By Sebastián Forero Rueda, EL ESPECTADOR, May 31, 2020
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
Three campesinos and an Awá indigenous man have died this year in the midst of operations for the forced eradication of coca plantings. While the communities are asking that this strategy be suspended, and for compliance with the 4th point of the Peace Agreement, the government has announced assistance from the United States for its anti-drug-trafficking policy.
For three months now, since the national government declared a health emergency because of the coronavirus, the campesino communities that make their living by growing coca leaves have been asking the government to suspend the forced eradication operations in their territories. A number of think tanks, social organizations, provincial assemblies, and even local mayors have supported them. Their call has not been heard and, on the contrary, they have seen the Minister of Defense, Carlos Holmes Trujillo, and the Embassy of the United States announce the news that buried their hopes: the Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) of the U.S. Army’s Southern Command will arrive in Colombia beginning tomorrow, June 1, to “support Colombia in the war against drug trafficking”.
Regarding the arrival of the Brigade, Minister Trujillo explained that it was not a deployment of U.S. troops in the territory, but that it would be consulting work and assisting several different Colombian joint task forces. Specifically, the Hercules in Tumaco (Nariño Province); the Vulcano in Catatumbo; and the Omega, in Meta and Caquetá Provinces, some of the areas where the most coca is planted. “Historically, when we talk in this country about the war against drug trafficking, we talk about fighting against the plantings, which ends up being a fight against the people that plant them, which is really a violation of the human rights of the campesinos, because those strategies almost always have been forced eradication and the use of official violence against the families whose income comes from that activity,” said Pedro Areas, an investigator with the Viso Mutop Corporation, which has followed the subject closely. That’s the source of the fear in the coca-growing communities, as well as the fact that they might be planning to put up a fence around Venezuela.
The fear is not to be laughed at because the eradication of the plantings—which has been intensified during the pandemic according to the complaints of the campesino organizations—has already left three people dead just during the quarantine and there was another death in February. The most recent death was the campesino Digno Emérito Buendía in a rural area in Cúcuta on Monday the 18th of May. On that day, the community of the towns (veredas) Nueva Victoria, Vigilancia, and Totumito were camped on alert, expecting the arrival of the troops coming to pull out the coca plantings. According to Aladino León, President of the Community Action Committee in the town (vereda) of Vigilancia, the soldiers had told them if they would just stand in the middle of the plantings, they would take pictures of it and report to their superiors that it wouldn’t be possible to do the eradication because of the campesinos’ resistance.
However, they didn’t keep their promise, and when the campesinos resisted the eradication and started to oppose the soldiers, they picked up their rifles and that’s how Digno Emérito was killed. The Army’s Second Division issued a communication about what happened and said that the soldiers of the Trigésima Brigade were attacked while they were doing the eradication work.
Before Digno Emérito was killed, Ángel Artemio Nastacuas, an Awá indigenous man, was killed with one shot by the Anti-Narcotics Police on April 22. That happened in areas bordering the indigenous reservation Ina Sabaleta, in Tumaco (Nariño Province). Before the arrival of the soldiers to eradicate the coca there, workers and indigenous people started to protest. In a statement given later, the Police Anti-Narcotics team said, just as they did in Cúcuta, that some of the demonstrators had attacked the Police and that is what led them to use force to break up the demonstration.
The Army also killed the campesino Alejandro Carvajal with one shot in Sardinata (Norte de Santander Province) on Thursday March 16. The exception is that in this event there had been no conflict between the workers and the soldiers. Instead, the campesinos in the community had been protesting the eradication peacefully for several days and the shot was fired at the gathering. The soldiers involved were part of the Land Operations Battalion No. 9, part of the Vulcano Task Force, one of the ones that will receive personnel from the SFAB. And on February 1, before the pandemic began, Segundo Girón was shot to death by the Anti-Narcotics Police in an eradication operation in land belonging to the Community Council of Río Mejicano, in Tumaco. Four cases in four months.
Along with those deaths, the number of injuries in those regions is difficult to establish. Just in the case of Digno Emérito, three campesinos suffered gunshot injuries. One of them is Jimmy Alberto González, who is still in the Erasmo Meoz Hospital in Cúcuta. In February, in the southern part of Córdoba, a campesino was shot in his eye by one of the less-lethal weapons used by a member of Esmad during those operations. This week, for example, three campesinos were injured in the midst of clashes in towns (veredas) located between Meta and Guaviare provinces. The confrontations were with soldiers from the Omega Joint Task Force.
Because of that, for the communities that live on coca, the government’s reaffirmation of its policy of eradication using the arrival of the SFAB, which also looks like “a boost” by the United States for the government’s policy against the drug traffic, is “an affront to the campesinos”. That’s how Arnobis Zapata, spokesman for the National Coordinated Growers of Coca, Amapola and Marijuana (coccam in Spanish) puts it. “This is going to have a much more serious effect in the territories. There will be violations of human rights, because according to United States drug policy, everybody that’s mixed up in the drug trafficking chain is the same; in Colombia that means an increase in the persecution of the coca growers and it will bring more fear into the territories. To end the coca industry in Colombia what has to happen is a change in the realities in those territories, and that change won’t come by means of the gringos’ boot,” he added.
Ending persecution of the campesino communities that grow coca was the purpose of the 4th point of the Peace Agreement. Among other things, this point stipulated an integrated program for voluntary substitution of the crops. Instead of persecuting and criminalizing the campesinos, it proposed viable alternatives so that they would be able to be part of the legal economy. Carrying out that program, in which 99,000 families in fourteen provinces have joined, is what the campesinos are asking for when they demand that forced eradication of the plantings be suspended.
Eduardo Díaz, who headed that program after the signing of the Peace Agreement, wondered why the aid from the United States in fighting drug trafficking is coming right now in order to support strategies like forced eradication, but not when he was promoting voluntary substitution. “While we were getting starting with the substitution program with a real commitment from the FARC, going out into the territories, talking with the communities, explaining how the substitution would work, the truth is that we didn’t receive one cent of support from the U.S. government. They argued that the FARC had been reported as a terrorist group.”
Right now that substitution program, according to the government itself, doesn’t have the funds that could guarantee that we could pay the families what we promised to pay. Because of that, in most of the regions they have barely finished the change to bimonthly payments of 2 million pesos (about USD 540) and they are delivering the supplies for the self-sufficiency project. But there still are no productive projects that can guarantee sustenance for those families.
Besides that, the arrival of SFAB in this country and the war on drug trafficking that frames it, started at the beginning of April by President Trump, has been seen as an act that is contrary to the policy focus on drugs and sovereignty that is stipulated in the Havana Agreement. “Those policies (against illegal drugs) are to be governed by the exercise of equal sovereignty and not by intervention in the internal affairs of other governments,” states the Peace Agreement.
We know that this is an international battle, but the battle has to be fought with a different purpose, not with the purpose of coming to intervene without understanding the necessities of the residents, but rather, for example, doing their part by controlling consumption,” said Arnobis Zabata. In that same sense, Eduardo Díaz maintained, “What we want to see is more efficiency in the control of the precursors, in the control of the bank accounts of the drug traffickers, and the money laundering.”
The Minister of Defense, Carlos Holmes Trujillo, when consulted by Colombia2020, insisted that there is no difference in this situation from the assistance relationship that the United States has given Colombia historically on this topic. “This assistance will be developed in the framework of the bilateral agreements that we have had with the United States for decades, specifically for military and defense cooperation.” He made clear that in this situation there are “personnel that are specialized at tactical and strategic levels. Their assistance permits us to strengthen our fight against drug trafficking.” Regarding the specific role of the Security Force Assistance Brigade, the Minister only said that it’s “consulting and technical assistance”, and that it will be carried out within military units, not on the ground. “They will not take part in military operations, as those are carried out exclusively by Colombian troops,” he emphasized.
Pastor Alape, representing the FARC, also promoted the
program of substitution that was approved in the Peace Agreement. He insisted
that that this is an action in which “the Colombian government, tarnishing its
sovereignty even more, is making our country into a beachhead for the
provocation of Venezuela.” It’s the campesino communities, who have already
expressed repeatedly their commitment to finish off the coca by means of
voluntary substitution, who are the ones who will feel the impact of this news.
 Colombia’s Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron