|Realizing that darkness was quickly approaching, the naval sergeant frantically pulled out his yellow lighter and tried to get a flame going. But it did not light, so he turned to his fellow soldier for help. "Do you have any matches?" he asked.||
The soldier shook his head.
"What about you?" he said, turning to the informant who had led them to this point. But he did not have any, either.
Desperate, the sergeant turned to me. "Sorry," I responded.
"Ah, forget it," he said, throwing the lighter to the ground and walking away.
The drums the sergeant so badly wanted to torch were part of a cocaine-processing laboratory in the middle of the jungle in the forgotten southern Colombian province of Putumayo. Lying along the Colombian-Ecuadoran border, just north of the Amazon basin, Putumayo is home to 330,000 people, most of them small farmers who colonized the area after fleeing violence or economic despair in other parts of the country. Farmers--from small individual farms and large plantations--grow coca, the raw material for cocaine, in huge quantities here. Some estimate that Putumayo, which is about the size of New Hampshire, has 120,000 acres of the cash crop, about half of Colombia's coca fields.
Alongside the coca fields are wooden shacks that serve as rudimentary laboratories where the farmers use gasoline, bleach, sulfuric acid, and ammonia to process the leaf into a paste. The farmers then sell the paste to middlemen who bring it to a more sophisticated laboratory deeper in the jungle, where it is processed again into the white powder that is shipped abroad to places like the United States and Europe.
For the Colombian government as well as for the United States--with its interest in promoting Latin-American stability and in taking the war on drugs to the source--Putumayo is a military and political nightmare. Some of the fields and laboratories are protected by the estimated 1,500 left-wing guerrillas from the country's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which operates in the region; others are guarded by some of the 500 right-wing paramilitaries who are also in the area. The two forces tax the coca growers and drug traffickers to finance their war against one another. Authorities say that the FARC--which has between 15,000 and 20,000 troops nationwide--makes upwards of $500 million per year in the coca-growing areas across the country. U.S. drug officials say that the paramilitaries, who often work in unofficial connection with the Colombian military and police, make over $200 million per year drug trafficking.
Concerned about burgeoning coca production and rebel involvement in the trade, the U.S. Senate passed a $1 billion aid package for Colombia in late June, twice what the U.S. gave Colombia in 1999. Three months earlier, the House passed a slightly more costly version of that bill that includes money for 30 Blackhawk and 33 Huey helicopters, intelligence equipment, and the training of two special Colombian antinarcotics battalions for what the State Department calls the "push into southern Colombia." As this story goes to press at the beginning of July, the House and Senate are reconciling the two versions before sending the bill to President Clinton for his signature.
In the debates leading up to the Senate bill's passage, some members criticized the aid package, saying that it would pull the United States deeper into the Latin American country's 36-year-old civil war. Others said there should be strict human rights conditions tied to the aid, due to the continuing allegations of connections between the right-wing paramilitaries and the Colombian armed forces. But the bill's proponents argued successfully that while the package may have its flaws, it is necessary to help beleaguered Colombian President Andres Pastrana, who is carrying out a wobbly peace process with the FARC.
Indeed, according to the U.S. government, the FARC is the last remaining obstacle to a more stable Latin America. Dictatorships and leftist guerrillas have dissolved into political parties in the rest of the region, and for the most part, Latin-American governments have accepted the U.S. plan to implement free trade policies throughout the hemisphere.
But the FARC--along with Colombia's smaller rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN)--has rejected the prevailing model, and both groups have grown into more powerful adversaries. While the FARC's Marxist platform of agrarian reform and social and economic equality has rallied few political supporters beyond the small farmers they protect in the areas under their control, the guerrilla group has quadrupled in size since the early 1980s and seems to be gaining political momentum by concentrating on winning the war. The FARC and the ELN regularly attack police stations, energy infrastructure, and military installations in at least half of the country's 32 departments.
Colombia's guerrilla groups are doing more than defending the old Marxist order; they represent a new, more formidable insurgency. Both the FARC and the ELN use taxes from the drug trade and ransom money from an estimated 6,000 kidnappings per year to remain financially independent and recruit a staggering number of soldiers from among those left unemployed or disillusioned by the lagging Colombian economy.
The FARC's military power compelled the Colombian government to cede a 16,000-square-mile area to the rebels as a condition for starting the peace process last year. It is one of the few places in Colombia where fighting is not taking place.
Negotiations have stalled on several occasions, and the brazen attitude of the FARC leadership--in April the group announced "law 002," which calls for all individuals and businessmen with more than $1 million in assets to pay the rebels a "peace tax" or risk being kidnapped--has led many to question the guerrillas' intentions. If the United States is to incorporate Colombia into the region's political and economic structure, the rebels will have to be dragged to the negotiating table. Proponents of the Clinton aid package say that doing this will require eliminating the guerrillas' key source of income: drugs.
"It's no secret that the FARC and the ELN derive money from either protection or taxing, if not actual participation in narcotics operations," Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering said while visiting Colombia last year. "And our common effort to get at narcotics activities should have at some point some influence on the negotiating process."
U.S. aid would form part of President Pastrana's $7.5 billion Plan Colombia. Designed to fight drugs and shore up the country's economy, the three-year plan has made the province of Putumayo its first target. The helicopters, intelligence equipment, and troops would be part of Colombia's 15,000-strong Joint Southern Task Force. Made up of Colombian police, army, and navy personnel, the task force will try not only to retake Putumayo from the guerrillas and drug traffickers that dominate the area, but also to fumigate and destroy the large coca fields in the province.
This will not be easy. There is only one major road through Putumayo, much of it unpaved and impassable during the rainy season. The helicopters the Colombian government is expecting from the United States also have limited troop capacity, making transportation a serious military obstacle. In addition, the ambitious Plan Colombia draws an unprecedented number of troops to one region, leaving other areas of the country vulnerable.
None of this seems to matter in Washington, where the debate centers more on whether the aid should go toward the military or to the police, when neither force has shown it can consistently defeat the rebels on the battlefield or that it will have any real long-term impact on drug production. As Peru's and Bolivia's coca production dropped by 66 percent and 55 percent respectively during the past four years, Colombia's coca production has more than doubled. According to recent Central Intelligence Agency figures, Colombian cocaine production has increased from 51,000 hectares (126,000 acres) to 123,000 hectares (304,000 acres). And there is little evidence to show that if the Colombian government succeeds in ridding the region of coca, production will not emerge in another part of the country or return to Colombia's Andean neighbors.
A Navy Raid
But for now, the navy is focusing on Putumayo, operating out of the province's principal naval base in the town of Puerto Leguízamo along the Peruvian border; there, it is tasked with controlling the Putumayo River and its tributaries,1,500 miles of water that the rebels use to mobilize their troops and the traffickers use to export their product. The navy also occasionally enters the jungle looking for the processing labs and coca fields, but normally does not venture far into rebelcontrolled territory. The military even withdrew a naval base from the town of Puerto Espina, 70 miles up river from Puerto Leguízamo, because of the FARC threat.
"They might attack us," said Colonel Diego Patrón, the commander of the Advanced Navy Base 91, 20 miles from Puerto Leguízamo. "They might even try and hit Leguízamo."
Patrón's fear is well-grounded. In mid-December, the FARC killed at least 25 navy soldiers and overran a base in the town of Juradó, near the Panamanian border. As we traveled warily up the Putumayo River on the 150-foot naval gunship to decommission some coca labs, several of the 72 troops on board made reference to the Juradó attack. Despite the boat's formidable armory--two high-powered cannons, a grenade launcher, and three heavy machine guns--the soldiers were still anxious. "No one really wants to go to combat," one soldier told me. "It's a job. We just do this because we're fulfilling our military service."
After lunching on bread and Kool-Aid, the troops followed German Arenas, a powerfully built, U.S.-trained lieutenant, across a deforested plain, where they found three vast coca fields just a mile from the riverbank. With a Sony minicam in one hand and an M-16 in the other, Arenas led the unit to three abandoned laboratories, one of which had a makeshift kitchen with freshly cooked rice and soup on the stove. Along the way, the troops passed a laboratory they had burned just a few weeks before this mission. They also found a greenhouse hidden in the thick jungle that Arenas said contained 10,000 Peruvian coca plants.
The navy's arrival at the greenhouse surprised two men and a small family. Arenas said the men were migrant laborers known as raspachines, for the act of raspando, or picking the coca leaf. Colombian authorities say there are between 30,000 and 40,000 raspachines in Putumayo. Most are men between the ages of 25 and 35, and many have come from coffee- and cotton-growing regions, where work is scarce following the dip in production in both sectors. As Colombia suffers through its worst economic recession in a century, official unemployment figures show that 20 percent of the urban population is without work. Unemployment is even higher in rural areas. Coca-picking is an attractive alternative to unemployment.
Many of these migrant workers will be left without a job once the police start to fumigate the large coca fields in Putumayo, making the workers ripe for guerrilla recruitment efforts. But the government says it is going to try to incorporate the raspachines into the legal economy by involving them in public-works projects like reforestation and road-building.
"The idea is that the plan offers them an alternative," said Fernando Medellín, the head of the government's National Solidarity Network--the organization coordinating the social part of the Putumayo strategy--told me in his office in Bogotá. "An alternative that gives them better social conditions--for example, in health coverage--while doing similar things in other parts of the country."
Medellín says that the government's bold plan for Putumayo calls on it to combine these types of economic programs with the military offensive in the region. According to Colombian officials, Putumayo's raspachines and small farmers will benefit from $70 million during the first two years of Plan Colombia for projects that include substituting their coca crops for legal products that they can sell on the open market. The government even says it has a no-fumigation zone in Putumayo, and that it will try to wean the small farmers away from coca over time rather than turning them against the government by destroying their livelihood like former administrations have.
Corn for Coca?
The no-fumigation stipulation is an important one: While most of Putumayo's coca production comes from large fields, the majority of small farmers also cultivate the crop alongside their legal crops such as plantains, rice, and corn, and even cattle. Thus the herbicides the police airplanes spray on the coca will frequently kill the legal crops as well. In 1996 small farmers, organized in part by the FARC, marched on several cities in the southern part of the country, demanding that the government stop fumigation. Several violent clashes between the farmers and the military ensued before the sides agreed on a settlement. But when the government continued to fumigate the areas, many small farmers and raspachines joined the guerrillas.
Despite Medellín's promise that there will be a no-fumigation zone, the specter of police planes spraying the fields of Putumayo remains one of the principal mobilizing forces in the province. In the municipality of Puerto Asis, local government officials, the church, and nongovernmental organizations are scrambling to get the small farmers to voluntarily eradicate the coca before the airplanes unleash the herbicides.
In Puerto Asis, one plan organized by a local farmers' union calls for 10 families per village to eradicate one acre of coca per family during the first year, effectively killing off 2,000 to 4,000 acres of the crop. In their place, the farmers will use government subsidies to raise cattle and grow Amazon fruits, rice, yucca, and plantains. The next year, 10 more families will cut out coca, and during the third year, the rest of the families will manually eradicate what remains of the 15,000 acres of the crop in the municipality.
But local farmers are skeptical. Despite having direct contact with the government's National Solidarity Network, Eder Sánchez, who is heading up the effort for Putumayo's most powerful farmers' union, says he has not received any funds for his project and the families are losing faith in the plan.
José Aldemar Pedrero lost faith a long time ago. He lives with his wife and four children on a 130-acre farm just outside Puerto Asis in a settlement known by the name of the dried-up oil field next to it, Quililí-1. At the government's behest, Pedrero replaced his 12 acres of coca with palm trees in 1997. In return the government said it would build a processing plant to bottle the hearts of the palm trees Pedrero and 120 other families grew so they could sell them in the United States and Europe.
But the government agency handling the crop substitution, the National Plan for Alternative Development (PLANTE), underestimated the costs of the processing plant. The structure has been built, but it is empty except for a few pieces of greased machinery and two full-time guards. "The government conned us," Pedrero told me while hacking apart a palm tree on his farm. "Now we feel totally disillusioned." PLANTE officials say they will finish the factory by July of this year. But the problem, a PLANTE administrator told me, was not obtaining the $140,000 the government needed to complete the project, but getting a company to build the factory in Putumayo, where violent clashes between left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries make the environment dangerous.
Janette Landínez is also afraid for her safety. In defiance of the FARC's order not to work with government officials, Landínez, who heads a farmers' cooperative in the guerrilla-controlled town of Pi"una Negro, took a four-hour boat ride to Puerto Asis to meet with the local PLANTE office. With her four-year-old son by her side, Landínez explained to the PLANTE worker that she needs $125,000 in feeder money to help the 75 families she represents start a cattle-ranching business. Cattle, Landínez argues, is the only profitable substitute for coca, and only the government has the capital to start the type of cattle coop Landínez is planning for her organization.
Landínez says it costs about $300 to grow and process a kilo of coca paste, which she can then sell for the fixed price (set by the FARC) of $800. But she says the rebels take a $400 tax, leaving her with just a $100 profit. She has tried substituting corn for coca, but it did not work. According to a study by local agronomists, corn yields about $75 per kilo. Landínez said it only yielded losses. "It wasn't even worth what it costs to transport it," she explained.
Landínez risked her life to go to the PLANTE office. The FARC, she says, is against the plans to eradicate coca and seeks reprisals against those who request government assistance. According to Landínez, they are also forcibly recruiting minors to help combat the government's coming military offensive. "They came after my other, 11-year-old son," she says, tears welling in her eyes. "I had to get him out of there."
The Colombian military has two army battalions in Putumayo, but the paramilitaries are the only group that really challenges the guerrillas' dominance in the province. They arrived in 1996, following the marches against the government's fumigation efforts. With support from the army and police, they have since established firm bases of support in various urban centers. The right-wing groups' headquarters is Puerto Asis, where they carry out their dirty war against suspected FARC supporters with relative impunity. The district attorney of the town, German Martínez, said the right-wing groups operated with the tacit consent of the police and the military. Martínez catalogued 153 homicides last year, most of them at the hands of the paramilitaries, as well as dozens of cases of people being "disappeared."
But just a few miles outside of Puerto Asis, the FARC seems to act with the same level of impunity. Father Luis Alfonso Gómez corroborated Landínez's story that the guerrillas were forcibly recruiting youths, especially in the areas where the paramilitaries were most active. Gómez also said that he had arrived to find entire villages missing. When he asked about them, he was told the people were doing a week of training with the FARC.
FARC commanders negotiating with the government deny that they forcibly recruit anyone, and told me that the rebels' policy is to employ youths who are 15 years or older. "The people [of Putumayo] are preparing for the war," said Gabriel Angel (not his real name), a member of the guerrillas' negotiating team. "We're simply arming the people." FARC leaders said they consider Plan Colombia a battle plan rather than a social plan, and added that U.S. aid could present an obstacle in the negotiations they are holding with the government.
There are reports that the guerrillas have obtained high-tech weapons, like heat-seeking missiles lethal enough to destroy the Blackhawk helicopters the United States may send to Colombia for the war effort. FARC leaders would not confirm these reports but did express their resolve to engage Colombian troops in Putumayo. "We're expecting a bloody war," Simon Trinidad (not his real name) of the FARC's negotiating team told me, "and we're going to defend ourselves with rocks, sticks, and whatever else we find."
Barry McCaffrey's Morale
To defeat the FARC in Putumayo, the Colombian and U.S. governments have placed their hopes on three special antinarcotics battalions. Members of a 250-person team of U.S. advisers in Colombia trained the first 900-man battalion last year; the team is waiting for Congress to approve the new funds so it can train two more this year. The first new unit is being housed at the Tres Esquinas military base in the province of Caquetá, along the Putumayo border, where Colombian military officials hosted U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey during an official visit in February.
"Your dedication, your courage, your respect for human rights will allow the police to reassert the rule of law in southern Colombia," McCaffrey told the 50 cadets on the muddy, open training field following a 10-minute demonstration of the battalion's firepower, complete with mood music, helicopters, gunships, and another 50 soldiers firing live ammunition at paper targets in the distance. The demonstration gave the 900-man battalion an opportunity to show it's ready for this war that McCaffrey half-jokingly said would last another 200 years. "The main purpose I came here for was to raise my morale," McCaffrey said, "to see the Colombian armed forces and the police actually here prepared to confront the drug production problem."
Tres Esquinas is also the headquarters of the government's Joint Southern Task Force. The antinarcotics battalion is the latest addition to the team. The battalion's principal function is to give support to the police so they can decommission the drug-processing laboratories hidden in the dense jungle. The battalion is expected to enter the fray as soon as the United States sends the first round of helicopters to Colombia.
But the FARC's dominance in the area is palpable, and its ability to surprise the army well-documented. The guerrillas have devastated the military on several occasions in recent years in the region, overrunning entire army bases and taking hundreds of soldiers and police hostage. In 1998 the FARC ambushed a 150-man mobile brigade in El Billar, Caquetá, killing over 70 soldiers. Like the special antinarcotics battalions being created today, the brigades were supposed to be an elite counterinsurgency fighting force. But the attack in El Billar crushed the brigades' spirit of invincibility and brought the entire military's morale down with it.
German Arenas seemed to be thinking of these attacks as the sunlight faded and the sound of the bugs around the abandoned coca labs became louder. Our journey into the coca fields along the Putumayo riverbanks would be over as soon as Arenas and his flustered sergeant could find some matches to burn the gasoline drums left overturned in the leaves.
The task of burning abandoned gasoline drums seemed so simple yet so futile, much like the Colombian government's plan in Putumayo. The Colombian military will have a hard time defeating the FARC in the province, especially because the rebels will turn their strategy against them: If the promised aid for Putumayo does not arrive soon, the guerrillas will no longer need to use force in recruiting the small farmers and raspachines.
In fact, many analysts wonder whether the social plan can be implemented at the same time as the military offensive. If local workers start getting killed, the unions and the government workers will almost certainly leave. "How are they going to do these programs if the legitimacy and power of the government doesn't exist?" asks Ricardo Vargas of the drug research foundation Accion Andina. "Who is going to guarantee these people's security?"
Despite these concerns, the Clinton administration argues that burgeoning drug production and lawlessness in Colombia threaten the gains the governments have made in reducing coca production in Peru and Bolivia in recent years. Officials also say that regional stability is at risk, while the guerrillas continue to grow using drug money. The illicit drug industry has become a corrosive force without precedent, relentlessly eroding the foundations of democracy in the region, corrupting public institutions, poisoning youth, ruining economies, and disrupting the social order," said General Charles Wilhelm, commander in chief of the Southern Command. "Colombia is key to the region's stability."
Drug officials say that they aim to reduce coca production by 50 percent in Colombia in the next four years, in line with what Pastrana's Plan Colombia states. But few other benchmarks exist to measure the success of the plan, and lawmakers fear that the vague nature of the aid proposal for Colombia does not warrant U.S. support. Others say the war will only get worse if the United States finances the Colombian military.
"Today's prediction is that by building up the Colombian Army and eradicating more coca, the guerrillas' source of income will dry up, and they will negotiate peace," Senator Patrick Leahy said during a foreign relations subcommittee hearing on the matter. "It is just as likely that it will lead to a wider war, more innocent people killed, more refugees uprooted from their homes, and no appreciable change in the flow of cocaine into the United States."
Even if they succeed in destroying the coca fields and running the guerrillas out of the province, there is little evidence to suggest that the large coca-growers, small farmers, and rebels will not replicate their massive coca operation further into the Colombian jungle. "It's probable that this is going to happen," Medellín of the National Solidarity Network admitted. "It's not that we think this is going to work; it's just that we have new ideas to try and do it better."
By the time the sergeant returned from destroying the useless gasoline drums, Arenas was visibly frustrated by the whole operation. They had succeeded in burning a few abandoned coca labs and had captured four suspected raspachines. But we were also just minutes away from becoming prime targets for a FARC ambush.
"Let's go," Arenas yelled. "We're running really late!" ¤