with the guerrillas. "In 1997, there were 60 or 80 murders a month," confirmed the director of the hospital.

Crimes of passion or killings to settle scores are commonplace. However, most of the murders are the doing of armed groups who, in an unending spiral, are attempting to eliminate the sympathizers of the enemy camp or drive them out of the region. People live in fear of summary executions and so-called reprisals.

One of the parishioners confirms that "the paracos ( paramilitaries) would have never been able to clean La Hormiga without the complicity of the military; but it must be recognized that, despite the atrocities committed, they have managed to gain the population's esteem." An official from the mayor's office explains that "in Putumayo...the state is absent for all practical purposes. When the guerrillas had the monopoly over armed force, they were tolerated and even respected....But the guerrillas have become arrogant and increasingly rapacious, so people got sick of them."

Now the paramilitaries, seeking to win people over, have opted for a policy of reducing taxes. While the guerrillas collect a tax of 300,0()() pesos (US $134) per kilo of base paste (sold for about $1,070), the self-defense forces only ask for a third of that. Taxes on land and commercial activities are likewise intended to be competitive. Carlos Castano, the head of the paramilitary militia, is said to have forbidden massacres from lists of targets. Instead there are selective executions and expulsions.

"El Galivan" (The Hawk), age 32, is now the urban commander of La Hormiga. He claims to have 600 men (official estimates cut that figure in half). The resources from taxes on coca make it possible to pay each member of the AUC a bonus of 700,001) pesos per month (US $313), almost three times the Colombian minimum wage. The majority of the AUC troops are small landowners, former mafia militiamen, retired soldiers, and former guerrillas. "After killing my father, the FARC told us to abandon our land. My brothers and I have joined the AUC to get rid of those vermin," Javier, 35, explains.

While "El Galivan" is holding a meeting in a cafeteria in the center of town, three soldiers pass by, but he hardly pays them notice. "Our relations with the army," he says, pose no problem, as long as we let the military do their job, and they let us do ours. If the army moves in, we retreat." Colonel Diaz, commander of the 24th brigade of the Colombian army, categorically denies this. He takes out a large folder of documents intended to prove that members of paramilitary groups have actually been killed in the course of fighting or have been turned over to the justice system by the army.

On the ground, Plan Colombia has at least gotten everyone to agree on one point. While the environmental and health impact of the aerial spraying operations is still difficult to assess, nobody questions the social toll. Officially the AUC supports Plan Colombia but, in an aside, one commander in fatigues thunders: "If I were the boss, I can tell you that I would not tolerate it. How can we let the gringos spray the coca crops and reduce our peasants to misery?" On the ground, even the soldiers doubt the effectiveness of the plan. "It is useless to spray the crops; the peasants will just go somewhere else," muses Sergeant Vicente, who has served 11 years. He says he is sick of "this war in which my countrymen are killing one another."

The mayor of Puerto Asis does not share this assessment. "The peasants are sick and tired of growing coca, because it has brought only poverty and violence. They are ready to participate in a program to... eradicate the plants and to grow substitute crops. But this presupposes a...commitment by the state, which must build roads and ensure that the alternative crops can be sold," he asserts in a tone that is as categorical as it is disillusioned.

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