It’s hard to imagine how things must look from the point of view of a Colombian Campesino living in the ‘red zone’ of Caqueta, Southern Colombia.
Upon arriving in Caqueta three months ago the tension was obvious.
No one knew what would happen after late January, when the ‘truce’ between the government and the FARC was due to end.
"It’s like living a slow agony," they told me "whilst all the time the USA and the government builds the pressure". The pressure takes the form of increased food prices, lower prices for produce, the appearance of paramilitaries, many rumours and lots of propaganda.
For some the pressure has already got too much and they have abandoned their homes, heading for the departmental capital, Florencia, or further afield. In Florencia there are growing slums, unemployment, poverty, prostitution and crime.
People have nowhere to go and don’t know what to do. The only evidence of the famous Plan Colombia are the planes that fly over on their fumigation missions. Of social programmes I saw nothing.
26th January 2001: Today we hear that the paramilitaries are setting up roadblocks near to the town of San Jose and charging 2000 pesos for all who wish to pass. They are also taxing anyone who brings food from Florencia to sell in the local shops.
28th January: A local man has been kidnapped by the paramilitaries. We try to get more information from the village but people don’t want to speak, they are scared and nervous.
Earlier in the month we visited Florencia and witnessed a military roadblock at which all the campesino buses were stopped and searched whilst all the new and more expensive looking cars were waved through. My fellow passengers commented that this was ridiculous, as everyone knows that the coca buyers are well off and don’t travel on buses. It’s only to inconvenience the campesinos.
10th February: Tonight I visited the house of a campesino. Upon arriving I found him talking to a guerrilla from the FARC. He explained that he had joined because one year before the planes came and fumigated all his crops. He was left with nothing so he joined the FARC.
During the course of the conversation he explained that he and his comrades were visiting all the campesinos they could in order to explain to them about Plan Colombia.
Most of the people know very little even though it will directly affect them. He explained that in the guerrillas they are taught to treat the people with respect, not to use bad language and not to get drunk. There are punishments for anyone failing to observe these rules. He also told us about the discipline they give to criminals and the steps they take to try and convince them to change.
The guerrillas are very strong-minded people. It is hard, perhaps, for us to understand how it is to make a revolution against such huge odds.
The results are, however, that wherever the FARC have control, there is little violence or crime. The town of Curillo was formerly controlled by the FARC but the citizens complained about the tough discipline imposed so the FARC left and allowed the military to take over. A year or more later the people are desperate for the FARC to return because the military get drunk, they assault people, they rape, they steal and they murder and they are then charged with the task of keeping order!
We asked the guerrilla why the FARC had not responded to the recent fumigation by attacking the planes. He told us that they are serious about peace and that they are trying to gain international support and recognition so that their ideas will be heard and so that they can continue the peace process.
Later we moved onto the subject of the coca; The guerrillas are not in favour of coca production but they say that unless a viable alternative is found then it will continue. The FARC, in the absence of a realistic approach to the situation by the international community, have taken on the role of policing the sale of the coca to the cartels. When the traffickers come to buy from the campesinos that cultivate the coca and make the base cocaine, the FARC make sure that a good price is given to the campesinos for their produce. They then take a tax from the buyer. They also monitor the buyers and give security to the campesinos.
The FARC have made proposals to finish coca production, introduce alternative crops and market them. This has been ignored both in Colombia and internationally because there is an agenda to present the FARC as ‘Narco-Guerrillas.’ The fact is that the guerrilla were there long before the coca and will continue to be there, coca or no coca whilst the campesinos face oppression.
The USA, Colombian government and military use the fact that the guerrilla, like the campesinos, are obliged to live from coca to take the high moral ground and present the FARC as drug runners. This is the whole pretext of Plan Colombia. But it is common knowledge in Colombia that the military, the police, the government and the business world in Colombia and on an international scale are up to their necks in the drug trade.
Nobody on the military-government axis in Colombia or the USA is in any position to start moralising against the FARC on involvement in the drug trade.
February 16th: We awoke early and set out from Sabaleta village to look for fumigation.
As we walked in the heat of the day we passed many farms. The land is a maze of paths, patches of jungle, here and there a farm, sometimes cattle, people working, in the distance a chainsaw and frequently, fields of coca.
To pass through the ‘backwoods’ of the plains of Caqueta is to pass into another world.
People travel by horse or mule if they can afford to keep one. Otherwise they walk. Their lives are hard and they struggle to maintain a basic subsistence. The coca is their lifeline.
Eventually we reached a big stretch of parched land where we saw dead coca, dead plantain, dead jungle, a house and no one in sight. After this, we walked for three hours further and saw the results of the fumigation wherever we went. We saw patches of jungle parched and dry like a desert. There were various houses abandoned.
When one sees the destruction caused by the fumigation, the lives affected, the skin infections caused by the poisons used and the alienation from Colombian national life of the people it is obvious that its not working. Before I returned to the UK I travelled North into the Andes where I met a man who had spent five years on the Colombian Police force.
The man, who asked me not to name him or his whereabouts, had left because of the corruption. A corruption, he discovered, that reaches to the very top. Petty theft, violence against the public, bribery and so on were common practice. He soon discovered that it was dangerous to question this and that to co-operate was the best way to get promoted.
Amongst the many things he told me was that on one occasion a number of lorries were stopped at a Police checkpoint and found to have a large quantities of cocaine concealed in their cargo. Upon investigation the drivers were found to be policemen and the owner of the vehicles was found to be Rosso Jose Serrano Cadena, the then head of Police. The Police conducting the search were told by order of Serrano that ‘if they didn’t want any problems’ they should let the lorries pass.
This ex-policeman also told me that when he left the police force he was offered a large sum of money to join the paramilitaries. The men that approached him knew all his career details.
When I was first in Colombia I asked myself; why are there guerrilla? Why do these people take up arms against such odds? Nobody does this without good reason. Their situation must be terrible if they choose to risk their lives in this way.
Although personally I am not in favour of violence, I do not think that it is possible for us to judge these people from our privileged perspective. We do not know how it is to suffer the oppression and violation of rights suffered by the campesinos. Having lived and worked with campesinos and knowing the prices they get for legal crops it is obvious that any solution must address the economic difficulties they face.
The people of the cities and the country are divided in many ways and the situation of the campesinos and their defenders, the guerrilla are not well understood, even less so with all the propaganda against them. The only way for the Colombian people to successfully determine their future is for them to unite in their struggle. The guerrillas are now trying to instigate a political movement based upon the ideas of Simon Bolivar, a socialism that is Latin American in its style, rhetoric and ideology. This represents the best hope for Colombia and Latin America in general to rid itself of the imperialism that is exploiting it and dividing its people. Such a movement, by definition, would be based on a respect and understanding of those simple and often very wise people of the earth, the Indigenous and Campesinos who are the heart and soul of Latin America.
Robert Lawson, English Ecologists Against Fumigation.