A monument to corruption in Guaviare Guaviare (2) – The security situation
Apr 212008

(This is the first of a few posts of my visit to Guaviare last week. All photos posted here may be reproduced without permission, with credit given.)

From April 14 to 16, I paid a brief visit to San José del Guaviare, a small city in Colombia’s vast, empty southern plains. I was the guest of the town’s new mayor, Pedro Arenas, a young, reformist politician from a social-movement background who has visited us in Washington several times over the past ten years.

I had not visited San José, the capital of Colombia’s department (province) of Guaviare, since January 1998. That was my first of what is now nearly forty visits to Colombia. On that initial visit, I was part of a delegation of non-governmental organizations. Pedro Arenas, then the head of the Guaviare Youth Movement, a local social service and advocacy organization, organized our stay in Guaviare, arranging meetings with everyone from the governor, bishop and military authorities to the region’s peasant and indigenous leaders.

I had not been back to Guaviare in the intervening ten years, in part because Pedro Arenas, our main contact there, spent much of this period in Bogotá as a member of Colombia’s Congress. During those ten years, however, the United States was quite active in Guaviare.

In a vain effort to stem cultivation of coca, the plant used to make cocaine, U.S. spray planes blanketed about 500,000 acres of Guaviare with herbicides. U.S. funds paid for the training and equipping of new military units headquartered in the area, and supported a massive, years-long military offensive – known as “Plan Patriota” – in Guaviare and nearby departments. But the department was almost completely left out of the U.S. government’s far smaller efforts to help Colombia govern its territory and lift residents out of poverty. U.S. economic aid to Guaviare over the past decade, in all forms, has totaled less than $1 million.

After ten years, what has been the outcome of such an unbalanced approach? Is the department safer? Are its rural areas more secure? Are guerrillas and paramilitaries weaker? Has the drug trade been affected? Has the department’s overwhelming poverty eased at all? Have repeatedly fumigated coca-growing families found other ways to feed themselves? Is the department’s huge displaced population getting access to basic services and a dignified existence? Are the conflict’s thousands of local victims learning the truth about what happened to them and their loved ones, recovering stolen property, or receiving reparations? After ten years, has U.S. policy helped this lawless, stateless, violent zone move at all toward good governance?

The answers to some of these questions, I found, was yes. To others, however, the answer was a clear, resounding “no.” In general, the security situation was better, though gains were mainly concentrated in town centers. Coca cultivation was still widespread but reduced; most of those interviewed gave the credit to more frequent military operations on the ground, not fumigation from the air. Rural areas remain nearly as violent and ungoverned as they were ten years ago; though the once-absent military is now a frequent combatant, the rest of the state continues to be absent. The region’s huge population of displaced people and other poor residents are getting a modest amount of attention in the larger towns, mainly from programs that offer cash handouts. Meanwhile, efforts to help victims of some of the country’s worst violence are barely underway.

Looking across the Guaviare River at Meta department.
Guaviare’s recent history

The department of Guaviare is one of several that make up a vast California-sized region east and south of Colombia’s Andes mountains. Flat and hot, this zone of dusty savannahs and dense jungles, ribboned by muddy rivers that empty into the Orinoco and Amazon rivers, is home to only about 4 percent of Colombia’s population.

This is Colombia’s coca-growing heartland, an area so far from government presence that some smaller riverside towns lack access to the central government’s currency, relying instead on grams of crude coca paste as a unit of exchange. It has also been the historical rearguard of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Colombia’s oldest and largest (9,000-15,000 members) guerrilla group.

Like much of Colombia’s southern plains, Guaviare was settled in the past few decades by cattlemen and coca growers, many of them displaced by violence elsewhere. As recently as the 1960s, this was wilderness, settled only by a few rugged frontiersmen and outlaws – as well as nomadic tribes of indigenous hunter-gatherers who had been there for perhaps thousands of years.

Within the past two generations, outsiders began to arrive in greater numbers, either pushed out by violence or drawn by the possibility of land for the taking – the property of any who wished to knock down jungle and carve out a life on the “agricultural frontier.”

Colombia’s government, however, failed to follow the colonizers to places like Guaviare. In a state of abandonment, with no security, no basic services, not even a road network, people soon learned to coexist with the armed insurgent groups that took refuge there, acting as a crude surrogate government.

Like many rainforest areas, Guaviare has poor soils. It is difficult to grow crops there sustainably, especially hard-to-transport products that yield low farm-gate prices. The coca plant, however, can be cultivated profitably; its leaves can easily be turned into a paste that is easily transported in the roadless region and sold to narcotraffickers willing to pay prices sufficient to guarantee a profit.

A painting of a coca-paste laboratory hangs on a restaurant wall in San José del Guaviare.

A coca-grower with 2 1/2 acres, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimated a few years ago, nets about US$199 per month, or just over US$6 per day. This is not enough to lift a family over the poverty line (over 80 percent of Guaviare’s rural population lives in poverty), but it yields more than any other crop that can be harvested within a year of planting.

Guaviare’s coca boom began in the 1980s and has never truly ended. Together with cattle-ranching, coca is the reason why Guaviare has the highest deforestation rate of all of Colombia’s thirty-two departments.

Today, about 150,000 people live in Guaviare. This is still rather sparse for an area the size of Vermont and New Hampshire put together, but population growth continues to be rapid and uncontrolled.

The locals eat river fish like bagre for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The department has four municipalities (counties), each of them enormous in size but small in population. The departmental capital, San José del Guaviare, is about the size of Connecticut, but with only about 60,000 people. Of these, 40,000 are concentrated in the rapidly expanding county seat. More than one-third of the town center’s population, 14,000 people, are internally displaced people – refugees forced from the surrounding countryside and elsewhere by violence during the last ten to fifteen years.

A new mayor

The mayor San José del Guaviare is Pedro Arenas, a politician who comes from a social-movement background. In the 1990s, Arenas co-founded the Guaviare Youth Movement, whose community radio station has been one of the municipality’s main information sources for the past ten years.

Arenas went on to serve for four years in Colombia’s Congress. Then last October, at the age of 36, he was elected to the mayor’s office with 60 percent of the vote, winning in rural areas and poor urban neighborhoods, as well as in the merchant neighborhoods of San José del Guaviare’s town center.

Mayor Pedro Arenas (at right with beige hat).

I have known Pedro Arenas since 1997, when the Colombia Human Rights Network brought him to Washington and several other cities to discuss the rapidly worsening situation in Guaviare. At the time, Arenas’s Guaviare Youth Movement had run afoul of the right-wing paramilitaries who were pouring into Guaviare for the first time, openly aided by the security forces.

A key battleground

In July 1997, just a few months before Pedro’s visit, the military and police had stood aside as two planeloads of thugs from the paramilitary strongholds of northwestern Colombia arrived in San José del Guaviare’s airport. In what would be the paramilitaries’ first foray into southern Colombia, the gunmen went about 40 miles downriver to the port town of Mapiripán, across the river in Meta department. There, hit lists in hand, they spent an entire week torturing and killing more than fifty of the town’s residents, dumping their bodies in the Guaviare river.

Of the paramilitary leaders who ordered the crime, the hitmen who carried it out, and the military leaders who – in the name of hitting a guerrilla stronghold – allowed it to happen, very few have ever been tried or convicted. Most still walk freely among their fellow Colombians.

Mapiripán would be the first of a gruesome chain of massacres over the next five or six years throughout Colombia’s southern plains. As the paramilitaries sought to attack the guerrillas by “draining the sea to kill the fish” – killing and intimidating social leaders in guerrilla-controlled areas – thousands would die at their hands, their bodies either dumped in rivers or turning up today in Cambodia-style mass graves.

The military stood idly by, if not collaborated openly. Local leaders told of the daily roadblock that the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) maintained nearly every day during the late 1990s and early 2000s, about a half-mile down the only paved road from the local military battalion’s headquarters. Those detained at this roadblock, they said, would not appear again.

Meanwhile – and in part as a result – the guerrillas, who as the only entity resembling a government in Guaviare had enjoyed popular support as late as the mid-1990s, grew ever more paranoid, brutal and greedy. Fear of paramilitary (and later military) informants led the FARC to start treating the population with far greater suspicion, murdering anyone suspected to have given information or other aid to the other side.

At the same time, the FARC came to depend ever more on the drug trade as a source of funding. Flush with new funds from coca and cocaine production, the FARC were recruiting and buying guns at an accelerating rate. While this made the guerrillas a very formidable fighting force, it also led them to treat their social base – the population of neglected zones like Guaviare – like an ATM. The imperative of controlling the coca boomtowns and strategic trafficking routes of areas like Guaviare led the guerrillas increasingly to mistreat and alienate the people with whom they had long coexisted.

Coca and fumigation

Whether spurred by the guerrillas or lured by the prospect of easy money, Guaviare’s landholders – nearly all of them owners of small tracts – turned increasingly to the coca trade. By the mid-1990s, when Colombia became South America’s largest coca-producing country for the first time, Guaviare was the department with the largest amount of coca cultivation.

As a result, the United States pressured the government of President César Gaviria to allow an aerial herbicide fumigation to begin in 1994. The program expanded quickly over the next few years.

For its first several years, all of Colombia’s fumigation flights took off from the Counter-Narcotics Police base adjacent to the airport in San José del Guaviare. About 200,000 hectares (500,000 acres) of Guaviare have been sprayed with the “Round-Up Ultra” glyphosate-based spray mixture since the program’s initiation, making it either the first or second most-sprayed department in the country.

The results have been mixed at best. Fourteen years of spraying in Guaviare have made clear that sustained, heavy herbicide spraying can indeed reduce coca cultivation in a specific area, for a specific period of time. Spraying during the second half of the 1990s reduced the amount of coca that the United States and the United Nations measured in Guaviare. That reduction, however, was canceled out by a sharp growth in coca-growing further to the south, out of the spray planes’ range, in Putumayo department near the border with Ecuador.

A big component of the U.S. “Plan Colombia” aid package in 2000 sought to expand the Guaviare-based spray program into Putumayo. After 2000, once the spray fleet reduced its activity in Guaviare in order to fumigate in Putumayo and elsewhere, coca cultivation in Guaviare again shot upward.

It has taken three years of intense spraying, from 2003 to 2006, to reduce coca-growing in Guaviare by two-thirds, to just under 10,000 hectares. (2007 data won’t be available until June.)

When I was in San José del Guaviare last week, the spray program was continuing to function at a very rapid tempo. The fumigation planes and police escort helicopters based in San José had just finished another round of intense spraying. They were not present during my visit, however: they had just moved to the city of Barrancabermeja in the north-central Magdalena Medio region, from where they would be spraying the coca fields of southern Bolívar department.

For at least a couple of months, Guaviare will not be sprayed. All whom I asked, police included, agreed that the department’s coca growers would be very likely to replant during this “down” period in the spray program, causing coca cultivation to move upward again. The department has only seen a minimal amount of the aerial eradication that the government of Álvaro Uribe has been encouraging throughout the country.

Why, after being so heavily and repeatedly sprayed for fourteen years, would Guaviare’s coca growers still insist on growing so much coca? Probably because so little has been done to bring the state into the department’s rural areas, much less to encourage alternative income sources. Alternative-development investment – whether by the United States or any other foreign donors – is zero in Guaviare. The same, reports the UN, is the case in the massive neighboring departments of Meta, Caquetá, and Vichada, which together with Guaviare account for 40 percent of Colombia’s coca cultivation.

Not a dollar has been invested in alternative development or governance projects in Guaviare. Here, the strategy has been the very definition of all stick and no carrot. It is no wonder, then, that the coca trade persists in Guaviare, fourteen years after the first spray mission flew over the department.

Coming next: the security situation

9 Responses to “A visit to Guaviare (1)”

  1. mares Says:

    Want to thank you for shedding light on the underlying causes of Colombia’s ills. But please, how can any government hope to counter the dynamics of the law of supply and demand as it applies to the cocaine trade? The US government cannot and should not have to pay farmers in other countries not to grow coca; that means expanding the US welfare system intolerably. That is never going to happen, nor should it for it is not sensible policy. The only way is to legalize and control cocaine production so that it loses its extreme profitability and I bet you that the agrarian based local economies of such forgotten lands in Colombia will develop naturally and peace will reign as most of the funding for all war in Colombia comes from cocaine as your article itself points out.

    Sensible policies. Forgotten words.

  2. Stuart Says:

    Subsidizing farmers or legalizing cocaine aren’t the only ways to stop them from growing coca, Mares. Without ever having spoken with people who cultivate it, I’d safely assume they would rather produce something else and not have to worry about being seen as taking sides in the conflict because they sell to one group or another. So here’s an idea: take the money the US is providing for helicopter purchase and upkeep as well as fumigation and use it for 1) start-up capital so that small farmers can switch to other products and 2) to build infrastructure so they can get these products to market efficiently. I bet it would have far greater effects than the current strategy of ‘all stick and no carrot’. Plus (and here’s where the idea of supply and demand is blatantly overlooked), why not take some of this money being used to buy arms and use it to get drug users in the US off of cocaine and crack? If less people want to buy it, then the product fetches a lower prices and cultivating something else suddenly seems worth it. The real problem is that this isn’t anything revolutionary- the representatives who support Plan Colombia are smart enough to know that eliminating demand for cocaine will be more effective than cutting off supply. But then you can’t hand out contracts to all your arms producing buddies and keep throwing people into US jails (which is a whole other bundle of contracts).

  3. lfm Says:

    Two dimes on this topic: as much as some of us would want to see cocaine legalized in the US, the chances of that happening in the next 20-30 years are bacteriologically small. It’s been my guess for a long while but later I had it confirmed by a former US Ambassador to Colombia. So, in Colombia we will have to figure out a way of dealing with the problem in a prohibitionist world. Yes, it is grossly unfair that Colombia’s politico-economic process is terribly distorted by choices made in the US, but life is not fair.

    That said, Adam’s view seems to me as reasonable as you can get in this whole insanity.

  4. Chris Says:

    Let me add that I beleive that the success of that city largely hinges on that huge river that is just below it (sorry I can’t remember the name of it). Because San Jose is out there, the most practical way to bring in/out a large supply of goods from/to the major Colombian cities would be through that river; however, control of it is all spliced up between Para and FARC (although FARC control majority). Securing it temporarily was easy, but without a continued presence the FARC or whomever would simply just move in and do what they do best, levy taxes or rip off anyone on it.

    With the river open, the economic vitality of San Jose would increase and allow for more investments, jobs and developments.

    Next time take a trip to San Vicente del Caguan… I bet that you’d gather a lot of useful and interesting information (you’ve probably already been there). San Vicente gives the added perspective of what it’s like under the government or FARC (most told me they prefer the govt…then again why would they tell me FARC, I had an M-4).

    BTW, what’s the mayor’s position on the FARC? When I was there the immediate threat around the city was Para… FARC was only an issue further out. If he’s left-leaning…did he recieve threats from the paras?

  5. Chris Says:

    I’m sorry…there’s a whole swath of this article you wrote that I missed and didn’t read…some of my questions are answered in your article clearly.

  6. Chris Says:


  7. Paul Says:


    In a similiar vein to your thoughts on drug treatment, I’ve always thought it would be effective for the US government to initiate an ad campaign that showed the devastation Colombia suffers due to the drug habits of some selfish Americans. I think appealing to basic decency, as well as shame, would hit the target more precisely than “this is your brain on drugs.”

    I bet 90% of Americans don’t make the connection between cocaine and how that translates into the violence in Colombia.

  8. LFM Says:

    Good point Paul. You hear a lot about the “blood diamonds” and nothing about the “blood cocaine.” In fact, many Colombians find it deeply offending that coca trade is a joking matter in some parts of the globe, after all the havoc it has wrought in the country.

  9. Kyle Says:

    Very true points; I’ve considered the issue more as such, as literally in “blood cocaine” as of late; perhaps a blood cocaine campaign could catch on, though who knows. It’s possible I guess.

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