PUTUMAYO It could be any of a thousand corn fields here in the sweltering jungle of Putumayo. But a 15-minute walk along a narrow path through head-high corn leads not to a farmhouse, but to a jungle clearing outfitted with exercise and obstacle courses, a barbed-wire maze and a half-dozen camouflaged wooden huts all hidden from the air by tight jungle growth. It is the headquarters of the southern block of the United Self-Defence Forces, AUC, the Colombian paramilitaries…
It is the coca heartland. Ninety per cent of the more than 300 tons of cocaine that North Americans consume each year comes from Colombia, more than half of it from the jungle lowlands here…
To anyone who spends much time here, it is clear that paramilitary soldiers — not army soldiers — are spearheading the U.S.-sponsored push into Putumayo. In spite of the fact the U.S. State Department placed the AUC on its list of international terrorist groups last month, and in spite of the fact AUC gunmen have committed more than 40 massacres so far this year, there is no government effort here to combat them.
El Placer is 15 minutes from the town of La Hormiga, home to an army battalion and a police station. But neither the army or police have made any effort to fight the AUC since it took over the village last year. Indeed, people here say the paramilitaries co-ordinate their incursions with local army units to ensure they will not be interrupted once they begin their grisly work.
Since arriving in Putumayo two years ago, the AUC has killed hundreds of people it accused of sympathizing with FARC guerrillas. Its strategy is brutally effective and since its arrival, several thousand peasant families have fled the region ahead of the advance. Comandante Wilson, a stocky former Colombian army officer who commands the AUC’s 800 men in Putumayo, scoffs at the notion of his men killing civilians.
"That’s all media manipulation," he says. "Look, when the guerrillas know we’re getting close, they’re so afraid of us they take off their uniforms and put on street clothes. But they’re still guerrillas and we kill them." Because they distrust locals, fearing they might be guerrilla infiltrators, most of Wilson’s men were brought into Putumayo from northern Colombia, where the AUC has its headquarters and is strongest…
Daniel Bland OTTAWA CITIZEN 20th June 2001
CAQUETA Deep in the jungle, laborers scurried along wooden walkways through a sprawling cocaine factory. The acrid stench of chemicals hung in the air as coca paste, a breadcrumb-like powder made from coca leaves, was refined into snow-white cocaine at the rate of more than a ton a week… Here in the guerrilla-controlled jungles of the Caguan River region of Caqueta province in southern Colombia, peasants sell their coca paste to drug dealers for around $780 per kilogram (2.2 pounds). By the time that kilo has been refined, cut, and sold on the streets of New York, London, or Paris, among other cities, it will be worth as much as $170,000, according to estimates of the US Drug Enforcement Administration.
As Colombia’s cocaine and heroin output soars, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the rebel army that controls up to 40 percent of the country, has been accused of jettisoning its Marxist ideology and becoming little more than an international drug cartel… This corner of Caqueta province, like parts of neighboring Putumayo province, is one of the biggest cocaine-producing regions in the world. But if the government is correct about the growing rebel role in the drug trade, there is little evidence of it here. The rebel army is the undisputed master of the lower Caguan region. But the secret laboratory was not ringed by guerrillas nor staffed by a rebel work force, which government officials suggest is routine. There was not a gun in sight, and most of the 50 or so workers questioned said they were peasant laborers.
”As long as we pay our taxes, the guerrillas leave us in peace. They don’t even come round here,” said a lab foreman, who gave his name as Elver Gomez, 42. He rejected suggestions that the rebels guard drug complexes like his. ”This is a very risky business,” he said. ”But as long as there’s hunger in this country, this trade will not stop.” The complex, built of wood and stacked high with steel drums of chemicals, belongs to a cocaine capo from Caucasia, in northwest Antioquia province, he said… The lab is in a region that is firmly in the sights of the US-backed ”Plan Colombia” antidrug offensive that was launched in mid-December. There have been a few aerial spraying sorties to kill coca plants, but the Colombian Army’s elite counternarcotics battalions, trained by US Green Berets, have not yet seen action here…
So far the government has rejected proposals to collaborate with the rebels to promote crop substitution, and the peasants continue to tend their drug plantations.
Karl Penhaul BOSTON GLOBE 3rd June 2001
BOGOTA Airport police last year discovered a substance testing positive for heroin in a packet being sent to the United States by the main U.S. private contractor in the drug war in Colombia, the nation’s police chief said Monday.
Jared Kotler ASSOCIATED PRESS 9th July 2001
PEQUE More than a week after right-wing death squads killed 11 peasants, Colombian troops on Thursday arrived in the small town of Peque to find thousands of refugees huddled in schools and public buildings.
Accompanied by Defense Minister Gustavo Bell, army soldiers and police descended on the remote Andean town where 6,000 peasants, including children, took refuge after outlawed paramilitaries went on a three-day rampage, taking over city hall and torturing and mutilating villagers. One man had his eyes ripped out of its sockets. Others were decapitated with machetes.
"The police and the army arrived today but the refugees have not started returning to their villages. The return will take more time until the refugees feel it is safe to go back," Jose Luis Usuga, Peque’s mayor, told Reuters in a telephone interview.
Town officials had sent repeated pleas for help after the 500 paramilitaries, who accused Peque of being a guerrilla stronghold, promised to return and kill all of them if they did not leave. After the paramilitaries left, heavily-armed leftist guerrillas entered the town on Tuesday night, gathered the refugees and local people in the square and pledged to combat the far-right gunmen… The refugees, most of them poor coffee- and bean-growers who fled outlying villages, have been sleeping on blankets and cooking in makeshift kitchens in the main square. The government has airlifted food and local authorities have reported an outbreak of diarrhea and chickenpox…
Town officials said they had alerted authorities that the paramilitaries, who witnesses said arrived by helicopter, were in the area.
Ibon Villelabeitia REUTERS 13th July 2001