Welcome to the echo chamber Notes on the 5/11 House Hearing
May 122005

For years, we have made a point of paying close attention to what is happening in Putumayo, a Maryland-sized department (province) in Colombia’s far south, bordering Ecuador and Peru. We do so because Putumayo is where Plan Colombia truly began, and what is happening there is a good indicator of Plan Colombia’s impact.

When the Clinton administration’s big aid package was being developed, debated and approved in 1999-2000, Putumayo had more coca than any other department in Colombia. As part of the “push into southern Colombia” at the heart of the U.S. aid package, a 2,300-man Colombian Army Counter-Narcotics Brigade, equipped with donated helicopters, was beginning operations to introduce aerial herbicide fumigation to the zone. As we wrote four years ago, Putumayo was “Plan Colombia’s Ground Zero.”

Five years later, U.S. officials are claiming success. “Areas like Putumayo used to be like the wild, wild west,” Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert told the House International Relations Committee at a May 11 hearing [PDF format]. “Today, Putumayo has been reformed.”

We disagree. In fact, five years after the Clinton aid package’s approval, Putumayo offers a vivid testimony of Plan Colombia’s failure. The department does have less coca, after a relentless campaign of regular spraying and significant investment in alternative development. (It probably has less people too.) But it remains one of Colombia’s top coca-producing departments (fourth out of 11 departments that had at least 1,000 hectares in 2003, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime [PDF format]). Much coca-growing that was in Putumayo has simply moved to neighboring departments, with the result that State Department figures show Colombia as a whole with only 7 percent less coca today than it had in 1999.

Perhaps more troubling are indications that, despite massive investment in military and police presence, the activity of illegal armed groups is as intense as ever in Putumayo.

It is hard to get a decent picture of the department’s violence, since the media, human-rights groups and civilian government officials have little presence, particularly in the remote zones where much of the coca and the killing are concentrated, and where locals know that to stay quiet is to stay alive. The few reports from Putumayo’s countryside, combined with reports of what happens in town centers, depict a situation at least as dire as it was when Plan Colombia began.

Putumayo suffered a 19 percent rise in murders in 2004, according to government data compiled by Colombia’s Security and Democracy Foundation [PDF format]. Indeed, since mid-2004 there has been a noticeable increase in reports of paramilitary massacres, extrajudicial killings, and guerrilla attacks in the department.

The guerrillas

The FARC, pressured by the prolonged Plan Patriota military offensive taking place immediately to the north of Putumayo, has increased its presence in the department. The guerrillas have stepped up attacks on military targets, on small towns that they are seeking to re-take from military or paramilitary control, and key infrastructure, particularly the Trans-Andino oil pipeline that runs through southwestern Putumayo.

One of the hardest-hit zones has been the municipality of San Miguel bordering Ecuador, whose principal town is La Dorada. Fifteen minutes south of La Dorada, right across the San Miguel River from Ecuador, is the town of Puerto Colón (population about 1,000), which has been subject to a relentless series of FARC attacks that began on September 4 of last year. In that first attack, the FARC launched five homemade, notoriously inaccurate gas-cylinder bombs at the town’s anti-narcotics police station, but ended up destroying many of the town’s buildings. The guerrillas have hit Puerto Colón at least nineteen times since then.

The past few months have seen two major FARC attacks on military targets in Putumayo, which have taken the lives of eighteen soldiers. On February 2, guerrillas detonated mines just as a truckload of soldiers passed on the well-traveled road between Puerto Asís, Putumayo’s largest city, and the town of Santa Ana, which hosts a military base, about ten miles to the north. On March 23, guerrillas launched gas-cylinder bombs against a military patrol traveling between Puerto Leguízamo (home to a U.S.-supported Colombian Navy Riverine Brigade) and La Tagua, in a sparsely-populated zone of eastern Putumayo.

The paramilitaries

Paramilitaries, present in Putumayo since 1999 and currently under the control of the AUC’s drug-ridden Central Bolívar Bloc (BCB), continue to compete for dominance of Putumayo’s coca fields, as well as drug and arms-smuggling routes in and out of Ecuador. Though the BCB declared a cease-fire to satisfy the government’s condition for taking part in negotiations, paramilitary massacres and extrajudicial killings appear to have jumped in Putumayo. “The paramilitaries’ strategy in this zone is not exactly to combat or attack guerrillas, as there have not been any direct confrontations or fighting,” reports an excellent March 2005 overview by MINGA, a leading Colombian human-rights NGO [PDF format]. “Instead, it has involved attacking the civilian population, extorting merchants and maintaining control over the region’s economy, particularly through narcotrafficking.”

Reports of recent massacres in Putumayo resemble accounts of the tactics the paramilitaries used during the late 1990s-early 2000s period of AUC expansion that was overseen by Carlos Castaño: a group of killers, list of names in hand, slaughtering several people at a time, even using chainsaws or machetes. Individual killings appear occasionally to target those whom the paramilitaries believe to be guerrilla collaborators; many recent victims, however, are civilians who have tried to resist paramilitary extortion or local figures who, believing that Putumayo should have an effective government presence, report paramilitary activity to the authorities.

By gathering testimonies from local residents, MINGA has established that the paramilitaries carried out a major massacre in the rural hinterland of Valle del Guamuez municipality, just to the north of San Miguel. Between August 15 and August 20, about 200 uniformed men identifying themselves as AUC members passed through at least six villages, torturing and killing nine campesino leaders and forcibly displacing several families.

Shortly afterward, on September 4, a group of paramilitaries forced their way into a Pentecostal church in Puerto Asís, the largest city in Putumayo, while about a hundred people were inside attending services. The paramilitaries – apparently targeting the town’s notary, whom they had been threatening – fired indiscriminately at the worshippers, killing three and wounding fifteen.

Between November 7 and 24, paramilitaries – perhaps the same group that carried out the August massacre in Valle del Guamuez – killed thirteen people and forced the displacement of entire rural communities in San Miguel, along the Ecuadorian border. According to a witness interviewed by MINGA, “The paramilitaries traveled for fifteen days with a list in hand, telling people that if they were collaborating with the guerrillas they should leave, or else they would end up like the massacred ones.”

In late January of this year, citizens of La Dorada, the “county seat” of San Miguel, had had enough of the paramilitaries who had dominated the town since late 2000, but whose presence had been reduced with the arrival of more security forces in 2003-2004. As we discussed in an earlier posting, several La Dorada merchants, reacting to the paramilitary killing of a colleague, organized a daring protest. Hundreds of people blockaded roads and marched through La Dorada’s streets on January 28, carrying signs denouncing both guerrillas and paramilitaries.

The protest’s organizers, led by José Hurtado, an Ecuadorian citizen and longtime resident, convened the local military and police. They denounced the wave of paramilitary violence and the security forces’ apparent toleration of – or complicity with – paramilitary activities, including sightings of a military truck transporting paramilitary fighters between La Dorada and La Hormiga, about 30 minutes to the north.

The security forces asked the protesters for help identifying the paramilitaries in the town. Mr. Hurtado agreed, and led them to several residences and sites of paramilitary activity. The paramilitaries were quick to retaliate: they killed Hurtado on February 16.

On February 25, the paramilitaries called leading La Dorada residents to two meetings. At the first, a meeting with merchants at a nearby hamlet, the paramilitaries showed them a list of those they believed had organized the January protest, and told them that a town councilman and a local journalist “would not be pardoned.” At the second meeting, called with the entire community under the threat of a massacre if nobody attended, the paramilitaries made clear that they would “forgive” the townspeople of La Dorada for their protest, but repeated their threat against the councilman and journalist.

CIP staff have visited La Dorada twice. The first time, in March 2001, the paramilitary presence was very noticeable, including men with radio equipment taking up key positions at the town’s entrances, and few people on the streets. In April 2004, following the opening of a police station and a greater presence of security forces, the paramilitary presence was less apparent and the town appeared to be much livelier. Since José Hurtado’s murder, however, we understand that the paramilitaries have clamped down on the town, and conditions have reverted to something like what we saw in 2001.

Paramilitaries have killed at least three more local leaders in and around La Dorada, MINGA denounced last week. Two prominent campesino leaders, Abel Hómez Anacona and Abelardo Antonio Ocampo, were murdered on March 30 and April 4. On April 3 paramilitaries forced Carlos Evid Cuarán, who had participated in the January 28 protests, to leave a restaurant with them. Cuarán was taken to a nearby hamlet and killed. Meanwhile, faced with paramilitary threats, two La Dorada councilmembers have had to leave the town since March.

Where are the authorities?

This wave of violence is severe, though not unusual for a marginal zone of rural Colombia with significant narcotics production. But Putumayo is not typical of these zones: thanks in large part to Plan Colombia and tens of millions of dollars in U.S. military aid, the department has a heavy security-force presence. MINGA’s March report details this presence in two municipalities alone, San Miguel and Valle del Guamuez:

Starting with Plan Colombia, this region was strongly militarized. In Puerto Colón there is an Anti-Narcotics Police base and a military base protecting the ECOPETROL [state oil company] installations. This region is also within the area of the 27th Brigade’s base (with a battalion located in Valle del Guamuez). La Dorada has a permanent presence of the National Police, units of the 9th Infrastructure Protection Battalion and “peasant soldiers.”

To this must be added the frequent presence of units from the U.S.-funded Army Counter-Narcotics Brigade and Navy Riverine Brigade, plus dramatic improvements to military and police bases at Tres Esquinas, Puerto Leguízamo and Villagarzón.

Why, then, is Putumayo as insecure as ever, five years into Plan Colombia? There are several reasons. Many of these military units are specialized: their principal missions are protecting pipelines or assisting drug eradication, not patrolling rural areas to protect people from the badguys. In fact, rural Putumayo is still a place where military and police presence remains rare, and civilian government presence is rarer still. The state security forces are also crippled by difficult relations with local authorities and the silence of the local population, which offers little information out of distrust or fear of retribution from the armed groups.

The distrust owes greatly to a widespread perception that the security forces are either in league with the paramilitaries, or at least have no interest in fighting them. Our own research indicates that this pattern is mixed: the degree of paramilitary collaboration or toleration appears to depend on the attitude of the local military or police commander. This is why, for instance, introducing police made paramilitaries scarcer for a time in La Dorada, and why the La Dorada protesters saw fit to demand a greater presence of the security forces in their town despite problems with collusion. Though not uniform, military-paramilitary collaboration in Putumayo remains a problem, and it is rarely if ever investigated and punished.

Consider all of these reasons why Putumayo is still a mess, and the outlines of an alternative security strategy become clear – not just for Putumayo but for much of the country. Instead of specialized units like the counter-narcotics brigades, protection of citizens should be the local security forces’ main mission. In the rural areas where insecurity is greatest, much more investment is needed to bring the government into regular contact with citizens, through everything from policing to alternative development to infrastructure-building. It is crucial to coordinate this closely with local elected leaders, and to assiduously seek to win the local population’s trust. The locals must be treated not like potential narco-traffickers to be searched or sprayed, or potential guerrilla collaborators to be interrogated or intimidated, but instead as potential allies who desperately need basic security and economic opportunity. And by all means, it is imperative to confront the paramilitaries aggressively and to punish any examples of collusion swiftly and transparently.

Until changes like these are implemented and begin to take hold, however, the security situation in Putumayo will continue to be one of many stains on Plan Colombia’s record.

2 Responses to “The wild, wild west”

  1. Christian Says:

    You can argue that Plan Colombia has not bettered the situation in Putumayo. But progress has been made. The situation in the “wild wild west” is not going to be solved overnight. The armed conflict is not going to be resolved through “institution building” and convening human rights groups and talking through the conflict. You’re going to need a hard-line approach to come close to forcing out the “bad guys.” The problem occurs when the “good guys” and the “bad guys” are colluding… bad PR. So while 5 years of Plan Colombia has not yet quelmed the situation in Putumayo, do you think that Colombia is better off now than it was in 1998, when it was close to becoming a narco-state? Progress does not occur overnight. Let’s keep the foreign aid coming in such that the actors involved feel the impact of a reactionary force. The real problem is 10-15 years from now, where are the ex-guerillas and ex-paramilitaries going to fit in in society? Let’s legalize cocaine (not going to happen) but in the meantime, let’s figure out the Patriot Act so that we can reintegrate these illiterates who only know how to brandish arms.

  2. jcg Says:

    The thing is, the “military first” or “military only” way has been tried in the past (admittedly, with proportionally less effectiveness than currently), but force alone, even if it is necessary, is not nearly enough. It’s about time that somebody realizes that military operations (and anti-drug operations within Plan Colombia, for that matter) need to be backed up by substantial social aid and state presence.

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