Below is a brief video update recorded Friday after a visit with community leaders in the village of Puerto Toledo, in the municipality of Puerto Rico, Meta.
Puerto Toledo used to be a big cocaine market town under solid FARC control. The town is now rather empty-looking. However, the FARC still appears to have a great ability to cause havoc in the area. We even had to leave without dawdling because the guerrillas had just attacked a team of coca eradicators, guarded by police and army, about 2 kilometers away. I was actually surprised by the level of guerrilla activity in the area which, according to all observers we interviewed, appeared to have intensified significantly starting in March.
Because of the security situation, which is clearly far from consolidated, we had to hitch a 15-minute ride on a Colombian Army helicopter to get from Vistahermosa to Puerto Toledo. The soldiers dropped us off at the edge of town and were nowhere nearby when we met with the community leaders. In the video, I am waiting at the pickup site on the edge of town, where a group of soldiers, most of them hardly a day over twenty, were encamped.
In this area, the soldiers are on their own. While there is an ambitious plan to establish a full state presence in the zone, being coordinated by a facility called a “fusion center,” headquartered in Vistahermosa, Puerto Toledo has seen little non-military presence or investment. The main efforts so far have been a refurbishment of the town’s bridge, with USAID funds, and a program, carried out by the National Park Service, to relocate 300 families from the fringes of the La Macarena National Park to new, titled landholdings with decent houses and no coca plants. The Park Service program is moving steadily, but slowly.
The 300 families, from Puerto Toledo and nearby towns, have been in negotiations for nearly a year with the directors of the “Integrated Action” program for support with productive projects and food security assistance. The communities have exchanged several proposals and counter-proposals with the Plan for Integrated Consolidation of La Macarena (PCIM), the entity coordinating the state-building effort in the region. The communities’ main reservations had to do with clauses requiring them to certify that they invited the presence of the security forces – an affirmation that, in their view, would have left them vulnerable to swift and cruel retribution from the FARC. Finally, a month ago, the PCIM told the communities that their most recent proposal was acceptable, but that the funding window had closed.
In general, my impression of the program is that its civilian component is still quite weak. This appears to be due mainly to lack of resources, lack of civilian agencies’ “buy-in,” and a security situation that appears to be far less permissive than I had been led to believe.
I’ll write more about this later. Please keep in mind that these are very raw first impressions from someone who just returned to BogotÃ¡ a few hours ago and hasn’t even reviewed his notes yet. I’ll post corrections if necessary.