The Coca Bomb Explodes

(Translated by Peter Lenny MCIL, CSN Volunteer Translator)

 By Natalia Arenas and Juanita Vélez, La Silla Vacía (Colombia), October 6, 2017

Yesterday in Tumaco, amid clashes between the police, the army, and coca farmers over the eradication of coca plants, six campesinos were murdered and another 14 wounded. Although there are conflicting accounts of events there, the Tumaco episode is a bomb that has blown up in the government’s face, just when it needed to show results in reducing illegal cultivations. And this is not the only case of similar problems in Colombia. Added to which, there continues to be a lack of coordination between the government’s crop substitution policy and the target it has set itself of eradicating 50,000 hectares of coca this year.

The Alto Mira case

Two completely contradictory versions were given yesterday to explain what led to the murders in the Alto Mira sector of Tumaco.

While the army and police say in a press release that the clash occurred because the ‘Guacho’ dissident group (formerly the FARC’s Ariel Aldana Front) threw five cylinder bombs at law enforcement officers, the Asominuma campesino association (which has traditionally been close to the FARC) claimed it was the army that “advanced with disproportionate force against the community, which was protesting peacefully” against eradication.

“It’s a falsehood. We were just empty-handed campesinos”, said leader Wilson Baraona later in an interview, stating that he was on the spot when it all happened.

The situation is much more complex.

Consulted by La Silla Pacífico, sources from the Alto Mira Community Council report that two FARC dissident groups are at war in the territory: one going by the name ‘Guacho’ and the other, the United Guerrillas of the Pacific, known as ‘David’, who want to take this area, which is where there are most coca plantations in the municipality, which in turn has more coca plantations than any other municipality in Colombia.

These groups in confrontation, which already caused 500 families to move out towards the La Balsa vereda last 28 August, have been joined by a third group, whose name is not yet known, but which appears to be commanded by a drug trafficker from the area.

“There are groups there, dissidents, drug barons. It’s a mess”, said one source consulted, who is connected with the communities.

In a release published yesterday, the Alto Mira y Frontera Community Council reports that, in recent weeks, these groups have been using the communities as “humans shields against the intervention by the law enforcement agencies doing forced eradication work.”

“Two weeks ago, they called them together and said they had to go out and oppose the eradication, that anyone who did not go out would have two little corpses per family. We told the campesinos that there would be more problems if they did go out and that the best thing would be to move out of the area, so as not to have to oppose eradication”, declared a source connected with the communities.

The meetings, the source says, have been held in districts like Puerto Rico, where yesterday’s events took place. There, the groups offered the campesinos food and accommodation for them to resist the eradication by the law enforcement agencies. “They go like a little herd of cattle”, the source says.

This district is “the lifeblood of the drug trade”, says the source, “where all the traffickers come”, because it is five minutes from the border with Ecuador by the Mataje River, which is the route by which materials are brought in to process the coca.

Although it forms part of the Alto Mira y Frontera Community Council’s collective territory, it is an area populated by campesino settlers of the Asominuma association, who arrived in Tumaco several years ago under the auspices of the FARC (according to four sources consulted by La Silla) and then settled in Afro-Colombian collective territories and planted coca. That is why, although the coca plants are theirs, the land belongs to the Afro communities.

Asominuma is a member of Coccam [the National Coordinating Council for Coca, Poppy, and Marijuana Growers], and, despite initially showing an interest in joining the voluntary crop replacement agreements, in recent months has shown resistance and declared that there is a lot of suspicion about government compliance. As we reported in June, these campesino organisations did not sign the ‘umbrella agreement’ to join the crop substitution program. Then in August, as we also reported, one of the organization’s leaders said that, because of the insecure conditions and [government] non-fulfilment, even those that did sign up were considering the possibility of withdrawing from the agreements.

Accordingly, as a source with close knowledge of the case told La Silla, it was known that there would be forced eradication in this community council area.

Added to this, tempers are running especially high among the eradicators and law enforcement officers after the coca planters’ strike of April 4th of this year (which was infiltrated by armed agents, as reported by La Silla Pacífico), when the coca planters detained 26 policemen and robbed them of 8 rifles and 16 pistols. From that moment on, the source says, during the eradication work, the military are not allowing people to come closer than 6 meters and, if they do come closer, they may be fired on, as appears to have happened.

La Silla Pacífico learned from a source connected with the communities that the drug traffickers and dissident groups threatened the board of the Alto Mira Community Council, because they are the ones who are promoting the coca substitution agreements with the government.

This forced all the leaders to move to Tumaco and they have been unable to return to the territory since last week. According to three sources who know the situation, these groups are sowing suspicion of the leaders, saying that they are the ones who are promoting the eradication and that, in any case, the government is not going to comply with the substitution agreements.

Although 4,810 families of the Alto Mira y Frontera Community Council signed the voluntary substitution agreement and were one of the first groups to join the program, individual agreements have still not been signed with the families to guarantee that they will actually receive the substitution reimbursements.

“Despite our insistence, the National Crop Substitution Program is moving at a snail’s pace, while forced eradication is racing ahead at full speed in several areas of our territory”, says the council’s release. “Because the crop substitution program is being implemented so slowly and, at the same time, sectors opposed to substitution are spreading false information, this has fed the anxiety, uncertainty, and mistrust”.

This sluggishness was acknowledged to La Silla by a government source, who spoke on condition of not being quoted and said that entering this territory has been very complex, because it is very remote and, unlike the framework agreement that the families signed through their representatives, the individual agreements have to be reached family by family and property by property in order to record the information necessary to ascertain that the agreements are being fulfilled.

Meanwhile, forced eradication by the army and police is progressing, because it is much easier to do.

Although Tumaco was where the situation blew up, the situation is also critical elsewhere in Colombia.

Other cases

In Caquetá, the department with the fifth-largest coca crop in Colombia (9,343 hectares under cultivation in December 2016), not only is substitution going slowly, it is also being threatened by [FARC] dissident groups, which are making themselves increasingly at home there.

At La Montañita, which is one of the municipalities where the Office of Drugs directed by Eduardo Díaz, under the leadership of [Minister of Post-Conflict] Rafael Pardo, has made most headway in signing agreements (according to the office, there are now 782 families enrolled in the substitution program), the coca planters have complained about payment delays.

Added to this, as we reported, Nelly Luna, former council member and Coccam leader in the department, has been imprisoned there for several weeks.

She was arrested for taking part when anti-drug police officers, who arrived to eradicate crops by force in February, were surrounded and held for 24 hours by campesinos of the Unión Peneya police district.

As Luna has not left prison and nor have the first payments been made, at La Montañita, the government’s progress on the agreements has been cancelled out by the delays, and mistrust is growing among the coca planters.

In addition to which, in other municipalities, including Cartagena del Chairá and Solano, where the government has also signed voluntary coca substitution agreements, the campesinos are sick and tired of the dissident groups.

In Solano, dissidents of the FARC 1st Front are calling on campesinos to tell them they have to continue growing coca. This is what we were told by an official source, who has been threatened by the dissidents and therefore is not named here.

“We know of at least three meetings in the Puerto Tejada district here in the municipality. They convene and tell the campesinos that they must plant coca, that this is best, that the guerrilla negotiated poorly and [that, therefore, these dissidents] did not sign on to the government substitution program”, the source told us. “Wherever they arrive, they are pushing that issue”.

A very similar complaint has reached the People’s Defender’s Office from Cartagena del Chairá. In fact, we learned that one chairman of a community action council is already being threatened for refusing to continue planting, in defiance of the dissidents active in the municipality – and not even the local people know what front of the FARC they belong to.

“On one side of the Caguán River, they are talking about some ‘Steven’ or ‘Flaco 25’ and, on the other side, they are saying that the man who presents himself as the leader of the new guerrilla calls himself ‘Nicolás’”, La Silla heard from an official source from Cartagena del Chairá, whom we do not name for security reasons.

The problem also extends to other provinces.

In Tarazá, in the Bajo Cauca region of Antioquia, the [Crop] Substitution Agency faced the Gaitanista Self-Defence Forces (Autodefensas Gaitanistas) which, according to one source, told them that unless the substitution was done with them, it would not be done – even though it is unclear what this process would be like.

They also pressured the communities to request that the Substitution Agency return the program enrollment records, so as to prevent the substitution from going ahead. The source said that they had to make photocopies of the records, but that the agency had to leave the municipality.

What the bomb shows

Behind these cases (and particularly the bomb that blew up in Tumaco), what emerges is that not only is there a lack of coordination between stick and carrot in Santos’ policy towards coca (as La Silla has noted on several occasions), but that this lack of coordination is increasingly in evidence. To the point that, when we asked its representatives how they saw what had happened in Tumaco, they gave two different interpretations.

“This is a demonstration that we are getting to where they (the drug traffickers) have their interests”, we were told by a government source who spoke to us on condition of anonymity. “In the Tumaco area, it was always assumed that we would go in and eradicate and this was something that was coordinated with the substitution team.”

One source not connected with the government, but who knows the process from the inside, told us that, yes, it was a coordinated operation and that it is Eduardo Díaz’ Office of Drugs, which is tasked with implementing substitution, that stipulates the points where the Ministry of Defence can eradicate, and that it would thus be very unusual for that office to be unaware of events at Tumaco. We were unable to corroborate this information with Díaz’ office.

Nonetheless, another government source saw what happened as ‘bungling’.

“[With the eradication] they are fuelling mistrust, because these drug-trafficker types are going to resist them with all they have got. They need to be much more intelligent. They are making the bandits into defenders of the coca planters or, as happened at Tumaco, they are causing people to block the substitution program.”

‘Being intelligent’, the source explains, means replicating a model like the one applied in Argelia, Cauca, where the Colombian army is serving not to eradicate by force, but to set up a blockade to prevent raw materials from entering the crop zone and so to undermine the business from the inside.

In any case, the backdrop to all this discoordination is pressure on the government from the United States to speed up eradication.

That pressure originated from the White House with President Donald Trump’s threat to strip Colombia of its certification as a country that is meeting its anti-drug commitments, in which he was followed by the words of the [U.S.] ambassador to Colombia, Kevin Whitaker, in an interview for El Tiempo criticising the FARC’s role in the substitution program.

“In forced eradication, the security forces are going to achieve their goal and I think there is no doubt of that. As for the voluntary program, obviously there are very complicated things at play, because it is a question of talking directly to these people to explain to them what is involved: that they are going to be offered opportunities, that the government is going to help them financially with their upkeep while eradication is going on, but it is also a system that involves the FARC directly and there we have reservations”, said Whitaker. “Neither I nor this United State Embassy can get involved with the FARC, because they are an international terrorist organisation, and are called as such by my government”, he added.

Those words, as a government source told La Silla, “make it clear that it is up to us to find the money for the substitution program from national budgets. They have not put, nor are they going to put, one cent into that side of the program”.

The problem with this posture of the gringos is two-fold: on the one hand, because this year, at least, there is no money for all the families who have joined the program, because as the forced eradication arrives, more families join the substitution agreements so as not to be left with nothing.

On the other hand, because in the substitution strategy overall, the FARC leaders have played a key role in persuading coca planters to take the step. And now, if for example the Post-Conflict Minister, Rafael Pardo, accompanies them, they cannot use any contribution from the United States or Canada, because [the FARC] have not been taken off the list of terrorists nor will they be until they pay the Special Peace Jurisdiction penalties and reveal information on the [trafficking] routes, which is something the FARC have already said is not among the commitments they entered into.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article offers a summary of what we know about recent confrontations around coca eradication, as of the initial date of publication. A concurrently translated article, “Bloodshed in Llorente, Tumaco: Massacre and Infamy”, provides the complementary perspective of writers purporting to speak for the campesinos on the ground.



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