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Introduction To Putumayo
The U.S.-assisted war in Colombia
Last year the United States Congress and the Clinton administration made Colombia the third largest recipient of U.S. military assistance, approving a $1.3 billion package largely for a bilateral project called Plan Colombia. The focus of this assistance, about 70 percent of which is for military equipment and training, is the department of Putumayo in southwestern Colombia.
Putumayo takes its name from the river that crosses the department from west to east and serves as a natural border between Colombia and Ecuador and Peru. The capital of Putumayo is Mocoa. The department's population was recently reported as 332,434 inhabitants. Most of its territory is located in the rain forest area and it has 3 natural regions: High Putumayo, Middle Putumayo, and Lower Putumayo. Its two main rivers, the Putumayo and the Caqueta, were for many years the main form of transportation. In 1985 Putumayo's indigenous population was calculated at 11,900. The indigenous communities are Ingas, Kofanes, Sionas, Huitotos, Paeces, and Embera-Chami.
The process of colonization in Putumayo goes back to the 16th century. Spanish Conquistadors arrived searching for gold and quinine. Catholic missionaries and encomenderos came to the region and established isolated settlements using the indigenous labor force, particularly the Ingas, who were descendants of the Inca Empire. The Jesuits came in the 19th century and later on, in 1886, the Holy See and the Colombian government assigned Spanish Capuchin monks the task of introducing “Christian civilization” to Putumayo. These monks dictated a set of rules giving themselves the right to distribute lands belonging to indigenous communities, and founded the town of Puerto Asis. These legal mandates came from the Colombian government, which until 1980 had as a goal to dissolve the communitarian life of indigenous groups. These attitudes began to change in 1958 as a result of indigenous struggles in Colombia and with the establishment of new protections in the new Constitution of 1991.
Since the 19th century, according to a 1993 report on the Putumayo published by the Comision Andina de Juristas, there have been six stages of economic development in Putumayo, most of them accompanied by a lot of violence.
1. Rubber Economy: Starting at the end of the 19th century until the 1920s, a process began which incorporated the Amazon region into the world economy. Small settlements of rubber plantations along the river, mainly in the hands of English merchants, characterized this period. The rivers were the main source of transportation, sending raw rubber to the Amazon ports in the Atlantic. In the 1920s the rubber produced in Malaysia became cheaper, and therefore Putumayo's rubber production was abandoned. In the process of development of the rubber plantations, thousands of indigenous died working for the Casa Arana Company, on the border between Colombia and Peru. In a book published in Lima by the Peruvian judge Carlos Valcarcel, he relates that more than 20,000 indigenous were assassinated in the rubber plantations of the Putumayo in a period of 10 years.
2. Frontier economy: In 1933 after a war with Peru in which Colombia defended its right to the Amazon, the Colombian government initiated a migratory process to Putumayo, bringing peasants from neighboring departments of Narino, Cauca, and Huila, with the idea of strengthening the frontier and using its army to defend it. Colombia started towns such as Puerto Leguizamo and built roads to Florencia and Pasto as a demonstration of sovereignty over its territory. People came attracted by gold in the rivers.
3. The economy of the 1950s: The situation of chaos and institutional disorder in the period known as La Violencia (roughly 1946-1957) in the center of the country, when more than 200,000 people were killed, caused violent displacements to remote regions such as Putumayo. The most fertile lands in the country were concentrated in a few hands near the large urban centers and the mistaken belief that the land in the Amazon areas was fertile brought many peasants to this area. But the lack of roads and working capital and the low productivity of the land caused many settlers to become disillusioned.
4. The economy of the 1960s: In the 1960s the development of Putumayo became strongly associated with the oil boom. This brought the construction of roads. Towns started to grow and many fortune seekers arrived looking for land and work. In 1963 oil drilling started and in 1973 Texaco agreed to the reversion of its oil fields to the Colombian government for development by the state-owned oil company, Empresa Colombiana de Petroleos (ECO- PETROL). In this period the population was made up of urban workers in the oil fields and peasants, who populated the valleys of the rivers to plant food crops such as corn, cassava, and plantains. Unfortunately, this dynamic process of colonization was not supported by the state by constructing utility services and farm-to-market roads or by providing security to its citizens.
5. The coca economy: Since the 1970s the illegal cultivation of coca has attracted a great number of people and this economy has brought more money than the oil boom. Even the people who came with the idea of developing agriculture and the indigenous communities were incorporated into this economy, out of need. Legal crops did not receive credit or technical assistance from the Colombian government. The Cali and Medellin cartels profited from the desperation of the peasants by stimulating the cultivation of illegal coca crops. In March 2000 there were more than 120,000 hectares of coca cultivated in Colombia, of which more than 60 percent were in Putumayo, employing 50,000 peasants. According to the report “Los Cultivos Ilicitos” from the Defensoria del Pueblo, one hectare of coca produces 1,250 kilos of coca leaves every 100 days. To produce 1 kilo of coca paste, it is necessary to produce 568 kilos of coca leaves, which means that there are an average of 2.2 kilos of paste per hectare in each one of the 3 harvests in a year. In 1993 a kilo of coca cost in Colombia $600. That same kilo in the United States could be sold for between $10,500 and $40,000. The largest profits are in the international market on the demand side. Plante, the Colombian government crop-substitution office, has calculated that for each 1,000 pesos that a buyer of coca paste pays, the Colombian peasant only receives six pesos. Even so, the profit for the peasant is larger than what the traditional crops produce.
6. The current economy: The current situation in Putumayo reflects a combination of several political, economic, and strategic factors. Putumayo's land and resources are being disputed by the guerrillas, the paramilitaries, and the Colombian government, which through Plan Colombia promotes United States interests such as market penetration for its products and access to raw materials, particularly minerals and the rainforest canopy. The United States government is especially interested in promoting “stability” in South America, wary of the possible consequences of a spread of violence and disorder to the neighboring countries of Venezuela, a top supplier of oil to the U.S., and Brazil, a major trading partner.
Human Rights Violations
The dirty war in the Putumayo started in the 1980s. The increased number of violent deaths is directly associated with the cultivation of coca and the presence of guerrillas. The fact that the Putumayo borders on Peru and Ecuador made it ideal for the trafficking of cocaine, with the increased presence of bodyguards and hit men. The high prices of the coca leaf gave peasants and indigenous large amounts of money, which altered their traditional ways of life and increased the solution of conflicts in a violent way.
Local power was in the hands of politicians from the two political parties, Liberals and Conservatives, who kept up their traditional patronage customs, such as offering public jobs in exchange for votes or for working in their electoral campaigns. In this way, they kept control of the towns' budgets and of local governments. The same happened at the state government level, where even with the high income from the oil revenues, there was no investment in utilities such as electrification, telephones or water purification for the countryside. If roads were built, they were constructed to connect towns where the oil industry was being developed. In 1983, FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) opened its 32nd Front in Putumayo, in order to defend the peasants, indigenous and settlers (particularly small producers of coca leaves) against the abuses of the drug lords. FARC set a tax called gramaje which caused an uproar among large drug dealers, generating both levels of cooperation and confrontation which eventually would evolve to link FARC to the coca business.
In 1986 in the towns of Orito, Puerto Asis and Valle del Guamuez, there were an increased number of violent deaths. Just in Puerto Asis 73 persons died violently, not counting the bodies thrown into garbage dumps or into the rivers.
Politically, particularly in Puerto Asis, the Union Patriotica (UP), a legal third political party, became very strong. The UP developed as a political expression of the Communist Party, FARC guerrillas who decided to lay down their arms and become active in politics, activists of other groups and people who were unhappy with the two traditional parties. If anyone was found carrying Voz, the magazine of the Colombian Communist Party, it could cost the person his or her life. Militants of the UP were automatically considered guerrillas or their sympathizers. Motorboat operators working on the Putumayo River were considered FARC members, because the army suspected they transported guerrillas and food for them. On March 4, 1989 the headquarters of the UP in Puerto Asis was searched and its account books disappeared. Rigoberto Torres, the local UP coordinator, was assassinated by a captain of the National Police who was the head of the campaign against political opposition groups. That same year, 12 UP activists were assassinated and the rest had to flee to others parts of the country. This was part of a national campaign to eliminate the UP by paramilitaries with the support of the Armed Forces and the money of drug dealers. These latter wanted to gain the favor of the rabidly anti-communist Colombian elites. As a consequence, the UP disappeared from the political scene in 1989.
In the 1980s a second institution developed, the Civic Movement of the Putumayo. It was pluralist, heterogeneous and above suspicion of collaborating with the guerrillas. It acted above the parties and demanded electricity, sewer systems, roads, and adequate public services. In 1987 leaders of this group started to be killed. For example, a journalist, Luis Cristobal Arteaga, was assassinated in Valle del Guamuez on August 20, 1990. In addition 15 leaders of an indigenous movement, OZIP (Organizacion Zonal Indigena del Putumayo), were killed in its first four years of existence. OZIP promotes the peaceful invasion of government offices to pressure the Colombian government to meet its commitments such as land titles, technical assistance, credit and promotion of human rights. The political establishment sees indigenous people as potential guerrillas. The idea is to weaken the grass roots movements by accusing them of cooperating with the rebels.
In 1987 a paramilitary base was created at El Azul, near Puerto Asis, which was part of the private army of the military leader of the Medellin cartel, Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha. He was fleeing from persecution in the center of the country by the police and the army. The existence of this base was denounced by the state intelligence services, but in reality the war against drugs in Putumayo was limited to repressing medium-size drug dealers who were not closely linked to the cartels and whose detention served to show that the government was doing something against drugs. Basically, those were the ones who were not parties to the economic agreements with the public forces, which facilitated freedom of movement and trafficking. An example is the case of Edgardo Londono, whose farm was located near Puerto Asis. He reportedly was incarcerated because he refused to pay 25 million pesos to the police commander of the department of Putumayo, since he already had paid that sum to the local police commander.
At the beginning the relationship between drug traffickers and FARC was one of cooperation, doing business together with no aggression against each other. Two members from FARC's 32nd Front controlled the airport in El Azul, protecting the airport and charging a tax for this protection. Hit men employed by Rodriguez Gacha killed them and FARC and a small guerrilla group, EPL, then attacked El Azul, losing the battle. In 1990 three FARC fronts captured the place and killed 60 paramilitaries there.
Civilian authorities ignored the emerging problem by doing nothing when the public forces abused citizens. A group called Los Combos patrolled a great part of the territory, and the political and economic power of the dealers increased. Liberal and Conservative activists allied with the paramilitaries to persecute the left and other political opponents. Captains of the police in Puerto Asis were denounced before the Procuraduria as “accomplices of the para-militaries, by allowing them to operate in the region and by tolerating the existence of paramilitary training centers.”
British mercenary Peter MacCalese was in charge of training the paramilitaries. Another group called MACQ (Death to Communists and Civics), known as Los Masetos, came out of this training. There were 200 young men brought from other regions of the country, because the idea was to rotate the assassins around the targeted regions. After the killing of Rodriguez Gacha, the paramilitaries came under the leadership of the Castano brothers, Carlos and Fidel. Carlos Castano is today the ruthless nationwide commander of the AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia), the largest paramilitary army in the country.
The human rights situation deteriorated more and more. There was a massacre at Las Palmeras rural school located five kilometers from Mocoa, on January 23, 1991. Five persons were executed, accused of being guerrillas, by a joint attack of the Army and an Elite Corps of the National Police using helicopters. Among the victims was Hernan Cuaran, a 25-year-old school teacher. Cuaran was assassinated in front of his students. When a child said Cuaran was their teacher, an agent answered: “No. All of them are guerrillas.” Artemio Pantoja, a plumber who was at the school building, and whose daughter was the secretary of the police headquarters in Mocoa, insisted they respect his life since his daughter worked at the station. An agent called Mocoa and Colonel Linares ordered all of them killed. Later Colonel Linares made a public statement saying “they were guerrillas killed in combat who were going to dynamite a pipeline.” The interior secretary of the state of Putumayo countered this statement, because he knew the victims and because there was no pipeline in Mocoa. The enraged citizens of Mocoa carried out a public protest against this criminal act.
This situation resulted in displaced people, who carried with them fear, uncertainty, distrust, grief, and resentment because all their rights as citizens were violated and the Colombian government seems indifferent to their problems.
In 1990 Colombian president Cesar Gaviria ordered the creation of commissions and mesas de trabajo (working groups), with the participation of all citizens around the country, to debate the new Constitution. The ones in the Putumayo became open town meetings, where people questioned not only the administration of the local government but its cooperation with the drug dealers and paramilitaries and its failure to defend them. At the end of 1990 the army attacked FARC's National Secretariat, on election day, when the referendum to approve the new constitution was being held. The answer from FARC was to attack the economic infrastructure around the country. In the Putumayo alone, from December 10, 1990 through April 1991, there were 20 dynamite attacks against ECOPETROL, 2 work stoppages and 10 direct confrontations with the army.
Current Situation In Putumayo
In 1998 the paramilitaries came back to Putumayo and they are now present in most of the region. There is a paramilitary base in El Placer. The paramilitaries are present in the urban areas and the guerrillas in the rural areas. The situation for the population is very difficult, because if they go to the rural areas they are branded as paramilitaries or their helpers. If peasants come to the towns, they are immediately accused of being guerrillas. In both cases they are killed. In 1999 there were 13 massacres in Putumayo killing 77 persons, according to the document “Luz para la Vida” from the Defensoria del Pueblo and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Office.
In general during the 1980s market forces decided coca prices: supply and demand. It seems that now the coca price is defined by the paramilitaries and the guerrillas, which impose the price. In other words there is no such thing as free markets in Putumayo. FARC sets a price for a kilo of coca and only allows the sale to those authorized by them. The same is true for paramilitaries.
In general a kilo of cocaine is sold at 1.5 to 1.7 million pesos (about $6800-$7,700 ) and net profit per hectare is 200,000 pesos (about $90). Comparatively speaking a carga, which is about 100 kilos of corn, is sold for 30,000 pesos, and after paying the costs the peasant is left with only 10,000 pesos (about $4.50) per carga. It is said that the guerrillas allow peasants to plant coca as long as they also plant food crops. They do not allow consumption of drugs.
Since the 1990s people in Putumayo have observed the presence of U.S. military personnel alongside Colombian military in the coca-destroying operations. This usually happens at the end of the year, when U.S. military would come to the military base in Puerto Leguizamo to train Latin American soldiers.
One should understand that in the Putumayo colonizers have to plant coca as the only agricultural possibility that guarantees their maintenance. The root of the problem is a social conflict that has not been solved; as long as there is no technical assistance, no credit, no roads, and no marketing strategies, the Putumayo peasant, who is generally a displaced peasant from other regions of the country, has no other alternative than to plant coca to survive. A military solution is no solution.
The society also suffers because young people do not want to study any more, but want to work as “raspachines,” or pickers of coca leaves. Now with the spraying, many want to join the guerrillas because they say they do not want the government to poison them. They say they prefer to die fighting. Peasants prefer crop substitution by peaceful means and help with loans and technical and financial assistance. For a long time, Colombia has been a center of controversy around the globe, on the issue of the production and trafficking of illicit drugs. In 1998 Colombia was a leader at the United Nations in calling for the international community to design a new and more balanced global strategy in the fight against drugs. This call concluded in new United Nations agreements in 1998 focused on “alternative development,” which have as a goal the promotion of socio-economic alternatives for communities that have had to turn to illicit crops to survive. The UN strategy emphasizes the creation of new sources of employment and cooperation between countries to avoid the displacement of illicit crops from one place to another.
In 1998 President Pastrana unveiled his Plan Nacional de Lucha contra las Drogas, which besides alternative development called for manual eradication of illicit crops. This Plan emphasized social aspects, creation of infrastructure, and human development. But at the end of 1999 this Plan was turned upside down in its logic of peace building, and became a part of Plan Colombia, designed bilaterally with the United States. The fight against drugs became a repressive, military-focused strategy, guided by the concept of national security for the U.S. and with little attention paid to Colombia's own needs and to diplomatic efforts at the UN. Fully 70 percent of Plan Colombia is allocated to buying combat helicopters and sophisticated intelligence equipment, for training and equipping specialized army battalions, and for eradication of illegal drugs not only by spraying crops with herbicides, but also by developing biological agents to attack the coca plants.
According to Colombias Ombudsmans Office (Defensoria del Pueblo), the social and political problems of Colombia are reflected in the destruction of those areas of the country which are richest in bio-diversity, such as the Putumayo, with the accelerated destruction of the tropical Amazon basin rainforest. Coca crops are the direct result of the desperation of numerous poor people displaced by the violence and social conflicts in other areas of the country. They arrive and cut the rainforest, causing ecological destruction of the rivers, water, and soil, and depriving endemic plants and animals of their natural habitat... A process called “triple deforestation” occurs: coca is planted, spraying occurs, and peasants flee to plant coca in a new place. According to data taken from Colombian government experts, for every hectare of coca, four hectares of the rainforest have to be destroyed.
Herbicides destroy microorganisms, such as algae, nitrogen-producing bacteria, protozoa, and larvae, which determine the biology of the soil and prevent its destruction. This destruction unbalances the natural biological chain. Monsanto's Roundup, which is the principal chemical being sprayed in Colombia to reduce the coca and poppy crops, contains phosphorus, which upon contact with water captures oxygen and destroys fish in lakes, lagoons, and marshes. Crop spraying affects food crops such as cassava, plantains, corn, and tropical fruits. Likewise, peasants exposed to the spray have reported cases of diarrhea, fever, muscle pain, and headaches attributed to their exposure to the chemical spray.
In January 2001 Putumayo will be the principal site targeted to experience Plan Colombia, with the destructive spraying it is to include.
The world decided to demonize Putumayo and its people are victimized. After being excluded for a long time, finally they are included but as victims of the war. The only answers they receive to their multiple needs are military, when what is urgently needed is a social solution. All their rights are violated: human, civil, political, social, economic, cultural, and ecological rights. This becomes an example of how Plan Colombia will be applied in a cruel society where the poor and humble become pariahs in their own country. Z
Cecilia Zarate-Laun is co-Founder and Program Director of the Colombia Support Network with headquarters in Madison, Wisconsin (www.colombia-support.net).