This is the second of (probably) three posts presenting initial impressions of Colombia’s “Integrated Action” strategy and programs. The first post is here. These programs are being billed as the model for much future U.S. assistance to Colombia.
This post describes a late April visit to southwestern Meta department, where I saw the “Fusion Center” in Vistahermosa and went to Puerto Toledo, a town in Puerto Rico municipality within the center’s zone of operations. Here, I talk mainly about what I saw and heard. A more analytical post with observations about the strategy will follow this one.
This map, from the Colombian government’s road-building institute, shows the Vistahermosa-La Macarena zone’s proximity to BogotÃ¡.
The SerranÃa de La Macarena.
The Vistahermosa Fusion Center.
School project bearing the AcciÃ³n Social logo in Puerto Toledo.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the La Macarena “Fusion Center” zone is how close it is to BogotÃ¡. This area, which has long been considered wild and ungoverned, lies only about four hours’ drive from Colombia’s capital. Its proximity may be a key reason why the project has become something of a showcase.
It hasn’t always been this way. As recently as the early 1990s, it took 12 hours just to do the first third of the trip, from BogotÃ¡ to Villavicencio, the capital of Meta Department and a city of nearly 300,000 people. Villavicencio is the gateway to Colombia’s llanos, a vast stretch of savannah that incorporates much of Meta department – including the “Fusion Center” zone – as well as Guaviare, Casanare, Arauca, and Vichada departments.
Until the completion of a series of tunnels, bridges and highway improvements in the 1990s and early 2000s, the llanos were cut off from the rest of the country by the very difficult geography of Colombia’s eastern Andean mountain range. The area began to be settled in earnest during the middle of the 20th century, but its inaccessibility, and the central government’s absence, left it lawless and violent.
It now takes only two hours to get to Villavicencio, on a road that passes through BogotÃ¡’s vast southern slums and then through the Sumapaz region, a pÃ¡ramo or high plain that spent decades under strong FARC influence. As little as seven years ago, those who traveled Sumapaz by road risked being kidnapped for ransom by the FARC’s 53rd Front, commanded by Henry Castellanos, alias “RomaÃ±a,” who helped pioneer the guerrilla practice of “pescas milagrosas,” or “miraculous fishing” for motorists who might be wealthy kidnap victims. While RomaÃ±a remains at large, the FARC presence in Sumapaz has been greatly reduced since a 2003 military offensive pushed them away from the main road and out of town centers. A FARC attempt to reposition itself in the zone was turned back in early March of this year.
South of Villavicencio, a very recently paved two-lane road speeds through towns whose names are synonymous with the violent 20th-century colonization of the llanos. During the “Violencia” of the 1950s, San MartÃn, Granada, and El Castillo were under the dominion of Liberal Party warlords like DÃºmar Aljure and Guadalupe Salcedo. (This part of Colombia figures prominently in Alfredo Molano’s 1989 oral history Siguendo el Corte.) These roadside towns fell under strong FARC influence until the 1990s, when a campaign of paramilitary violence, mainly directed at civilians, largely cleared the FARC out of the area between Villavicencio and the Ariari River.
The paramilitaries who came to dominate the area between Villavicencio and Granada fought each other frequently. The first was HÃ©ctor Buitrago, alias “MartÃn Llanos,” who remains a fugitive today. Buitrago fought and lost a bloody 2003-2004 war with the “Centaurs Bloc” of Carlos CastaÃ±o and Salvatore Mancuso’s United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), which at the time was supposedly engaged in a cease-fire and peace talks with the Uribe government.
Miguel Arroyave, the head of the Centaurs Bloc and a noted narcotrafficker, was strongly interested in expanding large-landholder agriculture in Meta. Arroyave owned vast cattle ranches and enthusiastically promoted the planting of African oil palms, a biofuel crop that many in Meta still associate with him. Both cattle and oil palms are very much in evidence along the main road.
Arroyave was killed by his own men in 2004. One of the assassins, Pedro Oliveiro Guerrero, alias “Cuchillo,” has since steadily expanded his power in much of Meta and Guaviare departments. He has done so in part by striking up alliances with other narcotraffickers, such as Daniel “El Loco” Barrera, and with the FARC, who are reputed to be one of Cuchillo’s frequent narco business associates. Cuchillo now has great influence, but generally low visibility, from Vichada to Guaviare into Villavicencio. Though President Uribe has ordered the security forces to capture the fugitive warlord, they have been unable to do so.
South and southwest of Granada, the paramilitary influence wanes. The road, paved within the past 3 years, remains excellent all the way to Vistahermosa. About 3 1/2 hours from BogotÃ¡, a tall mountain range rises sharply from the llanos: the SerranÃa de la Macarena, an unusual geological formation that anchors the La Macarena National Park.
This area has been a FARC stronghold for a very long time. It falls within the borders of the “despeje” or clearance zone from which Colombia’s security forces pulled out between 1998 and 2002, giving the guerrillas uncontested dominion over five municipalities (counties), including Vistahermosa and La Macarena. On the western side of the La Macarena range is La Uribe municipality, the birthplace of FARC military boss Jorge BriceÃ±o (”El Mono Jojoy“), and the location of the FARC’s “Casa Verde” headquarters during a failed 1980s cease-fire and peace process.
The good road ends in Vistahermosa, county seat of the municipality of the same name. After that, weather permitting, the drive to La Macarena, the next county seat to the south, would take at least six hours on a poor dirt road.
For decades, including the 1998-2002 “despeje” period, the FARC ruled this town openly. Guerrillas walked the streets, settled disputes, enforced their own laws, levied taxes, and encouraged a thriving coca trade. As late as 2004-2005, the FARC’s control was reportedly so complete that people not only had guerrilla-issued ID cards, even their horses were required to have a carnet de caballo.
In 2004 and 2005, a large-scale, U.S.-supported military offensive in southern Colombia, known as “Plan Patriota,” swept through this zone. The offensive pushed the guerrillas out of the mostly small town centers of municipalities like Vistahermosa, leaving behind contingents of soldiers and police. Plan Patriota was not an example of “Integrated Action”: it was accompanied by almost no non-military effort.
The guerrilla reaction to Plan Patriota was to retreat, up to a point. The FARC left the town centers but remained in significant numbers in the countryside, amid the coca fields. The guerrillas continue to launch ambushes and attacks, including occasional attacks on civilian and military targets in the towns; to lay landmines; to forcibly recruit members, many of them children; and to make road travel dangerous.
The town center of Vistahermosa, however, today bears no sign of guerrillas. The military and police presence is heavy, with a very active joint base alongside the main road at the entrance to the town. Recent crop eradication offensives have weakened an economy that had become quite dependent on coca, and the town looks less prosperous, with quite a few storefronts shuttered.
The military base at the entrance to Vistahermosa is home to the Fusion Center, which since early 2009 coordinates the government agencies carrying out the stabilization and consolidation effort in Vistahermosa, La Macarena, and parts of eight other municipalities in Meta and CaquetÃ¡ departments.
The center itself is an underwhelming site: a cluster of FEMA-style containers outfitted as offices. A plaque reads:
Integrated Fusion Center
Built by the
Military Forces of Colombia
With the Support of the
Military Group of the Embassy of
The United States of America
The center lies alongside the landing zone of the base, which was remarkably active on the day I visited, with police and army Blackhawks and Hueys constantly taking off and landing, loading and unloading dozens of soldiers outfitted for combat with packs and rifles at the ready. The deafening chopper noise made the base’s level of activity obvious to anyone living in the town of Vistahermosa, including students at the school across the road. It also made outdoor conversation at the Fusion Center impossible.
While the center bustled with personnel from all of Colombia’s military services, I only saw three civilian government representatives during my stop at the Fusion Center. Though that of course is indicative of nothing, the impression left was that of a military operation with a handful of civilians attached to it.
Our plan was to visit Puerto Toledo, about 35 miles to the east, more than two hours away by road. I would be traveling with two Colombian NGO colleagues and the National Parks Service official who appears in the brief video interview posted earlier this month. As it turned out, road travel was made impossible by high recent levels of guerrilla activity in the area. This was unexpected, given official rhetoric that “these regions, which used to be refuges for terrorism and narcotrafficking, have been recovered for peace.” During the time we were in Puerto Toledo, in fact, the soldiers on the edge of town told us that guerrillas had attacked some coca eradicators only two kilometers away. The precarious security situation in the countryside meant that we had to make the very short trip to Puerto Toledo in an Army helicopter.
The countryside we flew over was flat territory full of swamps and rivers. It appeared mostly uninhabited, with only a few tiny hamlets, the occasional house, and most land uncultivated. Much of the agricultural activity visible from the air was cattle ranching and African oil palm cultivation, most of it looking very recently planted.
The soldiers left us about a half-mile outside of town, and we walked the rest of the way unaccompanied. Puerto Toledo, perhaps ten blocks square along the GÃ¼Ã©jar River, was a major coca market town when the FARC held uncontested dominion over the area. Now, one’s first impression while walking the town’s dusty streets is, “This place is empty.” Very few people are out on the streets and sidewalks, and very little is open for business.
Only a few years ago, I was told, Puerto Toledo had dozens of discos, bars and brothels open at all hours, where residents from throughout the area would gather to spend their easy coca profits. All of the discos are now closed. Today, it is hard to imagine the streets booming with salsa, vallenato and American pop music. Puerto Toledo is very quiet.
One of the former discos in the middle of town has been converted into the local office the National Park Service, which is carrying out an effort to move hundreds of coca-growing families out of the La Macarena park and fringe areas around the park, along with the eradication of their coca, in exchange for assistance with housing, land titles, productive projects and food-security assistance.
The Park Service project office is one of the only visible signs that Colombia’s civilian state has moved into Puerto Toledo. The town center is under solid military control (though the FARC set off a bomb in the town center a few months ago), but there is not even a police station yet. The main civilian projects I heard about were the repainting and refurbishment of the bridge over the GÃ¼Ã©jar River, improvements to the town school, and some improvements to roads outside of town.
At the Park Service office, I met with leaders of AgroGÃ¼Ã©jar, an organization of small-holding farmers from several veredas (hamlets) in Puerto Rico municipality. The organization represents 300 families, residents of seven veredas, who have agreed with the Park Service to relocate away from the transition zone around the La Macarena Park. In exchange, they are receiving land titles, houses, and technical assistance with productive projects.
Theirs is a very instructive story of what happens when a government tries to work with citizens who have simply never known life under a government. Residents of this area have lived alongside guerrillas for their entire lives, but still have a manifest desire to have the state present in their territory, and to feel connected to the rest of Colombia. But they also have a very deep distrust of a state that has always been absent, never honored its past commitments, and may prove unable to protect them.
“We didn’t come here for coca. We were displaced,” is how one leader introduced the group. Like nearly all farmers in southern Colombia’s “agricultural frontier” zones, the residents of Puerto Toledo and its environs had arrived within the past generation, pushed out from elsewhere by violence or drawn by economic opportunity – often illicit economic opportunity.
Many of the most recent arrivals, they said, had come from the municipality of Miraflores, in the neighboring department of Guaviare. At the time an area of heavy coca cultivation, Miraflores, discussed in this post from last year, was a principal zone of operations for the “Plan Patriota” military offensive in 2004-2005. The offensive and accompanying coca eradication caused a sharp depopulation – one estimate is from 20,000 to 10,000 people. But the Colombian government had no idea where the people who left Miraflores went. Many, apparently, went to Puerto Toledo.
The leaders of AgroGÃ¼Ã©jar insisted that their organization’s farmers want to stop growing the illegal crop, and have said for years that they are willing to eradicate, if the government would make the investments in infrastructure and basic services necessary for a legal economy to exist.
They told a story rife with frustration. AgroGÃ¼Ã©jar has its origins among participants in a self-financed organic produce cooperative that formed in 2004, in part because increased eradication after the 2002 end of the demilitarized zone was making coca harder to grow. The cooperative had its crops sprayed and lost its investment.
Its members protested to anti-narcotics authorities and arrived at an agreement stating that, in exchange for aid, they would voluntarily eradicate all coca in three veredas. The agreement included a three-month deadline to eradicate one-third of their coca, after which economic assistance would begin to arrive. An accord was signed, but fumigation planes flew over their communities the very day that it was to begin implementation. The cooperative’s members “decided to shut off all contact with state institutions.”
AgroGÃ¼Ã©jar formed in 2006, after the Colombian government, backed by the United States, began a major campaign of manual eradication – and later, fumigation – in the La Macarena park. Arguing that “we are hungry,” it led a 29-day march to BogotÃ¡ to demand government investment.
“The only government agency that responded to us,” I was told, “was the National Park Service.” The first response was a very modest food-security project, which AgroGÃ¼Ã©jar, intensely distrustful, limited to 50 families. The Park Service complied with its commitments, however, and the organization quickly agreed to expand participation to 300 families.
The Park Service received a large grant for the relocation project from the Colombian Presidency’s Office of the High Commissioner for Peace, which together with funds from the Meta governor’s office (flush with oil revenues), USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives and the government of the Netherlands, has added up to about US$5 million. (See page 9 of this 2007 report [PDF].) The families are to receive titled plots of land, with prefabricated houses. The Park Service is also offering technical assistance with several productive projects, forming cooperatives to produce and market several products that the communities have selected. A beekeeping project, which is getting technical support from Colombia’s National University, may be the most advanced.
The AgroGÃ¼Ã©jar representatives had kind words for the demonstration projects that had been completed in and around Puerto Toledo, such as the refurbished bridge, the construction of a new school classroom, and minor road improvements. Quick projects like these seek to make a high-profile display of the government’s presence when, in USAID’s words, “the potential for political impact is the greatest.”
While these programs are welcome, the local leaders said, “Our biggest concern is the income of our families.” Larger projects, like paving farm-to-market roads or building bridges, electricity grids, clean water or communication networks, appear to be far off. In fact, the poor state of the region’s roads and bridges has complicated things for the Park Service. Efforts to deliver construction materials for promised houses have been stymied by delivery trucks’ inability to cross rivers on the narrow, rickety bridges that exist in the area.
Another type of demonstration project has been offered but declined: the Colombian Army’s “health brigades” in which doctors, and sometimes veterinarians, visit an area offering free checkups and medical care. These brigades feature free haircuts and food, along with clowns handing out toys to the children. Puerto Toledo has turned down an Army health brigade visit because of “who comes after”: guerrillas angered by the community’s perceived welcoming of the security forces.
The AgroGÃ¼Ã©jar leaders told of some frustrating experiences with the Fusion Center and its predecessor, the Macarena Integrated Consolidation Plan (PCIM). During a seven or eight month period in 2007 and 2008, they said, the communities were subject to constant forced manual eradication of their coca, but received no other assistance, not even basic food-security aid. As a result, they said, “the eradicators had to keep eradicating plots that they had already eradicated before.” Even when commitments for aid had been made, its arrival was slow. “By the time the corn seeds arrived, we could have had ears of corn already.”
Similar delay has also been widely denounced in the case of land titling, which so far has been an exceedingly slow and unresponsive process here and elsewhere in the Fusion Center zone. The lag time for aid, titling, and similar efforts appears to be the result of bureaucracy, lack of coordination and civilian agencies’ inaction – the very problems that the “Fusion” and “Integrated Action” strategies are purportedly designed to address.
A particularly frustrating experience began in August 2008, when 280 campesino leaders from the area gathered in Puerto Toledo to formulate a proposal for voluntary eradication and development assistance to present to the PCIM. They came to a consensus on the proposal and presented it formally in October.
For the Colombian government, this overture should have been regarded as an important opportunity to achieve a “consolidation” goal. Representatives of thousands of people who had lived their entire lives with the FARC were asking the Colombian state to play a greater role and to help them.
The PCIM responded by furnishing the leaders with an application form laying out an agreement for assistance. But the form had some troubling wording, which required several back-and-forth exchanges. The initial version of the form required the communities to affirm that they were “asking for the security forces to be present” in the area. Obviously, if the FARC were to learn that they had signed such a document, the leaders’ lives would be in grave danger. They demanded that the document be altered.
In January of this year, the leaders sent the PCIM a counter-proposal. They received an e-mail reply in March communicating to them that their document was acceptable, but that the PCIMÂ no longer had resources in its budget to carry out the agreement.
The communities’ remarkable approach to the government had effectively been rebuffed, at least for now. As a result, one leader put it, “We lost seven months, while eradication continues, and there are still no roads.”
Despite these frustrations, the balance of the National Parks-AgroGÃ¼Ã©jar experience so far remains positive. The communities participating in the project have eradicated 2,000 hectares of coca, an amount equal to (if the new UNODC figures are correct) about one-fortieth of all coca grown in Colombia. This is the largest example of voluntary coca eradication I have ever heard of in Colombia.
In addition, communities in a longtime guerrilla and narco stronghold are now looking to the state for assistance, associating themselves with a state agency (National Parks), and want the state – at least through this project – to increase its presence beyond the seven veredas of Puerto Rico municipality that are involved to date. (Puerto Rico has 22 veredas.)
Even without the added element of a guerrilla insurgency, overcoming distrust is one of the most difficult challenges faced when establishing a government presence where none has existed. It requires keeping your word. It requires listening to critiques and consulting frequently with the population.
It is remarkable that the Vistahermosa-La Macarena region’s town centers have no overt FARC presence. It is remarkable that groups like AgrogÃ¼Ã©jar, though still intensely suspicious, are showing themselves open to working with their government. But this is just a first step, and it will be easily reversed if the non-military component falls through. Hopes are being raised here. The Colombian government cannot afford to disappoint.