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Five years on, Colombia’s coca regions remain at war and distrust is growing

‘We haven’t known peace in decades.’

Colombian government forces have been stepping up operations to eradicate coca plantations, like this one in Antioquia province on 10 September 2019. Luis Jaime Acosta/REUTERS
Colombian government forces have been stepping up operations to eradicate coca plantations, like this one in Antioquia province on 10 September 2019.

Colombia’s 2016 peace deal was lauded for bringing to an end the longest-running war in the Americas. But five years on, aggressive counter-narcotics tactics and unkept government pledges are blamed for fuelling distrust in rural areas and driving a new cycle of violence.

President Iván Duque’s administration has launched a series of controversial military measures as part of its “Peace with Legality” policy, including a March airstrike on a rebel camp that killed two children, and the deployment of special forces in July to some of the country’s deadliest conflict zones.

Residents and community leaders in lawless, coca-producing regions like Catatumbo – where memories of civilian assassinations by the military are raw – are sceptical of the militarisation, and ask why the schools, jobs, and clinics promised under the 2016 deal failed to materialise.

“This house was built without a gram of coca,” 70-year-old Carmen Rojas Silva told The New Humanitarian, as she sipped coffee in the kitchen of her home in Catatumbo’s Puerto Lajas.

Rojas Silva may not grow coca, but she is one of the few inhabitants of the small riverine community near the Venezuelan border who doesn’t: Hectare upon hectare of the illegal crop stretch behind her as far as the eye can see.

“The people here don’t have faith in the government,” explained her grandson, Andrés Silva, a 28-year-old social leader who works with a local farmers’ collective to advocate for more sustainable farming practices. “They’ve been told so many lies that they no longer believe the government will keep its promises. So we build our own roads. We install our own electricity.”

The historic peace deal – announced in Havana, Cuba at the end of August 2016 – pledged an end to a half-century of civil war, investments in basic infrastructure, and alternatives to the coca economy that has dominated regions like Catatumbo since the late 1990s. 

Yet in Puerto Lajas, the law is imposed by criminal armed groups, not the police. When government forces do show up, it is usually, residents say, for anti-drug operations run by the army. Armed groups battle openly for control, making parts of Catatumbo off limits to most aid groups and government services – including COVID-19 vaccination efforts. 

READ MORE: Left behind by the vaccine rollout

So far, roughly a third of Colombia’s population has been fully vaccinated, but not quickly enough to stem the country’s largest spike in deaths between March and July 2021.

In March, the Colombian army began sending COVID-19 vaccines to the two main cities in Catatumbo via helicopter and under armed guard, amidst continued military operations against rebel groups. But aside from the security issues – and the fact that large parts of the vast rural area are inaccessible – there hasn’t been much appetite for the programme.

“The pace of the rollout has been slow,” Dulivé Rivera, health services administrator in Tíbu, a town in Catatumbo near the Venezuelan border, told The New Humanitarian. “We haven’t seen a great interest from the public,” she said. “The Ministry of Health decided to send many of the vaccines back to Cúcuta, where they were more likely to be used.”

As of the end of August, only around 1,000 of Tíbu’s population of 36,000 had received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, although it is freely available to anyone over the age of 18 who has basic identification, according to Rivera.

“We are considering doing away with the identification requirement in an attempt to incorporate those who may fear giving their full names to the national government,” said the administrator, reflecting the daily reality in a region where many residents are considered criminals by the government simply by the nature of their work. 

“Armed groups simply won’t permit the entry of army officials,” added Rivera. “We are in communication with local leaders and farmers unions to negotiate entry of health personnel But even then, we have not found a great interest among the population, particularly for second doses.”

Humanitarian organisations have decided not to directly participate in vaccination programmes in the region due to the legal liability from the potential side effects as well as the logistical challenges of transporting vaccines there. Some are trying to work with the government on outreach programmes and negotiating safe passage for medical personnel.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is involved in talks between armed groups in Catatumbo and government medical personnel, acting as a liaison in conjunction with local leadership. A medical worker at the local ICRC field office declined to discuss details, citing security and neutrality issues, but confirmed that the office is providing support for vaccine distribution efforts.

However, in Puerto Lajas, where Silva and Pípe live, not a single vaccination had been administered as of mid-July, according to Rivera.

“You have to understand,” explained Silva. “This isn’t against the vaccine itself. These people have been stigmatised, attacked, and lied to by the government for decades. They aren’t going to trust anything the Colombian military does, and they are unlikely to trust anyone from the Ministry of Health either. They think it’s just another lie.”

Criminal groups in Catatumbo recently attacked the presidential helicopter with small-arms fire as it passed overhead; planted mines in a landing strip where COVID-19 vaccines were to be delivered; and are accused of masterminding a June car bombing at an army base in the regional capital – and Venezuelan migration hub – of Cúcuta that wounded 36 people.

“Catatumbo is the most beautiful place on earth,” Rojas Silva said. “But we haven’t known peace in decades.”

The government – and paramilitary groups allied with it – have committed grave human rights violations in the region, including a high-profile case in the late 2000s when soldiers extrajudicially killed nearly 80 farmers, claiming they were rebel fighters – part of a notorious scandal in Colombia known as “false positives”.

Rojas Silva’s son was killed by leftist guerrillas as they took over the region in the late 1990s. One of her grandsons was killed eight years later during a military crackdown on rebel groups. The government claimed he was a National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla – a claim she vehemently denies.

Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, Andes director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a think tank that monitors human rights in the region, sees what is happening in Catatumbo as a microcosm of the failing peace process nationally.

“Even before the peace accord, there was a severe disconnect between civil society and the government in Catatumbo,” Sánchez-Garzoli told The New Humanitarian. “Catatumbo was settled mostly by people fleeing violence during the civil war, often at the hands of rebel groups, but also by the government as well as their paramilitary allies.”

“It’s really a shame,” she said. “Farmers and rural poor in these communities really gave peace [and the government] a chance. They decided to engage. A lot of these farmers’ collectives proposed ideas for investment, for crop substitution, for land reform – as part of the accord – and they were left behind.”

‘If we want to survive, we plant coca’

Catatumbo, which still produces more coca – the raw ingredient in cocaine – than just about anywhere else in the world, effectively exists outside the presence of the Colombian state.

And it’s not alone. The rising violence in Catatumbo is mirrored in other conflict zones such as Nariño, Putumayo, Cauca, and Chocó, where armed groups are also flourishing amid reports of increased child recruitment during the pandemic.

As armed groups fight both amongst themselves and against the Colombian military, more than 27,000 people were displaced by violence in the first four months of 2021 – on top of another 70,800 in 2020 – according to the Human Rights Ombudsman Office of Colombia.

In Catatumbo, which also boasts the country’s largest oil reserves, left-wing guerrilla groups that rejected the peace deal include: the ELN, the People's Liberation Army (EPL), and dissident factions from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). They are all battling for valuable coca production, smuggling, and extortion territory. Parts of Catatumbo are also controlled by right-wing narco groups that originated from paramilitary “self-defence” forces, allied with the government during the civil war. 

“The government says we are all ELN,” said 26-year-old Pípe, as he planted coca seedlings at his family’s small farm in Puerto Lajas. “They say we are narcos, that we are guerrillas. None of that is true. We have had to learn to survive with the guerrillas because there is no other option... If we want to survive, we plant coca.”

Pípe, who asked that his last name not be used for fears over his safety, described how his family used to grow yucca, squash, avocados, and bananas when he was a child in the early 2000s, and how the economic realities forced them into growing coca.

“It’s 11 hours by bus to the closest city. So when we sold our crop, we had to pay for that transport to Cúcuta,” he recalled. “We could sell a kilo of vegetables for a pittance there. It just wasn’t sustainable. But if you grow coca, the buyers come to you, and the price is fair.”

As part of the peace agreement, the government pledged to invest heavily in rural infrastructure and in crop substitution programmes for coca growers like Pípe under what was called the Plan for Development and Territorial Focus, known by its Spanish initials, PDET.

Since the plan was launched in 2017, 75,930 families have signed up nationally and have received payments or food assistance while they transition away from illicit crops, a spokesperson for PDET told The New Humanitarian, adding that 65,830 families have received seeds or tools for alternative agricultural projects.

However, it wasn’t clear how many of those families overlap, and the accord called for assistance for 200,000 families to break the cycle of illicit coca production. Regardless, the reality on the ground is that the drug business is thriving.

When asked about the crop substitution programmes, Pípe laughed. “Yeah. Some of us tried that. They want us to plant palm. The government loves palm oil. But the funding never comes. It’s just another lie. Meanwhile, they send soldiers to burn down our fields.”

“There is a perception among many farmers that the state is incapable of keeping its promises.”

The PDET office did not say how many of those who signed up for crop substitution programmes had received all the funding they were promised. But as of 2019, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) found that only three percent of the farmers who signed up had received full payment, and that 50 percent had received nothing at all. 

“The community has learned that it has to be self-sufficient,” said Silva. “The government doesn’t provide us with anything – not even roads. And there is a perception among many farmers that the state is incapable of keeping its promises.”

Critics say Duque – a vociferous opponent of the peace deal, which was struck by his predecessor – has preferred military solutions to fostering peace through development. In 2020, the government destroyed record amounts of coca fields: roughly 130,000 hectares, compared to 94,000 hectares in 2019. But according to both the UNODC and the US State Department, Colombia produced record amounts of cocaine during that same period.

The worsening security outlook

Since the FARC disarmed and joined the government as part of the peace deal, other groups have moved into territory it formerly controlled, including in Catatumbo. While crime rates in urban centres such as Medellín and the capital, Bogotá, have fallen dramatically in recent years, violence in the countryside has risen. 

Mass killings soared in 2020 to levels not seen since the height of the civil war in 2012. As of 31 August, there had been 68 mass killings recorded so far in 2021 – heavily concentrated in the rural areas that were promised investment and infrastructure under the peace accord.

A total of 310 activists, social leaders, human rights defenders, and local political candidates were killed in 2020, compared to 210 in 2017 and 152 in 2016, according to Indepaz, a non-profit that monitors the peace process. Again, the vast majority of these killings occurred in rural areas. In Cauca, a different conflict zone in central Colombia, only five activists were killed the year the peace accord was announced. By 2019, that number was 72.

Kidnappings, forced recruitment, human trafficking, and coca production have also risen in conflict zones like Catatumbo since 2017, according to reports from the International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch.

Venezuelans, meanwhile, have been caught up in clashes between the Colombian and Venezuelan security forces and the rival armed groups – some of which use Venezuela as a safe haven. In May, some 5,000 Venezuelans became displaced and crossed into Colombia after Venezuelan forces attacked a FARC dissident group.

“Colombia still has time to salvage the peace,” said WOLA’s Sánchez-Garzoli. “It’s an opportune moment. The UN has recently expanded their oversight role and there is political will in Washington to help fund solutions to these problems. But the Colombian government has been disingenuous. They prefer military solutions.”

In the 1990s, the US government initiated Plan Colombia in partnership with Colombia, an expensive decade-long initiative to train soldiers and police to wage the war on drugs and lower coca production.

Thirty years later, the two countries continue to work together towards this same goal, but cocaine has been getting cheaper in the United States, coca fields keep expanding, violence continues to worsen, and – despite the militarisation – the Colombian state has no more real presence in places like Catatumbo than it did before the peace agreement in 2016. 

“Look at that mountain ridge,” said Silva, pointing to endless coca fields in the distance near Puerto Lajas. “When I was a kid, that was all jungle. Now, it's all coca. This is what government policy has done to Catatumbo. As long as they choose to wage war on us rather than offer solutions, this will be the result.”

Edited by Paula Dupraz-Dobias and Andrew Gully.

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