Coca scars Colombia with violence, corruption

November 29, 2005|By G. JEFFERSON PRICE III

Earlier this month, I traveled by air from the Colombian capital of Bogota to the southern town of Ipiales and found myself in the company of Carlos Palacios, a former Roman Catholic priest who is the governor of Putumayo state.

Mr. Palacios, a short man with an honest-looking, weathered face and close-cropped hair, was dressed in denim and looked more like a farmer than a governor.

The 42-year-old official has problems that are unique to Colombia. His province, which borders Ecuador, is a center of coca cultivation. That makes the area a prime target for the U.S.-supported aerial fumigation program that's cost a lot of money but hasn't put a serious dent in the coca cultivation or Colombia's status as the source of 90 percent of the cocaine that reaches the United States.

Putumayo also is a very dangerous place. For the gunmen of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the oldest rebel group in Colombia's 40-year conflict, hold sway in Putumayo to such a degree that Mr. Palacios told me he traveled everywhere with a heavily armed security force.

The FARC, as the rebels are known by their Spanish acronym, depend on coca cultivation to buy weapons. So do the right-wing paramilitary groups that started as local vigilantes and burgeoned into their own deadly force to be reckoned with. The government of President Alvaro Uribe has been expanding control of the country, but Putumayo, like many other remote states, is not secure.

The FARC tend to control the rural areas and the paramilitaries the town centers, though FARC often does serious damage in the towns.

"The FARC have made Putumayo unlivable," said Mr. Palacios. "There have been 87 different attacks in the last two years. They kill people. They burn homes. They knock out bridges. They destroy the electricity.

"The paramilitaries are no better. They are all fighting over drugs and many government soldiers are being killed."

And he was speaking 10 days before the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that as many as 2,000 Colombians, many of them seriously wounded, had fled across the border into Ecuador from violence that erupted in Putumayo and neighboring Narino state.

Mr. Palacios also alluded to the corruption that accompanies the environment of coca cultivation in Putumayo. For his own part, he claimed, he was unusual in that he was making sure the government money was getting to where it was supposed to get and not into officials' pockets, as in so many other Colombian states.

As for the national government, Mr. Palacios said, "They don't understand."

He had been in Bogota to plead for better help and to make his persistent argument that the fumigation program is not working: "It has displaced thousands of people. The growers either replant after the fumigation, or they go somewhere else. Other crops and livestock are being damaged by the fumigation. The FARC and the paramilitaries live off the coca. They make the farmers grow it. No one controls them."

But fumigation is a centerpiece of Plan Colombia, the operation that the United States has backed with billions of dollars, spending more money there than anywhere outside of Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel and Egypt.

Everything Mr. Palacios complained about made sense. "We need an economic alternative to coca for the farmers. We need an alternative to fumigation. We need roads. We need schools. We need security - not just police security, food security."

Then, a few days ago, news came from Colombia that the Procuradaria, a sort of inspector general's office, had suspended Mr. Palacios from all his duties for three months while it investigates allegations of his own corruption.

Did the powerful forces of corruption get to Carlos Palacios, as the accusation says they did? Or did they just get him? Either way, this much is certain: What he said about the state of Putumayo is true there and elsewhere in Colombia, the battleground for America's second war, the war on drugs.

G. Jefferson Price III is a former foreign correspondent and an editor at The Sun who has been traveling on behalf of Catholic Relief Services. His e-mail is

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