TNI Drug Policy Briefing The Sierra de la Macarena National Park 9/16/06

Subject: TNI Drug Policy Briefing 19, September 2006 – The Sierra de la

TNI Drug Policy Briefing 19, September 2006

The Sierra de la Macarena
Drugs and armed conflict in Colombia
By Ricardo Vargas

Also available in PDF:

The recent history of armed conflict and the drug economy in Colombia’s
Sierra de la Macarena National Park and surrounding areas can be
summarised by two central government decisions. The first was Operación
Emperador, begun in early 2005 as part of the Patriot Plan (Plan Patriota)
in this area. The second was the onset of the aerial spraying of coca
crops grown in the park and its surrounding buffer zones.

The government opted for forced manual eradication in the first instance,
following domestic opposition to fumigation and, above all, international
pressure spraying over national parks. It saw this policy as a means to
mount a strategic attack on the economic structures of the FARC in this
area. These operations against illicit crops began on 19 January 2006 – in
the course of which 28 casualties were sustained, according to Ministry of
Defence figures: 13 police, 10 members of the Mobile Eradication Groups
(MEG), (1) and 5 soldiers. They culminated on 3 August 2006 following the
deaths of five members of the MEG, killed by a high power land mine
camouflaged amongst the coca bushes. President Uribe then announced the
resumption of aerial spraying of the remaining coca crops in the park.

At the beginning of 2005, a combination of military offensives and aerial
fumigations pushed into various parts of the Bajo Ariari and the edges of
the Güejar river in the southeast of the Meta province, the municipalities
of Puerto Rico (Puerto Toledo sector), Puerto Lleras (Villa la Paz), and
Vistahermosa (Mata de Bambú). Foreseeing the grave consequences these
operations would have for the region’s inhabitants, the departmental
government organised a meeting for 28 March 2005, with the (failed)
intention of creating the conditions for forming agreements with the
communities, to arrange alternatives to growing illicit crops. However,
the imbalance of power faced by regional leaders wishing to intervene in
decisions deemed questions of national security became a new matter for
frustration in the region.

The official security offensive was supplemented by the development of
paramilitary groups like the Bloque Centauros, which attempted to blockade
the economic activity of communities in areas listed as under guerrilla
influence. The actions of this group in the lower regions of the Sierra de
la Macarena, occupying strategic seats of municipal government,
contributed to a crisis that particularly affected the civilian
population. The community action councils and guilds of Bajo Ariari
reported cases of selective assassinations, disappearances, threats, and
forced displacements (2) as part of what they considered to be “joint
actions” between the Autodefensa paramilitary groups and the commanders
and soldiers of the Colombian army’s Joaquín París Battalion, who were
notable mainly for their inaction. The Paramilitaries aimed to neutralise
support for the FARC, preventing the movement of food, medicines and
consumables. In this way, they achieved changes (in their own favour) to
the structure of taxes on the coca paste trade, and gained dominance in an
area historically under guerrilla influence, dating back to the
colonisation processes of the 1960s onwards.

Throughout 2005, there were military operations against possible support
for the guerrillas, paramilitary actions for strategic positioning in the
areas around the Sierra de la Macarena, aerial fumigations of coca
plantations, with the resultant impact on the local economy, and also
guerrilla incursions against the State and paramilitary offensives. These
factors combined to produce a crisis in the region.

In the context of this developing confrontation, and bearing in mind the
historic strength and dominion of the FARC in this area, 27 December 2005
saw a significant armed action when the guerrillas ambushed a military
unit, killing 29 people. The principal response from the government was a
direct attack on the cultivation of coca and the trade of coca paste in
the area, the main source of guerrilla funding. The FARC, for its part,
maintained its counter offensive capacity, carrying out lethal actions
against the police securing these operations and against members of the
MEG, using anti-personnel mines. (3)

The extension of violent actions in 2006 caused a 63.71 per cent increase
in homicides in Meta province, with 124 in the first three months of 2005
and 203 in the same period of 2006. This figure translated to an increase
in the per capita murder rate from 64.18 per hundred thousand inhabitants
to 105.7, a figure which significantly surpasses the national rate for the
same period (38.75 per hundred thousand for 2005 and 34.92 for 2006). (4)
This is particularly noticeable in some municipalities in the department
that faced a critical security situation, such as Puerto López (367 per
cent increase in homicides), Puerto Rico (244 per cent), Vistahermosa (230
per cent) and Puerto Lleras (133 per cent).

The Balance Sheet

One of the principal conclusions that can be drawn from these events is
that the Colombian government’s decisions about this region confirm its
current anti-drug policy to be fundamentally in line with the fight
against sources of funding for the guerrillas. This brings with it many
consequences deserving of analysis, and shows evidence of many notorious

In the first place, it can be seen that management of the topic of illicit
coca cultivation has been subjected to a focus and decision-making process
typical of the operations against the internal armed conflict. Even if it
is true that the illicit cultivation is a key source of finance for
insurgent groups, an excessive focus on security matters introduces
serious problems for the sustainability of the policy. The lack of clarity
between the management of eradication techniques, the counterinsurgent
strategy and anti-drug objectives has generated a murky relationship
between means and ends, loosening the strategic aims. In this context,
this has resulted in an intensification of the technical use of manual
eradication in the area, principally as a response to the FARC attack of
27 December. That is where the difficulties started.

With this decision, the squads of eradicators became the frontline of the
counterinsurgency operation. The first difficulties were observed when
eradication actions were carried out in accordance with military
conventions, forbidding the use of transistor radios and imposing silence
on the day labourers for security reasons. All of this created a crisis
for the recruits, who were psychologically prepared for the task of
pulling up coca plants, but not for a military operation. The large number
of eradicators initially contracted (930) created further problems, making
the situation unwieldy and difficult to manage under the pressure of armed
conflict. As a result, there was a high desertion rate in the MEG in the
initial phase of the operation, and the government found itself obliged to
reduce the group to only 240 workers. This demonstrates the levels of
improvisation with which the initial operation was undertaken. The
government encouraged the continuation of the eradications, with the
president himself accepting the eradicators’ demands for housing
subsidies. This deal between the government and the forcible eradicators
stands in stark contrast to the complete lack of dialogue with the
communities inhabiting the area.

Secondly, the errors made in the fight against drugs, viewed from another
perspective, become mistaken decisions about the war. If the aim of the
operation was to prevent the FARC from continuing to use coca in this area
as a means of financing the war, then vital strategic conditions for the
success of this aim were lacking: the region’s civilian population was
completely ignored, and treated as an intrinsic part of the armed
organisation. This was one of the most serious design faults in the
strategy. As a result, the population of the area was forcibly displaced
(although the guerrillas also contributed to this process in some areas,
even forcing some inhabitants to leave). In any case, the State did
nothing to win support. It did not even attempt to generate a different
perception of the occupying forces that burst violently into the region.

The design of the counterinsurgent operation should not have been focussed
on the eradication of coca plantations, but on winning acceptance of state
presence in this territory. From this perspective, dealing with the coca
would have been one of the elements of the strategic design, but not the
central aspect. The decisions that affect the goal of reaching legitimate
affirmation of the State are of an entirely different order, such as:

The design of an organisational plan for the territory and the mapping of
the social and cultural characteristics of the area, in order to
understand sub-regional specifics and help optimise the State’s approaches
to these localities.
The development of a strategy combining the protection and sustainable
environmental management of zones dedicated to a particular purpose, and
the design of productive projects that require handling in a way that is
adapted to the ecological characteristics of the territory (agro-forestry
systems, land use models for forestry and pasture management, etc.)
In this same context, the preparation of a strategy to win the “hearts and
minds” of the inhabitants of the territory would be required. As has been
observed, due to the errors in the design of Operación Colombia Verde
(Operation Green Colombia) in the area, the government ended up
establishing a dialogue with the forcible eradicators, but never
recognised the existence of settler populations within the park. They did
nothing to enhance mutual development, such as examining the technical
viability of the communities’ proposals to deal with the area’s problems,
nor did they consider the environmental, economic or socio-political
management of the dynamics of occupation and conflict in the Sierra de la
The critical mass of institutional interest in this territory, from bodies
such as the Universidad Nacional of Colombia and the Von Humboldt
Institute, should have been considered and evaluated. The experience of
forest management programmes in the area, in which the Parks Unit of the
Ministry of the Environment, Housing and Territorial Development continues
to play a fundamental role, and the development plans currently underway
as a result of international cooperation were not taken into account. (For
example, the Laboratorio de Paz del Meta, supported by the European Union,
under the influence of the UNDP)
The design of a public policy geared towards the strengthening of local
and regional institutions, the extension of democracy, the promotion and
support of communal social organisation, freeing up their autonomy and
improving their decision making capacity in the context of local
institutional life, and, in this way, strengthening their participatory
These elements should have been incorporated into the treatment of illicit
coca cultivation. This would have required processes of prior coordination
and agreement with the communities within the framework of a macro
programme for the region, with the participation of local powers and the
departmental government. None of this was done. Instead the government
opted for a short-sighted operation, with a conspicuously
military-counterinsurgent focus, and for the militarisation of the area in
order to protect the development of actions that, as can already be seen,
do not guarantee in any way the medium or long term sustainability of the
initial achievements.

Various state authorities published reports relating to this operation,
measuring its progress in terms of the number of hectares manually
eradicated with a view to winning greater public recognition of the
project, in light of the hostile context of conflict in which the proposed
operations were being put forward.

In this sense, the government presents the issue in terms of a dispute
between manual eradication and aerial spraying (a discussion which
revolves around a central question of the elimination of the source of
insurgent funding, and thereby completely distorts consideration of the
central problem). Today they reiterate the argument that the loss of 28
lives in the course of the operation has “demonstrated” – from the point
of view of the government – that aerial eradication is better suited to
the security conditions in guerrilla controlled areas. This inference
obscures the responsibility of those who took the decisions and leads to
conclusions that confuse the real nature of the problem. In this way, they
dodge the complex plot lines that weave around the issue, and the real
problem remains imprisoned within a controversy whose terms are too
narrowly defined. Suffice to say, they have reduced the problem to a
merely technical one, blurring any strategic questions about politics.

For their part, the guerrillas clearly saw, from the beginning, the hand
that president Uribe was playing, and they proposed to fight it. They
achieved this with relative ease, as the area was one traditionally under
their control. The death toll among police and eradicators bears witness
to the power the insurgents have always had in this area, and the final
balance sheet of the operation presents a grim cost-benefit analysis.
However, even more worryingly, the government persists in reducing the
problems of la Macarena to the guerrilla control of coca, and to a
controversy between two possible techniques for its eradication.

Finally, it is difficult to believe that the economic power of the
guerrillas really hung in the balance in la Macarena. Figures supplied by
the Anti-Narcotics Police about the economic impact of State actions upon
guerrilla funding from this region establish losses to the FARC of 675
million dollars, resulting from the eradication of all the coca
plantations in the area. (5) Such calculations were based on a productive
potential of 6 kilos of cocaine per hectare, which means a loss of 27
tonnes in the estimated 4,500 hectares within the area in question. The
figure in dollars was worked out based on the street value of cocaine at
the time in US cities with high consumption, as if the FARC controlled
these markets. These statistics are presented for the benefit of domestic
public opinion. They do not, in any way, reflect the reality of insurgent
participation in the narcotics market, although they have lead to serious
errors in the design and evaluation of anti-drug strategies.

In reality, the 4,500 hectares of coca plantation in the Sierra de la
Macarena produced 33,750 kilos of coca paste per year, and the guerrillas
made an average of 500 thousand Colombian pesos per kilo on this, based on
their role as intermediaries with the drug trafficking capital. This adds
up to a total loss of 7,670,000 dollars in the event of the complete
destruction of the coca plantations in the area. However, the capacity to
re-establish production is estimated as a period of six months. In other
words, with the FARC in a position to substitute the coca production of
the Macarena for production in more secure areas, the actual estimated
losses would be half of its total annual income from the region, or around
3,835,000 dollars.

This figure must be viewed in relation to the cost of the operation to the
government, plus US security support (by 15 June 2006, Washington had
supplied 2 million dollars in logistical, aerial and communications
support). (6) Holland also took responsibility for part of the labour
costs of the MEG (which amounted to around 500 thousand dollars by July
2006) (7). Add to this the labour cost of the police (a conservative
estimate of another 500 thousand dollars), and the total cost of the
operation comes to around three million dollars. This presents very
discouraging results. They have invested 3 million dollars to deliver a
3,835,000 dollar economic blow to the guerrillas. The loss of 28 lives
among the police and civilian eradicators must be added to this,
presenting disastrous final results in terms of the strategic scope of the

Other consequences following on from the operation are:

The decisions of the government generated a perception that devalues
manual eradication, as it was mistakenly used in a context of war. This
technique requires a series of regulations in terms of anti-drug policy,
which, if well planned, can at the very least reduce the impact on the
environment and people’s health caused by aerial spraying. Its use in the
context of prior coordination and majority agreement with the growers,
based on clear agreements about development alternatives, can contribute
to resolving situations of conflict, as sectors that decide to continue to
maintain themselves through illegal production find themselves acting
against the will of the majority in a given area. It can be a low impact
tool in cases where coca crops are situated in the middle of alternative
development programmes that are seriously affected by aerial fumigation,
as happened to the COSURCA cooperative’s organic coffee crops in the Cauca
region in May and June of 2005. This programme, supported by AID and the
UNODC, was sprayed by the Colombian government’s own aeroplanes, losing
its organic certification and causing an estimated 2,663,664 dollars in
damages. (8)
The intensification of the controversy between manual and aerial
eradication has contributed to obscuring the social, economic, political
and environmental background to the problem of illicit coca production. In
essence, the technique used in the eradications cannot be a substitute for
politics. A serious evaluation of events in la Macarena up to August 2006
must understand the technique used for coca eradication as a tool, and not
the central axis of the strategy.
Making decisions against illicit production as strategic decisions in the
war (in this case, the over-emphasis on the fight against guerrilla
finances) obscures the presence of unarmed civilian populations who suffer
the consequences of the decisions taken by all the armed actors, including
the State security services.
Lastly, but by no means least in this context, decisions against illegal
production, taken as strategies of war, nevertheless affect the function
of local and departmental institutions and regional development plans.
These are then ignored, as is their capacity to intervene and look for
solutions to the problems that are aggravating the dynamic of the war.
State handling of security issues avoids the involvement of these local
Re-establishing fumigation is not going to legitimise or win acceptance of
the State’s activities in the territory of the Park. It is not going to
protect the Park from the environmental deterioration generated by the
critical interventions of social and military actors in the war, in a
situation in which many problems can be identified which go beyond the
simple cultivation of coca. However – as has been shown here – it is also
not going to really affect the FARC’s “bankroll”. What it will do is
create well-fertilised territory for the prolonging of the armed conflict.

Traducido del español por: Kate Wilson



1. Mobile Eradication Groups for Forced Manual Eradication of Illicit
Crops (MEG) (Grupos Móviles de Erradicación Manual Forzosa de Cultivos
Ilícitos (GME)
2. These reports appear in documents from: the Permanent Committee for the
Defence of Human Rights; the Inter-ecclesiastical Committee for Justice
and Peace and other Human Rights organisations, “Report 19 – Meta
Information Update – Bajo Ariari, Puerto Lleras, Puerto Rico and
Vistahermosa “Forced Disappearances, arbitrary detention, forced
displacements”, 18 January 2005, Bogotá. Communities of Puerto Toledo –
Puerto Rico, Villa de la Paz – Puerto Lleras, Mata de Bambú – Vistahermosa
“Letter to the governor of el Meta, Edilberto Castro Rincón”, 20 April
2005; Defenders of the People of el Meta “Letter to the director of the
Alternative Development Programme USAID”, 23 May 2005; Commission of
negotiators delegated by the community action councils and the guilds of
the river Güéjar region, “Situation of the inhabitants of the Ariari
region”, 20 September 2005.
3. See Fundación Seguridad y Democracia, Coyuntura de Seguridad No.12,
(Security and Democracy Foundation, Security Circumstances No. 12) May
2006, Bogotá.
4. Ibid. p.83.
5. See National Police report (Anti-Narcotics Directorate (DIRAN),
National Police Association (ANP) News Agency) “Two months of the
‘Colombia Verde’ (Green Colombia) operation have seen the eradication of a
thousand acres of coca in the Macarena National Park”, translated from, March 2006. The director of the institution stated
that: “Attempting to take the bankroll away from the guerrillas is not an
easy process. The process in la Macarena consists of the eradication of
coca which represents the FARC’s most important source of funding.”
6. Presidency of the Republic, Social Action, “1.800 hectares have already
been eradicated in La Macarena”, 8 June 2006, on
7. Calculations based on a daily wage of 27.000 Colombian pesos. See”22
muertos obligaron a fumigar Parque La Macarena” (22 deaths force the
fumigation the Macarena Park) in El Tiempo, 4 August 2006, Bogotá.
8. See Lutheran World Relief, “Eradicating hope in Colombia: fair trade,
organic coffee farms damaged by ‘Plan Colombia’ herbicide spraying”, 2006,

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