RED ZONES, A NEW HOME FOR SOLDIERS FROM THE UNITED STATES Military exercises between Colombian and U.S. troops in January 2020 were carried out at the base in Tolemaida

By Javiér Alexander Macías, El Colombiano, December 24, 2020, first published in June 2020

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

Displacements, mines, and illegal groups are the everyday life in the areas where the U.S. soldiers will be going.

The promise that it will just be assistance in the fight against the drug traffickers is the road map that the 53 soldiers from the U.S. Southern Command will have in Colombia during the four months they will be staying in this country. That’s what the Minister of Defense, Carlos Holmes Trujillo, insisted when the arrival of the U.S. soldiers was controversial.

This company, attached to the Assistance to Security Forces Brigade of the U.S. Army (SFAB is the English acronym.) arrived at Tolemaida under complete secrecy last June 1, and, according to the Minister of Defense, Carlos Holmes Trujillo, they were placed in quarantine to avoid infection by covid-19. From there, they will be going to three different regions to provide assistance to their Colombian fellow soldiers.

“Once they have completed their quarantine, they will be divided into smaller groups made up of 10 or 11 (soldiers). They will be going to the Task Forces, and the rest of them will be the team that commands the technical assistance group that is in Colombia already,” explained Trujillo.

Although the Defense Minister has not revealed exactly in which provinces they will do their work, El Colombiano was able to learn that those will be Norte de Santander, Nariño, Guaviare, Meta, and Caquetá. Those are the places where right now the majority of confrontations are concentrated. We also learned that the assistance will be both tactical and strategic, aimed at combating the new illegal organizations that grew up after the FARC demobilized.

The consulting by the United States soldiers will go to the three Joint Task Forces that are operating in the above-mentioned provinces. Those are, in order, the Vulcan Joint Task Force, the Hércules Joint Task Force, and the Omega Joint Task Force. They will also work with the Anti-Drug Trafficking Brigade in Bogotá.

Among their tasks, the Defense Minister emphasized, will be providing “assistance to the command staffs of the Task Forces in tactics and procedures that will improve operational effectiveness in the fight against drug trafficking. Those are tasks of assistance, skill-building, and training, and they will in no case take part in military operations, nor will they be on the ground,” concluded Trujillo.

Territories where they will work

The provinces of Norte de Santander, Nariño, Meta, and Caquetá are the regions where historically, 40% of the hostilities are concentrated, according to military intelligence analysis.

“The presence throughout the years of the former FARC guerrilla organizations like the 33rd Front in Norte de Santander, added to the ELN and the EPL in Nariño, and the Southern Bloc with the 2d, 29th, and 64th Fronts, the Daniel Aldana and Mariscal Sucre Columns, and the presence of the ELN, and, in Guaviare, Meta, and Caquetá the whole Eastern Bloc, along with the presence of paramilitary groups, has affected the civilian population and obliged the government to center its attention on large military operations in these areas,” says the analyst.

With the exit of the FARC from the war’s map in 2016, the confrontations did not diminish and, on the contrary, new groups arrived to these areas to control the drug trafficking routes and the cocaine laboratories, a business that once again unleashed the disputes by these new organizations over the territories.

“The direct conflict with the FARC mutated. The dissidents arrived to the areas where there already were post-demobilization groups of paramilitaries like the Clan del Golfo. There were EPL, ELN, and other organizations working at drug trafficking. All of them plunged into disputes over the illegal economies, and, to that extent, the dynamics of war returned and affected the civilian population,” explains the armed conflict analyst, Juan Carlos Ortega.

The dynamics the specialist refers to are the installation of land mines, forced displacement, murders of social leaders, the imposition of rules and regulations, and confrontations with the Armed Forces that, according to the Ideas for Peace Foundation (FIP is the Spanish acronym.), increased to 42 military actions in the first four months of 2019 and 55 such actions in the same period in 2020.

“We emphasize the increase in harassment and ambushes against the Armed Forces, burning their vehicles, attacks on petroleum infrastructure, and attacks on the population and on civilian properties. Twenty-nine percent of the actions were concentrated in the provinces of Norte de Santander and 11% in Nariño,” points out the FIP in its report “The Armed Conflict and its Humanitarian and Environmental Impact: Trends During the Pandemic”.

The people are suffering.

One of the most effective ways that the illegal armed groups use to threaten a population is the murder of their social leaders. In that way, Ortega says, those organizations send a message to communities, warning them that anyone who dares to complain about the irregularities will end up in a box.

For the analyst of conflict and peace-building issues, Luis Eduardo Celis, the matter centers more on economics. He insists, “The control of the territory and control of the economy is the principal reason for the murder of the leaders. The ones that oppose an illegal economy or a megaproject will be the objects of violence.”

This practice is no stranger in the five provinces where the U.S. soldiers will be going. Up to now (June) in 2020, 17 social leaders have been murdered in these territories, according to the Institute for Peace and Development Studies (Indepaz is the Spanish acronym.) In 2019, violent deaths of community representatives in those provinces were, according to Indepaz, eight in Norte de Santander, ten in Nariño, five in Caquetá, and three in Meta.

That territorial control and the murders of social leaders leads to one of the phenomena that is deeply rooted in Colombia’s armed conflict since the war between the FARC and the paramilitaries; that is, for more than 20 years, leading to forced displacement.

The International Red Cross Committee (CICR), in its report “Humanitarian Challenges for 2020”, registered 25,303 individuals expelled, massive displacements, because of the activities of armed groups. Of those, 7,700 had to leave Nariño, 1,894 left Norte de Santander, and 330 fled from Guaviare.

So far in 2020 (June) the violence has taken 6,731 people away from the countryside and confined 3,437, according to data from the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Issues (OCHA). That same office documented that Norte de Santander had 552 victims of displacement, 4,918 in Nariño, and 56 in Caquetá. Guaviare has not furnished a count.

The problem of the land mines.

If there is an unseen enemy that has done a great deal of damage to Colombians, it’s the land mines. Since April 30, 1990, there have been 11,858 land mine victims. That is the reason why the Peace Agreement with the FARC requires an attempt to de-mine the countryside and, up to now (June) 391 municipalities have been declared free of suspicion of mines, according to the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace.

In spite of those efforts, the practice, proscribed by the International Humanitarian Rights Law, continues to happen in Colombia. Ángela María Silva Aparicio, an FIP investigator, says that the groups do it for several reasons. “It’s a strategy for the suppression of coca eradication. They surround their plantings to avoid advances by the Armed Forces. The problem is that in recent years they have started to mine areas where people travel, where crops are planted, around schools,” she says.

Silva adds that planting mines has turned into a tool for social control, so that the people don’t flee and make complaints, as happened in Nariño.

In 2019, the CICR registered 352 persons affected by land mines, and so far in 2020 (June), 54, according to De-Mine Colombia. Of those, 18 were in Nariño and 12 in Norte de Santander. The other provinces have not reported accidents at this time.

Norte de Santander, Nariño, Caquetá, and Meta have a painful history marked by the war. That is where the soldiers will arrive to show their Colombian fellow soldiers how to combat those that have made this war possible.

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