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COLOMBIA: A Hundred-Year War on Drugs

Analysis by Constanza Vieira*

BOGOTA, Feb 23 2009 (IPS) - The anti-drug, anti-insurgent Plan Colombia is, paradoxically, at the heart of the tragedy involving Awa indigenous people who were murdered this month by the FARC guerrillas.

The Marshal Antonio Jose de Sucre Column of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) acknowledged that it had "executed" eight Awa people, accused of being army informants, in the conflict-ridden department of Narino, in the southwest part of the country.

Huge tracts of land on the way to Narino are now planted with coca and populated by drug laboratories, displacing villagers, ever since the Plan Colombia, financed by the United States, demolished drug production in Putumayo and Caqueta successively over the course of 2000. The two regions are neighbours to Narino looking eastward and north eastward.

Alone with the rain?

For the Awas, “many times, the only thing that comes here is rain and aerial spraying (fumigation), ” said Olivio Bisbicus, president of Indigenous Unity of the Awa People (Unipa), created 19 years ago.

The Permanent Tribunal of (Indigenous) Peoples (TPP), an international body whose rulings are non-binding, heard the accusations by the Awa people on aerial spraying and decreed on July 2008 that this act “frequently fails to attack the illicit plantings, controlled by some of the most powerful sections of the country, proof of which is the 20 percent increase in the illicit production of coca in 2007.”

This community of 25,000 indigenous people with 210,000 hectares of land, has not just stayed with its arms folded in order to save its cloud-covered Andean forests that sweep down to the sea, where species such as the endangered Andean or frontino bear live.

In May of 2008, a hearing of the TPP on the oil explorations and aerial spraying was held and in June it held its first congress, with some 2,500 delegates, in the protected El Gran Sabalo, in the municipality of Barbacoas, near where the FARC’s Columna Sucre had committed the massacre in that month.

In that occasion, the radio La Voz de los Awa broadcast songs in the local language, interpreted live to the music of marimbas, by the elders, woman and children.

Review of the disaster
In March 2008, amidst massive military manoeuvres, four Awas of the indigenous community Vegas Changui Chibusa, were killed, The community is part of the National Movement of Victims of State Crime.

Since 2006 there have been 46 killings that remain unpunished.

This number includes five leaders shot in the village of Ataquer, in the early hours of the International Day of Indigenous People, August 9, 2006, by men in uniforms…

Col. Juan Pablo Amaya has pinned the blame for the killings on insurgents. The government has suggested that perhaps some of the victims were guerrillas.

Year long investigations by prosecutors produced 11 suspects: 6 military officers and 5 civilians.

At the time of the killings at Ataque, there was a heavy military presence in the region. One month earlier, occupation by the army forced the displacement of 1700 people.

In July, there was more bad news. Three Awa children between 8 and 15 years of age, of the indigenous village of Las Planada Telembi, were killed by antipersonnel mines while hunting and fishing in the river.

Since then, seven Awas were killed on land mined fields in 2008. In 2007 there had been 13.

In Narino, everyone is planting mines, even the army, although no one acknowledges this. Most guilty of this is the leftist National Liberation Army (ELN), fighting the FARC in this area.

In August, the High Commission of the United Nations for Refugees reported the “confinement” of Awas on their lands in Samaniego.

That same year two Awa governors were detained.

The objective of Plan Colombia was to expel the coca-growing population and isolate it from the FARC, which emerged in 1964.

But the strategy failed to take into consideration the "globalizing effect", observed by drug experts. When you "oppress" the business in one area, it will move to another. Now there are 20,000 hectares of coca in Narino.

"The Awas probably have been hit hardest by this colonisation and coca bonanza, since large fields of coca have been planted around and within their lands," said anthropologist Efrain Jaramillo Jaramillo.

The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), which used to present its annual report in March, this year moved the release forward and it was published on Feb. 19.

The reason: Feb. 24 will be the 100th anniversary of the first meeting of 13 countries in the Chinese port city of Shanghai to study the international drug trade, as part of the International Opium Commission.

Their recommendations were incorporated into the first worldwide drug control treaty – the International Opium Convention – signed in The Hague in 1912.

In 1909, it was estimated that there were 800,000 drug users. Today there are more than 240 million, or 4 percent of the world population, according to the INCB.

"We haven’t won (the war), but it’s not lost," said Dr. Camilo Uribe in the report released in Bogota. Uribe is second vice-president of INCB and president of the Permanent Committee in the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

The new report reveals that coca planning grew by 27 percent in Colombia, the country which is the world’s largest producer of raw cocaine.

Efforts by Colombian officials to eradicate coca, supported by the Plan Colombia, ran up against "violent attacks by armed and criminal groups using guns and anti-personnel mines to protect their illicit plantings,’ wrote the INCB in its report.

This is "a war which will last as long as the human race," said Gen. Alvaro Caro, director of narcotics police, at the presentation of the report in Bogota, or at least for the next "400 years."

But not everyone agrees that war is the best way to fight the consumption of drugs.

"Violence and organized crime associated with illicit drug trafficking constitute one of the most serious problems in Latin America," according to the report "Drugs and democracy in Latin American: towards a change of the paradigm."

Released on the 11th of this month in Rio de Janeiro by a commission headed by ex-presidents Cesar Gaviria (Colombia), Ernesto Zedillo (Mexico) and Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Brazil), the report calls for a "correction in the strategy of a "war on drugs" which has been applied over the last 30 years in the region."

Plan Colombia did not reach its goals, noted the ex-presidents’ report, which were "to end the armed conflicts in this country, elaborate a strategy for confronting narcotraffick, eradicate the production of coca, revitalize the economy of the country and offer alternatives to the rural producers."

The cultivation of coca was nonexistent or marginal in Narino, but the war on drugs of Plan Colombia triggered it, according to regional statistics.

For the Awas, the fumigation of coca fields in Putumayo and Caqueta unleashed a deluge of coca growers and people looking to buy acreage in their ancestral lands.

Further, damage to the environment grew as forests were chopped down and fertilisers and other chemicals were used by the growers of coca and producers of cocaine, all added to the aerial spraying with a powerful herbicide "glyphosate" – known as "matatodo" because of its killing power.

But, "what will in the long run be most harmful to this population is the violence and socio-cultural decay, produced by drug manufacture," warned Jaramillo.

The sustainable economy that had given them good food and health was replaced by an illegal one, which established norms of "cultural, environmental and spiritual poverty", previously unknown to the Awa, noted the anthropologist.

Today, in the former Awa paradise, "death is everywhere in the form of drunken fighting and banditry," she added.

After each act of violence, the indigenous people have demanded the de-militarising of their lands, as when at the Council of Indigenous and Popular Resistance last October, a massive mobilisation of native peoples was organised to challenge President Alvaro Uribe at the end of last year.

This month, after the massacre at Columna Sucre by the FARC, the indigenous Council declared: "We will catch the assassins and see that justice is served."

"Our solidarity will be seen very soon," they warned.

*This article is part of a three-part series about the massacre of some eight Awa people, committed in February by the Antonio Jose de Sucre Column of the FARC.

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