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Colombia: the power struggle in Tumaco and Alto Mira

If the government fails to defend the farmers who have accepted the voluntary substitution of their coca crops, it will never win the support of the population for the Peace Agreement. Español

The bodies of some of the dead in the confusing event at Alto Mira were evacuated to La Playa, an hour by boat from where the event occurred. None of the dead or injured had wounds from shrapnel or explosion. Photo: Lorenzo Morales. This article has been published as part of the partnership between 070 and democraciaAbierta. You can read the original article here.

The killing of six farmers who were protesting against the process of forced coca crop eradication promoted by the government in Tumaco, in the Alto Mira area, attests to one of the most complex scenarios Colombia faces after the signing of the Peace Agreement with the FARC.

In this area, which has the highest concentration of coca crops in the country, a power struggle is under way between the Colombian government, the communities that grow coca out of necessity and the drug traffickers and their armed branches who take advantage of this for business reasons. If the government loses in Alto Mira and fails to consolidate the voluntary substitution plans set forth in the Peace Agreement and to protect the communities that have initially welcomed them, it will face an erosion of confidence in the Agreement in the other coca growing areas.

See: Six dead and dozens wounded in the area of eradication of crops

Warning signs of a likely armed clash in Tumaco had been on for at least two weeks. From September 25, 16 African descendant leaders of the Alto Mira and Border Community Council who had accepted the government plan for voluntary eradication under the promise of effective crop substitution received death threats and had to move out of the area. They are currently far away under State protection. But moving them out of the area means that the Government has lost its main allies for a much needed show of positive results in its crop substitution initiative. This is, by the same token, a victory for the drug traffickers who are intimidating and putting pressure on farmers to prevent the government’s success.

The threats were made by "Cachi", the leader of one of the armed groups that came into the area after the FARC’s withdrawal and are operating at the service of drug trafficking interests. According to different sources, on September 17 "Cachi" convened a meeting with the communities which had "signed the eradication agreement with the government" (eradication is a public policy included in the Peace Agreement and not decided by the communities) to talk about what he called a "work plan", and told them that they had to participate in a mobilization against the eradication plans. Each community had to contribute at least 30 people, he said. Almost all of the 42 African descendant communities from the Community Council refused. "Cachi" then threatened to kill two people in each community. His aim, as he himself explained, is to negotiate a two-year moratorium on crop eradication with the government.

Since then, the communities have been living under a curfew from 6 o'clock in the afternoon. According to residents, most of those who have taken part in the protests have been forced or intimidated to do so.

 See: Testimonies of survivors of the unclear armed attack against farmers

The Alto Mira is currently one of the hottest conflict areas in Colombia. After the demobilization of the FARC, the ensuing power vacuum there was quickly filled by armed groups at the drug traffickers’ service. Apart from “Cachi’s”, groups operating there include the one led by "Guacho", who is, according to Colombian authorities, the leader of the FARC dissidents who do not accept the Peace Agreement. The Alto Mira is one of the largest coca crop areas in the municipality of Tumaco, which accounts for almost half of the reported crops in the Department of Nariño. Tumaco is the municipality with most coca crops in Colombia.

The Mira river’s course, which is today one of the main corridors for drug trafficking, is a strategic one, for it crosses much of the coca-growing areas in the country. It connects Ecuador with Colombia and flows into the Pacific Ocean, facilitating the transportation of coca paste. According to villagers, after the guerrillas confined themselves to the transitional areas, they enjoyed some relative peace for about six months, which raised hopes that a lasting peace would finally be possible in the area. But taking advantage of the absence of the State, the new armed groups got in and started operating in the area. And the police has been quite unable to contain them.

Some relatives who came to La Playa to get news of its people also needed medical attention for the emotional blow of what was happening. The spouse of this woman died in the attack. Photo: Lorenzo Morales.

A community split in two

The Alto Mira communities are caught at a crossroads of interests. On the one hand, there are the ancestral inhabitants of these lands, African descendants who have collective property titles recognised by the Alto Mira and Border Community Council. On the other hand, there are the Awá natives, who live in the upper part of the river, who possess registered land rights too. And then, since the decade of the 2000s, some of these ancestral territories came to be occupied by a wave of settlers coming from other areas in the country – from Caquetá, Putumayo and Meta. Many of these new settlers were driven and supported by the FARC which, at the time, controlled the area and regulated the coca business.  Almost all of them were fleeing the army offensive and the spraying of the crops under the Colombia Plan in their home departments. Most of them settled in the Community Council’s territory and organized under the Asomiluma association.

Today, some of these settlers have larger farms than those owned by the African descendants, some of them exceeding 50 hectares, all dedicated to growing coca. The government considers them industrial fields. The presence of these settlers has generated conflicts related to land tenure and to the decisions taken by the leaders of these communities. African descendant communities claim that the settlers’ Communal Action Juntas within their territory are illegal, but since 2009 many of them have been legally endorsed by the government of the Nariño Department.

The division between the settlers and the traditional communities practically coincides with the split on the issue of the coca crops. While the majority of the African descendant communities have accepted the government’s crop substitution plans, the majority of settlers - almost all of them grouped in Asomiluma - are opposed to them. In this context, the interests of the traffickers, which are threatened by the voluntary or forced eradication, are aligned with those of the settlers, who are not themselves necessarily part of any armed group.

Maximum tension

Tensions between the communities started with the arrival of police to enforce the presidential mandate and carry out the eradication of the crops. Last April, eleven counter-narcotics policemen were held for 36 hours by a group opposing eradication in La Espriella sector, at the border with Ecuador. According to several sources, the police officers came close to being killed, but were spared by the intercession of some community members. Those who had detained them kept their guns, though: eight rifles and six handguns. This event is an important precedent which may explain the tension the anti-narcotics police felt when the killing of the six farmers happened.

The climate of intimidation and anxiety, however, has been going on for a while. According to testimonies collected by several organizations, since 1998, seven leaders have been killed and, so far this year, so have about 20 people from the Community Council. One of the most notorious cases was the murder of Genaro García, who was then the legal representative of the Community Council of Alto Mira and Border, who got killed by the FARC’s Daniel Aldana Column on  August 3, 2015, a crime the FARC recognized in Havana.

Playa, on the Mira river, is a few kilometers away of the area of Veredal Ariel Aldana, where former Farc guerrillas are still concentrated. Some came to accompany the procession that took out the dead to via Panamericana.

The urgency of the Government

Coca crops have been expanding in Colombia since before the Peace Agreement with the FARC was signed. According to monitoring by the United States and international agencies, coca crops have increased dramatically since 2013 and reached a peak last year: from about 80.000 hectares to 188.000 in 2016, an all-time high. On September 13 this year, President Trump threatened to “decertify" Colombia – which means blocking aid by the US government - because he considers that the country does not cooperate enough in the war against drugs.

Because of the US threat, the Colombian government is hard pressed to show results and has intensified the forced eradication operations. The military action under way has already affected the drug business. In the streets of Tumaco, where the output of coca paste is being controlled, they say that the prices have dropped. This has entailed a realignment of the armed groups, which accounts for the growing wave of murders of young people in city neighbourhoods such as Viento Libre and Panamá.

Among the victims there were at least two indigenous Awa community members, who live in the area of shelter in Alto Mira and coexist with colonists and afro communities.

A likely scenario

Although it is up to the prosecutors, counting on the survivors’ testimony and the images that could be taken during the event, to determine where the bullets that killed the six farmers came from, a glimpse of what happened is already filtering through. Forced eradication involves the army, which creates a security perimeter; the Esmad (antiriot units), which contains and removes those who stand in the way; and the anti-narcotics police, which does the actual pulling out of the plants. According to some versions, it is also likely that the event happened in a mined field.

Residents who were protesting that day – according to some versions, 300 of them, other versions say about one thousand - were very close to the police, some even close enough to talk to them and ask them to retreat. Considering the fact that last April a group of policemen were taken hostage for more than one day and risked their lives, the police knew that they could not allow protesters to approach too closely, let alone give them the possibility of surrounding them. The tension among the police officers ran very high. Any false step could have unleashed their reaction. Perhaps this is what happened.

Given that the police and the army were not in the same position, any shot (fired by the police officers facing the protesters, for example) or any explosion (of a mine, for example) could have triggered a crossfire which would have caught civilians in the middle. Ballistics analyses will determine which guns fired the bullets that killed the six farmers in Tumaco.

About the author

Lorenzo Morales es un periodista colombiano. Fue editor de Semana.com y reportero político en El Diario-La Prensa en Nueva York, donde cubrió temas judiciales y de inmigración. Fue becario del Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting y recibió el premio Nacional de Periodismo Simón Bolívar a mejor reportaje radial. Sus historias han sido publicadas en Semana, Arcadia, Número, BBC Mundo, Americas Quarterly y Time.com.  

Lorenzo Morales is a Colombian journalist. He was editor of Semana.com and political reporter at El Diario-La Prensa in New York where he covered judicial and immigration issues. He was a Fellow of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and received the Simón Bolívar National Journalism Award for Best Radio Report. His articles have been published in Week, Arcadia, Number, BBC Mundo, Americas Quarterly and Time.com.

 


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