Colombia's Drug War Attracts Dubious Ally
Policy: Paramilitary force is backing U.S. program to help farmers give up illegal coca crop.
By T. CHRISTIAN MILLER
Times Staff Writer
SIMITI, Colombia -- A fledgling U.S. program to eradicate cocaine in
central Colombia has gained a notorious ally: a right-wing paramilitary
army that the State
Department has labeled a terrorist organization.
The so-called self-defense forces, responsible for the majority of massacres
in Colombia's bloody internal conflict, have thrown their support behind
alternative development program that seeks to persuade farmers to give up their profitable coca crops for legal products such as beans, chocolate and cattle.
The paramilitaries, who fill a power vacuum left by the ineffectual
Colombian army, have sponsored community workshops to educate farmers on
and social destruction wrought by cocaine. They have begun distributing fliers asking farmers to give up their coca crops.
Chillingly, however, they also have warned that those who continue planting
and harvesting coca will no longer be welcome in this region, which is
under their control. Their stated enemy, the nation's leftist guerrillas, control most of southern Colombia, the nation's dominant drug-producing region.
U.S. officials said they have had no direct contact with paramilitary
members, although local community leaders say they passed on news of the
support. And top paramilitary commanders insisted in interviews that theirs is an independent effort to rid the region of cocaine.
Still, their enthusiastic embrace of the program puts the Colombian
and U.S. governments in an awkward position. At best, it offers the promise
communities. At worst, it makes the United States an unintentional partner of terrorists—and complicit in their attempts to become "respectable."
U.S. and alternative development officials acknowledged that they are
concerned about the possibility that paramilitary soldiers might force
out or even kill those
who don't cooperate with the eradication plan but say that they see no way to stop such help.
They said, however, that the militia's cooperation might help the success
of their alternative development program, which has failed to live up to
"We're certainly happy that anybody is saying they support this and
will work toward manual eradication," said one U.S. State Department official.
"It remains to be
seen if it will help."
The development especially concerns human rights groups, because the plan's success might turn on paramilitary muscle.
However noble the goal, human rights officials said, the U.S. plan has
the potential to increase the region's instability and provide legitimacy
to a violent private army
seeking to improve its international reputation.
"What this means for Colombia is poison," said Adam Isacson, the Colombia
expert at the Center for International Policy, a left-leaning Washington
think tank. "The
Colombian government is supposed to be making sure [alternative development] happens, not a bunch of men with guns who follow their own law."
It also remains to be seen how committed the paramilitary forces will be to the strategy.
The paramilitaries maintain that their main goal is to combat the leftist guerrillas who have waged war against the Colombian government for 40 years.
Leaders Split on Drugs
Paramilitary leaders have long admitted that they rely on profits from drugs to support the estimated 11,000 paramilitary soldiers fighting throughout Colombia.
But recently, the paramilitaries have split over the issue. Their former
leader, Carlos Castaño, dissolved the umbrella group coordinating
military operations, saying
too many fronts were too deeply involved in drug trafficking. Now the paramilitaries have broken up into a series of private armies.
The second largest of those armies, known as the Central Bolivar Bloc,
has said it will continue to rely heavily on drugs to finance operations
in some areas of
southern Colombia under its control. But in several interviews, leaders of the bloc argued that it makes sense to give up coca, at least in the central Colombian
region known as Sur de Bolivar.
First, it's a military strategy. Ridding the region of cocaine makes
it a less attractive target for leftist rebel groups, who also exploit
the profits from drugs to finance
Second, most of the paramilitary fighters are from the region. Getting rid of coca for legal crops improves their own community.
Finally, the plan also seems part of a series of recent moves made by
the paramilitaries to improve their image. It makes them allies not only
in Colombia's war
against the guerrillas, but in the United States' war against drugs.
The paramilitaries have taken other steps, including giving up headline-grabbing
massacres and focusing instead on less noticeable selective killings. In
the end, such
measures could help them win a seat at peace negotiations and possibly amnesty for their acts.
Here in the Sur de Bolivar region, bloc commanders said they hope to rid the area of drugs and guerrillas in two years.
But, they warned, the plan will only work with the help of the U.S. government.
"The support of the national government, the private sector and decisive
international cooperation headed by the United States is fundamental,"
Ernesto Baez, the
political commander of the Central Bolivar Bloc, said in an e-mail interview conducted with the help of armed paramilitary fighters at a base just outside this colonial
Sur de Bolivar is a crossroads of violence, drugs and danger.
The region runs along the Magdalena River, Colombia's version of the
Mississippi. The river is a crucial transport corridor for nearly everything
made in Colombia,
from petroleum to African palm oil to cocaine.
The wide, dark river threads through jewel green lowlands. Dirt-poor
towns made of wood shacks cling to its banks. Banana plantations and dense
jungle line the
long unpopulated gaps in between. To the west, the San Lucas Mountains poke up like the edge of a rusty saw blade.
The region was long under the control of the country's smaller leftist
guerrilla army, the National Liberation Army. But two years ago, the government
handing over part of Sur de Bolivar to the guerrillas as a demilitarized zone for peace talks. Locals rebelled, blocking roads and marching in the streets.
They found ready help from the paramilitaries, who moved in and within a matter of months had cleared the guerrillas from much of Sur de Bolivar.
"They control everything here," said Jorge Enrique Gomez, the regional
representative for the government's human rights office. "We're not talking
paramilitaries. We're talking about a para-state."
The Rise of Coca
As the paramilitaries consolidated control over the region by the early
part of last year, they also took control of its drug trafficking. Sur
de Bolivar accounts for
almost 10% of the coca crops in Colombia, which in turn produce 90% of the cocaine consumed in the United States. The bright green bushes dot the hillsides
throughout the fertile region, although fumigation efforts last year severely cut into the crops.
Coca, which arrived in force in the mid-1980s, made some people in Sur
de Bolivar rich. But it also brought thousands of transient workers, guerrilla
aerial fumigation that killed legitimate crops.
In a matter of a decade, the once productive cattle and agriculture zone had become a killing field.
"More than 10 years of the production and exploitation of coca in Sur
de Bolivar has only left us with poverty, violence, prostitution, alcoholism,
isolation," Baez said. "The narco-economy completely distorts the ideals of progress and development."
Beginning in January, the paramilitaries began holding meetings with
local mayors, community leaders and dirt farmers to discuss their plans
to rid the region of
They helped local nonprofit groups organize a signature drive in which
they successfully won a promise from the Colombian national government
suspend U.S.-backed aerial drug spraying in Sur de Bolivar to give their plans time to work.
They also made clear that those who continued to plant coca would face the wrath of the community—and the paramilitaries.
The local paramilitary commander in Sur de Bolivar, known as Comandante Gustavo, said in an interview that there would be no forced displacements of people.
Instead, he predicted that transient laborers who work as coca pickers—an
estimated 4,000 people—would simply pick up and leave. The rest, he said,
bend to community pressure.
He didn't spell out what would happen in case of resistance, but those who have defied paramilitary demands in the past have often been killed.
"We realize that not all coca growers are going to want to give up what
they're doing," said Gustavo, noting that a farmer with 50 acres can make
about $40,000 a
year on coca, an astronomical sum in the area.
"If they don't, we'll have a little meeting with them," he said. "We, and the local farmers, will apply pressure."
It is unclear how many farmers actually would hesitate to give up their
coca. In numerous interviews throughout the region, no one expressed reluctance
to give up
"We don't like seeing our children and our brothers and sisters working
with coca," said Hernando Ospina, a 52-year-old coca farmer who heads a
group of about
100 families seeking to replace their coca plants with cattle. "We want to do things legally."
Alternative development programs have largely failed in southern Colombia,
where leftist rebels have refused to cooperate and local farmers have been
exchange their coca crops for less profitable legal ones. The rebels could also prove a danger in Sur de Bolivar if they manage to get a foothold and insist that coca
continue to be planted.
Nonetheless, the U.S. Agency for International Development told the
Pan American Development Foundation, a nonprofit group tied to the Organization
American States, in early June that it would be interested in trying alternative crops in the northern part of Antioquia state and in Sur de Bolivar—both paramilitary
It would be the first major push into the region by the United States.
The European Union has been active there for some time and has pledged
to provide $20
million to make the zone a "laboratory of peace."
In July, the foundation met with leaders from Asocipaz, a nonprofit
group in the region that has long been accused of being a paramilitary
front, who told the
foundation that the paramilitaries would support alternative development.
Also in July, U.S. Ambassador Anne W. Patterson visited Sur de Bolivar to review an ongoing program funded by the Colombian government.
Community leaders there told a member of her delegation that the paramilitaries
would support alternative development projects, according to a local mayor
at the discussions.
Both the foundation and U.S. State Department officials denied that the paramilitary offer of support affected their decision to launch the new program in the zone.
Beto Brunn, the foundation's country director for Colombia, said other
factors influenced the decision. "We chose this area because the FARC did
not have a big
presence," Brunn said, referring to the country's largest leftist rebel army. "We picked an area where there was a lot of coca."
The $4-million project will begin later this month with the paving of
roads in the hills around this town perched above a broad estuary just
off the Magdalena River.
The aim is to take out nearly 5,000 acres of coca in 18 months.
Weighing the Risks
Brunn said he was uncertain about how to deal with the paramilitaries' offer of cooperation. But he said he was worried about the dangers it might bring.
"Hopefully, nobody will get killed for not eradicating coca," he said. "That would be a disaster."
But those who live and work in the area said it may be difficult to avoid providing legitimacy to the paramilitaries.
Father Francisco de Roux, a Franciscan priest who has long worked in
the area to promote human rights and alternative development, acknowledged
complexity of the problem.
Ignoring the region would mean turning it over forever to control of paramilitaries. But working in it means tolerating the active support of lawless killers, he said.
De Roux said the U.S. must choose its partners carefully. It must work
closely with local community members. And most of all, it must in every
instance try to refuse
the help of the paramilitary forces.
"If the U.S. is not very clear about avoiding deals with the paramilitaries,
it will be complicit with criminals," De Roux said. "It will help destroy
the rule of law in