In rural Colombia, no signs of an end to the war
Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Along with Colombia's successes in fighting leftist rebels this year, cities like Medellín have staged remarkable recoveries. And in the upscale districts of Bogotá, the capital, it is almost possible to forget that the country remains mired in a devilishly complex four-decade-old war, reports Herald Tribune.

But it is a different story in the mountains of the Nariño department. Here, and elsewhere in large parts of the countryside, the violence and fear remain unrelenting, underscoring the difficulty of ending a war fueled by a drug trade that is proving immune to U.S.-financed efforts to stop it.

Soaring coca cultivation, forced disappearances, assassinations, the displacement of families and the planting of land mines stubbornly persist, the hallmarks of a backlands conflict that threatens to drag on for years, even without the once-spectacular actions of guerrillas in large Colombian cities.

For those caught in the crossfire, talk of a possible endgame for the war seems decidedly premature, even given the deaths this year of several top guerrilla leaders, the desertion of hundreds of rebels each month and the rescue of prized hostages like the former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.

"The armed groups are like malaria, evolving to resist eradication and killing with efficiency," Antonio Navarro Wolff, governor of Nariño and a former guerrilla from the defunct M-19 group, said in an interview. "If anything, Nariño shows the guerrillas may have lost their chance for victory but not their ability to cause suffering."

Today, a dizzying array of armed groups lord over the farmlands of Nariño. These include not only leftist guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, but also right-wing militias operating under names like the Black Eagles or the Peasant Self-Defense Forces of Nariño.

Their presence reflects the symbiotic nature of the armed groups and the drug trade, each drawing strength from the other.

In Nariño, flanked by the Pacific Ocean on the west and Ecuador on the south, coca growers have sidestepped almost a decade of fumigation efforts by reorganizing industrial-size farms into smaller plots that are much harder to find and spray from the air. They are taxed and protected by forces on the various sides of the conflict.

The United Nations reported in June that coca cultivation in Colombia surged 27 percent in 2007 to about 99,000 hectares, or around 245,000 acres, the first significant increase in four years. Nariño had the largest increase of any Colombian department, or administrative district, up 30 percent to 20,300 hectares, about 50,000 acres.

The expansion has allowed Colombia to remain by far the world's largest coca producer and the supplier of 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States.

It has also made the drug-fueled conflict a resilient virus in large pockets of the country, with double-digit increases in coca cultivation in at least three other departments, Putumayo, Meta and Antioquia. In Nariño, almost every week, government officials, Roman Catholic leaders or aid workers report actions by the rebels or paramilitary groups.

In the last week of June, four schoolteachers in remote areas of the province were killed by a FARC column called Mariscal Sucre, one of three units of the FARC that are active in the area. The rebels claimed that the schoolteachers, all of them recently posted to remote schoolhouses by Roman Catholic officials, were army informants.

Just weeks before, in April, the FARC knocked out power for 300,000 residents along the Pacific coast with an attack on an electrical station. Colombian soldiers also found eight fuel-processing depots - holding 77,000 barrels of oil - used by the guerrillas for fuel and to process coca into cocaine in makeshift labs.

Nationwide, the FARC still collects $200 million to $300 million a year by taxing coca farmers and coordinating cocaine smuggling networks, according to Bruce Bagley, a specialist on the Andean drug war who teaches at the University of Miami.

That is down from $500 million earlier this decade, Bagley said, but it is still enough to finance the FARC after recent desertions and killings that have thinned its ranks to about 9,000 from 17,000.

Similarly, while the FARC's share of the cocaine trade has declined, Colombia's share of the world cocaine production has remained stable around 60 percent. That means opportunities for new players like Colombia's resurgent right-wing militias and small-scale gangs taking the place of disassembled cartels.
"A few battles won is not a war won," Bagley said. "The FARC and other groups will survive as long as there are safe havens, the flow of drug money and large, remote regions unconnected to the broader economy."

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