Pubdate: Wed, 01 Nov 2000
Source: Mother Jones (US)
Copyright: 2000 Foundation for National Progress
Contact:  731 Market Street, SuitE 600, San Francisco, CA 94103
Fax: (415) 665-6696
Author: Kirk Semple


Efforts To Curtail The Production And Distribution Of Cocaine In Colombia

For community workers on Colombia's cocaine frontier, the war on drugs
is getting personal. Community organizer Eder Sanchez pulls away from
a breakfast of liver, rice, and plantains and uncaps his pen. He's
sitting in a roadside cafeteria near the farming pueblo of La Hormiga
in the southern Colombian state of Putumayo. Groves of plantain and
yucca cut into the tropical forest here alongside fields covered with
bushy coca plants. Putumayo is the world's cocaine frontier, the
source of 50 percent of Colombia's coca crop. Sanchez is here to talk
to local farmers about a new, U.S.-funded anti-narcotics offensive
targeted primarily at this remote region. He knows that they fear for
their future--and he's concerned about his own.

With the precision of an industrial designer, Sanchez draws a simple
map of the area on a napkin: a grid formed by a straight vertical axis
(the area's main road) and a wavy horizontal axis (the Putumayo
River). At the intersection is a dot (Puerto Asis, the region's
largest town). The lines roughly demarcate the territories of control
in the region. "I can work here," Sanchez says, poking at the upper
left-hand quadrant. "Or here," he adds, pointing at the lower left.
Only a few weeks earlier he was moving fairly freely around the whole
napkin. Soon, he knows, the boundaries of power will shift again.

As his economical penwork suggests, Sanchez is a man who seeks clarity
in an infinitely complicated situation. He has to. As president of the
region's main farmers' union, the 33-year-old has spent years
traversing Putumayo, educating campesinos about their political rights
and helping develop farming cooperatives. In a state where the
presence of Colombia's central government is rarely felt, this has
meant moving between zones alternately controlled by leftist
guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries--and remaining as neutral and
transparent as possible.

In recent months, the work of Sanchez and other community-based
workers in Putumayo has gotten even more difficult. They blame Plan
Colombia--President Andres Pastrana's massive new effort to
simultaneously destroy narcotics traficking, settle the country's
four-decade-old armed conflict, and rebuild the long-neglected regions
where coca is grown. Last summer, Congress approved an initial U.S.
contribution to the plan totaling $ 1.3 billion over two years. Eighty
percent of the money is slated to help Colombia's military and police
forces stop drug traffickers throughout the Andes and destroy coca
fields and processing plants in the jungle; the rest is earmarked for
social programs including human rights monitoring and refugee assistance.

U.S. and Colombian officials insist that the carrot-and-stick approach
is essential to Plan Colombia. The Pastrana administration hopes to
funnel about $ 40 million in development funds into Putumayo by
February, while at the same time increasing the number of troops and
police in the region.

But Sanchez and other grassroots workers maintain that the plan's
military objectives have already compromised the social aspect. The
Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (farc) guerrillas in
particular have taken the plan personally, accusing the U.S. and
Colombian governments of launching a counterinsurgency offensive
thinly veiled as an anti-narcotics program. "They said they will allow
certain [groups] to do their work," reports Father Luis Alfonso Gomez,
a parish priest in Puerto Asis, "as long as they're not infiltrated by
political interests or gringo manipulation." But, he and other
community workers wonder, how will the farc tell the difference?

Dagoberto Martinez, project director for a Puerto Asis-based nonprofit
that provides technical assistance to farmers, says organizers are
being greeted with growing suspicion by both sides in the conflict.
"It's more risky than before," he says. "You can't be crossing from
where the guerrillas are to where the paras are. They'll kill you
because they may think you're carrying information from one side to
the other."

One of Eder Sanchez's groups--the Municipal Council of Rural
Development, where he served as director until late August--has
already been crushed between the warring factions. Last summer a local
farc commander ac-cused the council of abetting the paras (an
allegation Sanchez denies) and vowed to destroy the organization. Soon
thereafter several campesinos were found murdered outside Puerto Asis.
One was a local coordinator for the council. Within days Sanchez
resigned his post, hoping that cutting his links with the targeted
group would allow him to continue working in Putumayo.

But he fears that he won't be able to do it much longer. He's already
trying to spend as little time as possible in the Puerto Asis area,
even though he has invested more than five years of effort in
organizing campesinos there. "The farc aren't going to let anyone
enter," he predicts. "It's a critical situation. I'm very worried."

Sanchez is not alone in his concern. In August, just before President
Clinton's visit to Colombia, more than 130 national and international
community-based organizations announced the formation of a coalition,
Paz Colombia, to oppose Pastrana's strategy. The coordinator of the
alliance, Jorge Rojas, says Plan Colombia was poorly conceived and
will only aggravate the conflict. "It's a plan that will polarize
Colombian society," he maintains. "It's a plan to do away with illicit
crops, but it's going to drive the crops deeper in the jungle and
across the borders. We don't think that it's going to strengthen peace."

Jaime Ruiz, Pastrana's chief political affairs adviser, insists that
Plan Colombia's two-pronged strategy can work. "We believe," he says,
"that if we come in and the community feels the support of the
government, feels the state presence, feels it's there to stay, and if
there's money, reality, commitment, they're obviously going to start
finding that they're not going to have to choose between either the
[paramilitaries] or the farc."

 >From where Sanchez sits, though, such promises come too late. Had the
Colombian and U.S. governments been serious about grassroots
development, he says, they would have sounded out community leaders
well before the plan was presented to Congress a year ago. In fact,
the first official delegation from President Pastrana's Plan Colombia
office didn't show up in Puerto Asis until this summer. In an
unfortunate bit of symbolism, the group traveled in a U.S. military
transport plane.