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


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 left ist 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
trafficking, 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

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 accused 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.
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MAP posted-by: Doc-Hawk