Magnolias:" adjusting to reality in Putumayo, by Abbey Steele and Adam
Isacson, December 14, 2000
Magnolias:" adjusting to reality in Putumayo
By Abbey Steele and Adam Isacson
December 14, 2000
Saturdays ago María Inés Restrepo, the director of Colombia's
alternative development agency (PLANTE), pulled out several coca plants
and symbolically replaced them with a newly planted magnolia tree. The
ceremony took place in Santa Ana, a village just north of Puerto Asís,
the largest town in the Maryland-sized department of Putumayo. Overrun
by guerrillas and paramilitaries, Putumayo - in southwest Colombia along
the border with Ecuador - is home to well over 100,000 acres of coca,
the plant used to make cocaine. The tree-planting commemorated the first
of several planned "community pacts" designed to wean local
peasants away from the coca trade.
days later, at the Larandia military base less than 100 miles north of
Santa Ana, U.S. Special Forces applauded and videotaped the graduation
of the Colombian Army's second counternarcotics battalion. As the New
York Times reported,
"soldiers in camouflage face paint and black berets marched through
a cloud of yellow, blue and red smoke - the colors of the Colombian flag
- toward the generals at the reviewing stand." The new battalion
will be based in Tres Esquinas, on the border between Colombia's departments
of Caquetá and Putumayo, about 50 miles away from the site of the
previous Saturday's tree-planting.
the magnolias and the battalion were made possible by the United States,
as part of its contribution to "Plan
Colombia," Bogotá's $7.5 billion plan to attack the drug
trade and strengthen state institutions. Washington insists that this
two-pronged carrot-and-stick program will eradicate coca in Putumayo department
and help pacify Colombia.
of the U.S. aid - military and otherwise - is focused on Putumayo. But
there are strong reasons to be concerned that the situation "on the
ground" in Putumayo may undermine the ambitious U.S.-funded programs.
"push into southern Colombia" and the "community pacts"
than half of the U.S. contribution funds the recruiting and training of
three new battalions like the one inaugurated last week, eventually to
number about 2,800 troops. The units are being equipped with dozens of
helicopters, both refurbished Vietnam-era Hueys and sophisticated new
$15 million Blackhawks. The "Push into Southern Colombia" -
the name given to the battalions' operation - seeks to "establish
the security conditions" necessary to carry out anti-drug operations,
such as aerial fumigation with glyphosate, the active chemical in the
commercial weed-killer "Round-Up."
the only threat to "security conditions" in this area is posed
by Colombia's FARC guerrillas, which shoot back at fumigation planes.
Making this connection, it becomes clear that the United States is funding
operations against Colombian guerrillas for the first time.
U.S. and Colombian
officials insist that - for now, at least - the "push" and the
fumigations will take place only in remote areas of Putumayo with a high
concentration of coca plantations in excess of 3 hectares (7.5 acres).
They insist as well that these "industrial" coca areas are largely
uninhabited (except, of course, for thousands of landless rural workers
who survive by picking coca leaves for meager wages). It is still unclear
what parts of Putumayo make up this zone of "industrial" coca-cultivation;
"targeting decisions" for fumigation are still being made, the
State Department's Rand Beers told
a congressional committee in October.
In areas where coca
cultivations are generally less than 3 hectares, the U.S. and Colombian
governments plan to employ the "carrot," at least for a limited
time. These "family farmers" will be given the opportunity to
enter into "community pacts" like the agreement commemorated
at the December 2 tree-planting in Santa Ana. Under the pacts, peasants
will be given financial and technical assistance to switch to legal crops,
in exchange for manually eradicating their coca within twelve months.
The community-pact program, first being implemented in Puerto Asís
municipality, is to spread to the nearby municipalities of Mocoa, Villagarzón,
Puerto Guzmán, and Puerto Caycedo in central Putumayo.
The Colombian government
official responsible for "social" assistance in Putumayo, Gonzalo
de Francisco, explained, "We are interested in signing pacts
but if [the farmers] are just pulling our leg, the repressive options
are always open." Small farmers who do not eradicate their coca in
twelve months will face the "repressive option" of fumigation.
This plan sounds
neat and tidy on the surface - help the small farmers and spray the big
ones. But an upsurge in violence over the past several months indicates
that things may not be so easy.
On November 16, Colombia
and the United States announced that the fumigation of "industrial"
coca in Putumayo - originally scheduled to begin in December - had been
postponed until January. This is largely due to the department's rapidly
deteriorating security situation.
The Colombian government
has never controlled Putumayo since non-indigenous people began settling
there a few decades ago. The FARC moved its 32nd front into the area in
the mid-1980s, increasing its presence with the mid-1990s arrival of its
48th front. The guerrillas routinely bomb oil pipelines, forcibly recruit
young people, carry out extra-judicial executions, and profit from the
drug trade by taxing coca-growing peasants.
The right-wing paramilitaries
(the AUC, or United Self-Defense Forces, led by Carlos Castaño)
arrived in large numbers at the beginning of 1998, when fighters from
its outposts in northwestern Colombia announced their presence with bloody
massacres in Puerto Asís, Orito, La Hormiga and other towns. Generally,
the paramilitaries control major town centers, but the FARC continues
to dominate rural areas.
By most estimates,
the FARC currently maintains about 2,000 fighters in Putumayo, and is
able to deploy thousands more from elsewhere, particularly the demilitarized
zone in Meta and Caquetá departments to the north. Because they
have been in the area longer, the FARC are more familiar with the terrain
and the local residents, who are a key source of intelligence. According
to many reports, the guerrillas are also arming many peasants and forcing
them to take eight days of training in anticipation of the coming U.S.-funded
offensive. For their part, the paramilitaries have been steadily increasing
their presence in Putumayo, currently estimated at about 600 fighters.
is also present in Putumayo; the 24th Brigade is based in Santa Ana, a
Navy Riverine Brigade (created with U.S. funds in the late 1990s) is headquartered
in Puerto Leguízamo, and the new counternarcotics battalions are
at Tres Esquinas.
The Colombian military
rarely confronts the paramilitaries in Putumayo, and is widely accused
of aiding and abetting them. Paramilitaries walk through most Putumayo
towns openly and unmolested. Some even boast to reporters that they are
former army soldiers. The paramilitary headquarters in Puerto Asís,
an estate called "Villa Sandra," is located a short distance
away from the 24th Brigade's headquarters. In August, the BBC's
Jeremy McDermott discussed the ease with which he located the "paras"
at Villa Sandra:
looking to contact the paramilitaries who control the town itself and
some of the neighbouring hamlets.
Finding them was not as hard
as I had thought. Despite the fact that the Colombian state denies there
are any links between them and the right-wing death squads, their headquarters
in Puerto Asis is five minutes drive past the local army base, in a
luxurious villa. To get there I just hailed a taxi and asked the driver
to take me to the paramilitary headquarters, as if I knew where it was
and something I did every day of the week. He did not even blink, simply
put the car in gear and sped down the potholed streets, passing the
army checkpoint and into the countryside outside the town.
In October, a bold
police officer denounced military-paramilitary cooperation in Puerto Asís
to local civilian authorities. According to the Bogotá daily El
Tiempo, the policeman reported that the paramilitaries blatantly identify
themselves with insignia and move easily in clearly marked vehicles. The
policeman said he did not understand "the abilities and skills that
they use to make a mockery of the Army's roadblocks, and to station themselves
right in front of them." He added that he has heard numerous charges
that the local army command meets regularly with paramilitary leaders
at Villa Sandra. A government official quoted in the Houston Chronicle
on October 15 commented that "cooperation is very close,"
noting that the paramilitary headquarters is only two blocks from the
town's military base. Puerto Asís Mayor Manuel Alzate asked the
Chronicle, "How is it possible that we are under siege and
the army doesn't do anything?"
The FARC's armed
The FARC and AUC
have been vying, frequently by violent clashes, for control of narcotics
industry profits, and violence has escalated enormously in the last few
months. Civilians are literally caught in the crossfire. By early November,
fighting in Putumayo had forced about 4,500 people to leave Putumayo for
Ecuador, Cali, neighboring Nariño and Huila departments, and even
to Bogotá, 300 miles to the north. At least 450 so far (a low estimate)
are seeking refuge in Ecuador.
The violence intensified
on September 21, when about 200 paramilitaries attacked La Dorada, the
main town of San Miguel municipality. The FARC retaliated, leaving La
Dorada's 5,600 inhabitants surrounded. While skirmishes are frequent,
the paramilitaries still occupy La Dorada. They are reportedly carrying
out brutal "cleansing" tactics to rid the area of suspected
guerrilla allies. Colombia's security forces have played little role in
the La Dorada fighting.
Three days after
the attack on La Dorada, the FARC launched something they called an "armed
strike." For months, FARC fighters banned all vehicle traffic throughout
Putumayo. Guerrilla roadblocks confiscated and destroyed all cars, buses
or trucks they encountered. The "strike" sharply reduced access
to food, water and basic necessities, causing a severe humanitarian crisis
in outlying areas. By early November, the government had airlifted about
300 tons (much less, insisted local officials) of rice, milk, beans, cooking
oil, and other food items to the region. Nonetheless, Interior Ministry
spokesman Raúl Gutiérrez admitted, "We have only gotten
the food to the big towns."
The FARC had said
that the strike would only be lifted if the Colombian government called
off the U.S.-supported military offensive foreseen under Plan Colombia.
For reasons that remain unclear, the guerrillas relented on December 9,
unilaterally lifting the siege after 79 days.
The "armed strike"
and the paramilitaries' unchallenged presence vividly illustrate the Colombian
security forces' inability to affect illegal armed groups' dominance of
Putumayo. If the government cannot deliver humanitarian aid to rural areas
or confront the AUC, it is fair to ask whether it can guarantee "community
pacts" in Putumayo or "secure" coca-growing areas for its
aerial fumigation program. It is also fair to ask whether inserting the
counter-narcotics battalions - 2,800 soldiers with a few months of U.S.
training and helicopters that have yet to arrive - will make a significant
Rep. Benjamin Gilman
(R-New York), the chairman of the House International Relations Committee,
echoed these doubts in a November
14 letter to "Drug Czar" Barry McCaffrey:
events in the heavy coca-growing Putomayo (sic) area in the south
of Colombia show, it is evident that the Colombian army is incapable
of controlling any of this guerilla and coca-infested territory now,
or anytime soon. Certainly, three new U.S. trained counter-narcotics
battalions of the Colombian army alone, will not change this major imbalance
on the battlefield. The Colombian army has been systematically losing
control on the ground in the south.
Given existing conditions on the ground in the Putomayo (sic),
one can easily predict that either the start of army-supported eradication
operations there will continue to be interminably delayed, or that these
operations will be reduced in scope to only small "show case"
interdiction or manual eradication operations (with no real aerial eradication
against the industrial-size coca plots). Either outcome will lead to
legitimate questions about the rationale behind this strategy.
The Clinton and Pastrana
administrations do not appear to share these doubts. "Far from being
a failure of Plan Colombia, this is exactly why you need it," Assistant
Secretary of Defense Brian
Sheridan told the St. Petersburg Times in November. "Putumayo
is a poster child for why you need Plan Colombia. The FARC and the paramilitaries
are running roughshod all over the Putumayo right now, killing each other,
blockading roads, holding villages hostage
and the military and
the police are nowhere to be found."
man for Plan Colombia, Jaime Ruiz, told the Washington Post, "It
sounds like you'd have to secure the area before you begin the projects,
but the truth is, you do both at the same time. We are trying to convince
the population that we can do this without force, but they are afraid
to trust the government and end up with nothing, so this first step is
These first steps
are being delayed, however, by the security situation in Putumayo. Magnolia
plantings aside, the "community pacts" are off to a shaky start:
"the presence of the armed units of the guerrillas and the paramilitaries
is going to make it more difficult to start more than a few pilot projects,"
Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering told
reporters in November. While two counter-narcotics battalions have
already graduated, the launch of their "push into southern Colombia"
has been postponed for one month.
For now, at least,
it appears that the situation in Putumayo is more complicated than planners
in Washington and Bogotá had anticipated. Policymakers, particularly
the incoming Bush administration, should take advantage of the resulting
delay to carry out a fundamental re-thinking of the United States' approach
to helping Colombia.