Colombia town wrestles with changes wrought by cocaine

November 18, 1990|By Ana Arana | Ana Arana,Special to The Sun

PUERTO ASIS, Colombia -- Ten years ago, peasants in this Putumayo River town in the Colombian Amazon region stopped growing corn and rice and began planting coca, which grows easily in this tropical land. Money poured into the town, but so did unsavory characters. Violence increased.

There was so much money that everyone ignored the violence and enjoyed the good life. Peasants who lived in shacks without electricity bought gas-operated generators to run new refrigerators and stereo equipment. The local bank handled money in sacks.

Even small farmers could process two kilos (4.4 pounds) of coca leaf every three months and earn $600 per kilo, church sources said. It beat the $150 fetched by a rice crop harvested on a 40-acre farm after production costs. Every Sunday, the market had an odd variety of entertainment for a jungle river town: prostitutes, Rambo and karate movies and a pizza establishment.

No one thought the gold rush would end. The Putumayo area would always be important in the cocaine trade, one resident said. For traffickers, the area was considered irreplaceable. Colombia has about 90,000 acres of coca plantations that produce 30 percent of the world's crop; one-third of these plantations are in or near Puerto Asis.

On the border with Ecuador and Peru, which produce 70 percent of the world's coca leaf, Colombian traffickers bring the product directly to major jungle labs in the Putumayo area. The labs process the coca into cocaine powder and ship it directly from jungle-concealed airstrips to U.S. and European destinations.

But the traffickers' interest in buying coca from small producers crashed recently. Production is now centered in large farms, which the traffickers found easier to protect.

Nationwide efforts against the Medellin drug cartel, the most influential in the area, and clashes between paramilitary forces working for the traffickers and guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia slowed down sales.

"The boom for the peasants won't be the same," said the local priest, who added that the peasants have returned to planting food crops.

The guerrillas had been kept out of the area by paramilitary forces that guarded coca plantations and the many drug installations near Puerto Asis. The area was the territory of drug kingpin Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, who was killed by police in December and was the most violent Medellin member.

The drug lords organized parties and beauty pageants. They built the town's two fancy hotels and helped connect a direct-dial phone system.

But after 10 years of the coca boom, most of the streets remain unpaved. The hospital has no medicine. There is no sewage system nor a drinking-water system. Yet cocaine did more for Puerto Asis than the central government had done since the town was founded 70 years ago.

The town's stable population is 58,000 -- made up of landless peasants from other Colombian areas, indigenous tribes that live on reservations and fortune-seekers who will do anything to earn a peso. Puerto Asis residents accept corruption and lawlessness as a matter of course.

Located 600 miles south of Bogota, Puerto Asis is typical of most so-called national territories in Colombia -- towns where guerrillas, paramilitary forces and drug traffickers often wrestle for control.

Today, the Colombian army, anti-narcotics police and special counterinsurgency forces are present in Puerto Asis. They complain about lack of resources to patrol the large jungle territory.

"To do a good job, we would need a force the size of the Chinese army," said Mayor Alfonso Garay, who said that his forces were more concerned with guerrilla ambushes than attacks by the traffickers.

Town residents accuse the authorities of cooperating with the traffickers. "The cocaine is still coming in through here. They detain the little guys who can't pay the bribes," said one peasant.

Until late last year, residents say, the traffickers practically ran the town. They began to keep lower profiles only after the government began an all-out push against drug organizations in retaliation for the assassination of presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan in August 1989.

The big traffickers left town, but their representatives and armed enforcers stayed around.

Men ages 18 to 35 dress in Levis and wear British Knights tennis shoes, which are very expensive in Colombia. They ride the latest scooters and motorcycles. In the early mornings, they gather in the local bars, playing pool or drinking beer.

The recent arrival of about 500 rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) brought further problems for the town. The guerrillas seized one large cocaine lab and engaged in bloody battles with paramilitary forces.

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