Pubdate: Fri, 24 Nov 2017
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2017 Los Angeles Times
Author: Chris Kraul


The anti-narcotics police arrived here in the heart of Colombia's
cocaine industry last month to destroy the coca crop. The community
was determined to save it.

Roughly 1,000 farmers, some armed with clubs, surrounded the hilltop
camp that police had set up in a jungle clearing and began closing in
on the officers.

The police started shooting. When they were done, seven farmers were
dead and 21 were wounded.

"Several friends and neighbors died on the ground waiting for medical
assistance," said Luis Gaitan, 32, who protected himself by hiding
behind a tree stump.

In the end, the police crackdown appeared to have little result.

If Colombia ever had a chance to choke off its cocaine industry, this
last year might have been it. The U.S.-backed government ended a
five-decade civil war with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia,
better known as the FARC, which fueled its rebellion largely with drug
proceeds. The peace agreement promised new economic opportunities for
the poor villages where coca production has long been the major source
of employment and cash payments to persuade coca farmers -- known as
cocaleros -- to grow legal crops instead.

But as the Oct. 5 clash in Tandil illustrates, things have not gone as

Coca cultivation last year nationwide expanded to 361,000 acres,
according to the United Nations. An area about the size of Los
Angeles, that's triple the 2013 total and the most acres since 2000,
when the U.S. launched a multibillion-dollar aid program called Plan
Colombia to combat drugs and terrorism.

The U.S. gets 92% of its cocaine from Colombia, which exported record
quantities in 2016, according to the U.S. government.

The boom is partly due to the 2015 elimination of aerial spraying with
glyphosate, an herbicide that killed coca plants but raised health

At the same time, promises during peace negotiations to pay coca
farmers to switch crops backfired and spurred a rush to plant coca in
time to cash in. The government in turn has been slow and uneven in
making those payments largely because of budget problems.

More worrisome for the government is that criminal enterprises have
been expanding their drug operations by rushing to fill the power
vacuum left in the villages once controlled by the FARC. Mafias
routinely issue death threats to coca farmers, warning them to not
accept alternative development assistance.

That reality has been playing out in Tumaco.

Situated on the Pacific coast near the border with Ecuador, the
municipality is ideal territory for cultivating and trafficking drugs.
The thick jungle, lack of roads and lattice of ocean inlets lined by
mangroves make it difficult for authorities to patrol here for
arrivals of the chemicals used to process coca or departures of
cocaine shipments headed north.

"The municipality is 70% dependent on illegal drugs," Mathiasen said.
"That's farming, manufacturing, transportation and, of course, the
export of cocaine. In other words, it is completely

Tumaco is also desperately poor. Most residents of the township lack
sewage or drinking water systems. An ongoing plague has killed vast
expanses of African palm that was the only legitimate income for many
farmers, and the small fishing industry based here continues to suffer
from a June 2015 oil spill that occurred when FARC guerrillas bombed a
pipeline, dumping 10,000 barrels of crude into the Nulpe River.

For many, coca farming has long been the most reliable way to earn a

Most of the cocaleros in Tumaco are from other parts of Colombia. They
started arriving a decade ago, when the FARC evicted black and
indigenous groups from land that had been deeded to them under a 1993
law aimed at reducing social inequities. The rebels offered new
"colonists" easy credit, security and the chance to make more money
than they ever dreamed possible. A 10-acre farm might yield its
operator enough coca to generate sales of up to $2,000 a month to
customers who would then process it for export.

"Coca was our way out of poverty, the only means we have to feed our
families, pay for our children's education," said Elier Martinez,
president of the local coca farmers collective. "People who have come
to grow coca are here because they're looking for a better life."

The peace deal reached in November 2016 promised to quash coca

Coca farmers in areas formerly held by the rebels were to receive
compensation of about $400 a month for two years of coca-free farming
followed by a single payment of up to $3,000 to help sustain a new
crop or business.

But the promise of that program has yet to materialize for many

A decline in the price of oil and coal exports has left the government
with a budget shortfall -- and struggling to meet its commitment to
the farmers. A member of the government's peace negotiating team who
spoke on condition of anonymity said that last year the Finance
Ministry, citing a lack of funds, rejected a plan to pay farmers a
total of $600 million immediately upon implementation of the accord.

Roughly 23,000 families of the 150,000 thought to be growing coca are
now receiving payments, according to Rafael Pardo, an advisor to
President Juan Manuel Santos. Some farmers, however, are not eligible
for the program because their plots are larger than 15 acres and
therefore classified as industrial or -- as was the case for Gaitan
and the 1,000 farmers in his community in and around Tandil -- they
don't have clear title to the land.

Gaitan, who moved here in 2012 and earns about $1,000 a month from his
4-acre farm, said that without crop substitution payments, there is no
way he could afford to give up growing coca. He said he and his wife
and three children would starve.

"Coca generates work and it is sustainable," he said. "They try to
paint us as mafiosos, but we are just the bees that make the honey.
Others who are more important eat the honey we produce."

The FARC has demobilized, but there is no shortage of other armed
groups to take over the coca production the rebels once controlled.

Ten drug trafficking organizations are active in Tumaco, according to
a recent study by Colombia's attorney general. In addition to the
National Liberation Army, a leftist rebel group, they include the
Zetas and Sinaloa cartels of Mexico.

The area continues to attract young men like 22-year-old Leonardo, who
asked that his last name not be used for fear of retribution by drug
traffickers. He arrived in Tandil last year to work as a raspachin, or
scraper, as coca harvesters are known. He said he can make $30 a day,
or three times what coffee harvesters earn back home in Caldas
province. He said he will soon have enough money to buy his mother a
small house.

The U.S. government, which has spent $10 billion on aid to Colombia
since 2000, has been frustrated that cocaine cultivation is going up,
not down.

Santos set a goal that 250,000 acres of coca -- roughly two-thirds the
national total as of last December -- would be eradicated this year.
Since January, special teams of police have fanned out across
coca-growing regions of Colombia, including Tumaco, to pull up coca

That has led to serious tensions between the authorities and coca
growers -- and occasional violence. At least four cocaleros have been
killed this year in 20 clashes with police. In April, farmers just
outside Tumaco overpowered 50 police, held 12 of them hostage for a
day and seized some weapons. U.N. mediators negotiated a peaceful
ending to the standoff.

But the incident helped set the stage for the killings last month in

"We realized the government wasn't going to give us anything, and that
the police were continuing with eradication, that there would be no
agreement," said Martinez, the leader of the collective there. "So
frustration was building."

Local farmers say they had not threatened the police before officers
began firing. The police have said that they started shooting only
after they had been fired upon with cylinder bombs, which resemble
huge mortar shells. But police suffered no casualties and offered no
evidence of bomb craters.

Police helicopters arrived about an hour after the shootings to take
the wounded to hospitals.

Days later, Gaitan and several other coca farmers gathered in the
jungle clearing where most of the victims were shot to bow their heads
and say a brief prayer.

Since the killings, tensions have remained high.

"No one from the government has been around to apologize or talk about
compensation," said Joana Mopan, the widow of one of the shooting
victims, 31-year-old Diego Escobar. "I don't know how my 13-year-old
son and I are going to manage."

Eight days after the shootings, Jose Jair Cortes, a coca farmer and
Tumaco community leader who advocated voluntary coca eradication, was
assassinated. Many farmers suspect that mafias opposed to the
government's alternative crops plan ordered the killing as a warning
to others.

The government says it's trying to improve conditions in Tumaco to win
back the trust of the farmers. The president held an emergency
security council meeting in Tumaco in mid-October and announced a
campaign to bring more police and troops to the area and to step up
social programs. Santos said he recognized that the township's
"necessities are immense."

"The government has not abandoned Tumaco. To the contrary," he said in
a speech. "The national, departmental and local governments have to
work more as a team to stimulate participation and accelerate the
substitution of illicit crops."

Leticia Riascos, a community leader in the city of Tumaco, said most
coca farmers chose their work by necessity and would happily change
"if they had a real option."
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