War and Fear in Putumayo
by Marie Delcas
Le Monde, Paris, France, January 11, 2001
World Press Review, April 2001
Under the blazing sun, the crudely blacktopped road shimmers
with oil, a black strip through the tropical green of banana trees
and fields of coca plants. A family drenched in sweat pushes along
the burned-out carcass of an automobile. The previous day, ignoring
an order issued by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia
(FARC) prohibiting vehicle traffic, the father had driven his
1972 Land Rover all the way to the border of Ecuador. Asked whether
he resents the men of the country's main guerrilla movement for
burning the tool he used to support his family and his brother's,
the man casts his gaze downward. "No, I'm just grateful to
them for sparing my life. About six feet away from me, they gunned
down the guy driving the motorcycle behind us," he answers
When asked about the reasons for the "armed picket line"
that has paralyzed highway traffic in Putumayo province in the
far south of Colombia for the last several weeks, guerrilla commando
Felix rattles off his answer: "The decision to interdict
highway traffic is directed against the presence of paramilitary
groups in Putumayo and against Plan Colombia, a plan by the government
and the United States to wage war against the FARC and to displace
This year, Washington has authorized an extraordinary aid
package of $1.3 billion for Colombia as part of the war on drugs.
This ambitious program to eradicate coca and poppy plots by aerial
spraying is aimed mainly at Putumayo with its 138,000 acres of
coca plots, representing half of all the illicit crops in the
country. But this task will not be easy for the Colombian army.
The FARC provides protection for the fields and the laboratories,
crude facilities where the coca leaf is transformed into base
paste and then into cocaine. The last major Marxist-Leninist guerrilla
group in Latin America (15,000 armed men) today derives most of
its resources from drugs.
Four units of the FARC, about a thousand guerrilla warriors,
are currently operating in Putumayo, at the edge of the Amazon
forest. The small U.S. prop planes assigned to spray the coca
fields will thus be able to fly only with a military escort. At
least this is the argument advanced by Washington to justify the
size of the military component, which represents 80 percent of
Plan Colombia, and the 60 military helicopters supplied by the
The American plan does not overly concern commander Felix
and his comrades in arms. At the moment, their sworn enemies are
the radical right-wing paramilitary militias, the United Self-Defense
Forces of Colombia (Autodefensa Unida de Colombia-AUC) of Carlos
Castano. For local authorities, the decision of the guerrillas
to interdict highway traffic is nothing more than a new phase
in the war for control of the region and its accursed wealth,
the coca crop.
The paramilitary forces have set an objective for themselves:
to succeed where the army has failed, i.e., to finish off the
guerrillas. In 1997, the AUC decided to "liberate the south,"
beginning with Puerto Asis, a major hub for drug trafficking.
For the FARC, the paramilitary forces are merely an appendage
of the regular army, "the new face of state terrorism directed
against the peasant masses."
Small strips of Amazon forest and charred tree trunks stand
as a reminder that Puerto Asis was only recently cleared for cultivation.
In the 1960s, oil wells (now practically depleted) attracted the
first settlers. The building of the pipeline opened the way for
farming. Since the late 1980s, the successes in eradicating crops
in Peru and Bolivia, the dismantling of the major Colombian drug
cartels, and the guerrillas' weapons have contributed to rapid
growth of coca cultivation. The large landowners have practically
disappeared, replaced by small farmers under guerrilla control.
Enthroned on his plastic chair alongside a deserted road with
his AK-47 on his knees, commander Felix is categorical: 'The people
under the FARC...know that everything that happens here is the
fault of the government."
At Puerto Asis, food is in short supply. Under pressure from
local officials, the government finally set up an airlift and
organized the movement of trucks under military escort. Officials
in Bogota assert that 1,4()0 tons of food have been routed there.
But this is a pittance. "The solution to the tragic situation
we are experiencing in Putumayo does not depend on us," explains
the mayor of Puerto Asis. "The guerrillas demand that measures
be taken against the paramilitary groups. Therefore, it is up
to the government and the guerrilla leaders to reach a settlement
on this point."
After being engaged in a difficult peace process for nearly
two years, the delegates of the government and FARC finally put
Putumayo on the agenda for negotiations. On Nov. 14, 2000, the
guerrillas' announcement of a unilateral suspension of negotiations
had a chilling effect: The war in Putumayo is now set to last
a long time. [In February 2001, peace talks resumed.-WPR]
It is an odd sort of war, where the combatants spend more
time evading one another than fighting. If the army arrives in
force (it is said to have 3,000 men in Putumayo), the guerrillas
immediately move out, only to reoccupy the territory once the
soldiers have their backs turned. The paramilitary militias hardly
dare to venture into the countryside held by the guerrillas. While
more intense than in the rest of the country, the confrontations
between the FARC and the AUC remain sporadic. On the road, there
are alternately soldiers, guerrillas, and paramilitary forces,
sometimes one or two miles away from one another. It is indeed
a strange sort of war, where the combatants resemble one another.
Look beyond their military fatigues, and their faces all tell
the same story of poverty. Only the boots allow an untrained eye
to distinguish a government soldier, wearing laced leather boots,
from a guerrilla, wearing rubber boots.
It is an ugly war, with civilians caught in the middle. The
paramilitary's initial strategy was to exert pressure on the population
by massacring people suspected of being in league with the guerrillas.
"In 1997, there were 60 or 80 murders a month," confirmed
the director of the hospital.
Crimes of passion or killings to settle scores are commonplace.
However, most of the murders are the doing of armed groups who,
in an unending spiral, are attempting to eliminate the sympathizers
of the enemy camp or drive them out of the region. People live
in fear of summary executions and so-called reprisals.
One of the parishioners confirms that "the paracos (
paramilitaries) would have never been able to clean La Hormiga
without the complicity of the military; but it must be recognized
that, despite the atrocities committed, they have managed to gain
the population's esteem." An official from the mayor's office
explains that "in Putumayo...the state is absent for all
practical purposes. When the guerrillas had the monopoly over
armed force, they were tolerated and even respected....But the
guerrillas have become arrogant and increasingly rapacious, so
people got sick of them."
Now the paramilitaries, seeking to win people over, have opted
for a policy of reducing taxes. While the guerrillas collect a
tax of 300,0()() pesos (US $134) per kilo of base paste (sold
for about $1,070), the self-defense forces only ask for a third
of that. Taxes on land and commercial activities are likewise
intended to be competitive. Carlos Castano, the head of the paramilitary
militia, is said to have forbidden massacres from lists of targets.
Instead there are selective executions and expulsions.
"El Galivan" (The Hawk), age 32, is now the urban
commander of La Hormiga. He claims to have 600 men (official estimates
cut that figure in half). The resources from taxes on coca make
it possible to pay each member of the AUC a bonus of 700,001)
pesos per month (US $313), almost three times the Colombian minimum
wage. The majority of the AUC troops are small landowners, former
mafia militiamen, retired soldiers, and former guerrillas. "After
killing my father, the FARC told us to abandon our land. My brothers
and I have joined the AUC to get rid of those vermin," Javier,
While "El Galivan" is holding a meeting in a cafeteria
in the center of town, three soldiers pass by, but he hardly pays
them notice. "Our relations with the army," he says,
pose no problem, as long as we let the military do their job,
and they let us do ours. If the army moves in, we retreat."
Colonel Diaz, commander of the 24th brigade of the Colombian army,
categorically denies this. He takes out a large folder of documents
intended to prove that members of paramilitary groups have actually
been killed in the course of fighting or have been turned over
to the justice system by the army.
On the ground, Plan Colombia has at least gotten everyone
to agree on one point. While the environmental and health impact
of the aerial spraying operations is still difficult to assess,
nobody questions the social toll. Officially the AUC supports
Plan Colombia but, in an aside, one commander in fatigues thunders:
"If I were the boss, I can tell you that I would not tolerate
it. How can we let the gringos spray the coca crops and reduce
our peasants to misery?" On the ground, even the soldiers
doubt the effectiveness of the plan. "It is useless to spray
the crops; the peasants will just go somewhere else," muses
Sergeant Vicente, who has served 11 years. He says he is sick
of "this war in which my countrymen are killing one another."
The mayor of Puerto Asis does not share this assessment. "The
peasants are sick and tired of growing coca, because it has brought
only poverty and violence. They are ready to participate in a
program to... eradicate the plants and to grow substitute crops.
But this presupposes a...commitment by the state, which must build
roads and ensure that the alternative crops can be sold,"
he asserts in a tone that is as categorical as it is disillusioned.