Between a machete and a revolver

Dubious choices for Colombia's campesinos: Caught between making a living and staying alive

Francisco picks coca leaf for a living. Despite the high price of cocaine, Francisco makes only $136 a month, enough for him but not for his family.  

LA HORMIGA, Colombia (CNN) -- His callused hands smeared with lime-green resin, Francisco slides his fingers along the stems of coca plants, shearing off the leaves in one fluid motion. He collects the severed leaves on a small tarp and moves to bare the next shrub of its foliage.

Francisco, who offered only his first name, is a raspachín, or "scraper" -- the name Colombians give to coca pickers for the rough manner with which they harvest their crop. He is paid by farm owners to process the coca into a milky-white paste, called coca base, which is sold to traffickers to be crystallized into cocaine.

His salary is better than most farm laborers. At 300,000 pesos a month (U.S.$136), he earns enough for himself, though not enough for his entire family. But close exposure to the chemicals and gasoline used to make coca base makes you age faster, he said. And the job comes with a curse.

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"The money in this work is evil money," he said. "You get corrupted making money with this, because of what you do with it. A lot of people who work with me have become addicted [to drinking]. They spend all their money on [alcohol]."

Yet, for all the hardships, being a raspachín is the best Francisco can do in these southern jungles of Colombia. He would rather work as a cattle rancher, but he has no land and no money to begin such an enterprise.

His days of working the coca field may be numbered, however. With increasing talk in Washington and Bogota of dramatically escalating the war against drugs, Francisco wonders if each crop he plucks from his employer's farm will be his last.

"This is going to end; it's not going on forever," he said. "[When it does end] I'll do whatever life gives me."

The Colombian Army depends on helicopters such as this one in the war against the guerrillas and narco-traffickers. The $1.3 billion in U.S. aid for Plan Colombia includes money for 60 more helicopters specifically for the drug war.  

The fields of southern Colombia are home to the world's richest concentration of coca, estimated to contain anywhere between 75,000 and 100,000 hectares (185,250 to 247,000 acres) of the plant, according to the Colombian army. The region is ground zero for a new military offensive aimed at eradicating fields of coca and poppy (the flower from which heroin is derived) and smashing the drug-trafficking networks that provide most of the world its cocaine.

Underwriting this massive army and police campaign is a $1.3 billion aid package from the United States -- a gift that will provide the Colombian military some 60 Black Hawk and Huey II helicopters and finance three drug-fighting battalions that will seek out and destroy plantations, processing laboratories and caches of illegal drugs.

"If we do this joint effort, which is what we are proposing, we feel that in four or five years we will be able to eradicate the narco-traffic in Colombia," the commander of Colombia's armed forces, Gen. Fernando Tapias, said in an interview with CNN & Time earlier this year. "If we don't achieve this and we continue as we are, it won't be 100,000 hectares but 300,000 or 400,000 and our ecology will be worse and there will be millions more addicts and Colombian deaths."

To intensify the drug war, however, the armed forces must step deeper into a long-running civil war.

Most of the territory to be targeted by the military is under the control of leftist rebels or their enemies, anti-guerrilla paramilitary squads.

In Colombia's southernmost departamento of Putumayo, these two groups have been battling more than two years for possession of the lucrative coca fields that are spread across hillsides and valleys throughout the region. Nowhere is this fight more evident than in the two riverside towns of Puerto Asis and Puerto Vega.

A tale of two ports

Travel by boat is a way of life in the AUC-controlled town of Puerto Asis on the Putumayo River. Across the river is Puerto Vega, controlled by the FARC.  

On the northern bank of the Putumayo River, the largest town in the department, Puerto Asis, is in the hands of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), right-wing paramilitary forces that have been sweeping southward through the country to purge it of guerrillas.

On the southern bank, the village of Puerto Vega is ruled by Front 32 of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC, Colombia's largest guerrilla army.

Long, narrow wooden vessels (lanchas) ferry travelers and traders freely between the two towns. Plain-clothed rebels or paramilitaries mill about the wharves on the lookout for suspected enemies. No overt military presence is evident, but the campesinos, or peasants, who grow coca on either side of the river know well who the guerrillas or the autodefensas are, and what rules should not be broken.

In FARC territory coca-growers are not allowed to sell coca base to anyone but the guerrillas, said local one peasant, who asked to go by an alias, "Pedro."

The FARC buys the base at a price below market value, then sells it to traffickers for a higher value, Pedro said. Those who sell coca to anyone else are marked for assassination, he said.

Despite the danger, peasants often try to smuggle their coca to buyers in paramilitary-controlled towns, Pedro said, simply to make ends meet.

"Those who risk it bring as much as they can hide.... in boots, in caps, even in baby diapers.... to get a higher price," Pedro said. "This makes a big difference, to survive, to be able to sell the product for a little bit more."

The FARC admits it taxes coca farmers and traffickers, a source of hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for the rebels, according to Colombian authorities. It denies having any direct involvement in the drug trade.

"Miguel" (a nom de guerre), a regional commander for the AUC, claims the paramilitary group taxes the drug trade only to prevent the guerrillas from using the drug money  

"The FARC gets its living from the economy of the country," said Raul Reyes, chief spokesman for the FARC. "In regions where there is rice, we charge a tax on rice producers, or where sugar cane is planted, we tax the sugar refineries. Narco-traffickers are different from the workers in the field. They have nothing to do with the FARC, and the FARC has nothing to do with them."

Like the FARC, the AUC admits it charges a tax on the drugs. But in its campaign for the coca-rich lands outside Puerto Asis, the AUC is fighting to sever the FARC from its profits, said the regional paramilitary commander, who asked to be called "Miguel."

"While the guerrillas finance themselves with narco-trafficking, we also finance ourselves with it, and in the process we cut them off from it," Miguel said. "If narco-trafficking disappears, then the guerrilla disappears. If the guerrilla disappears from this area, we have no reason to be here."

'They live in fear'

Since the paramilitaries arrived in Putumayo in January 1998, they have killed scores of people in their hunt for suspected guerrillas. In January 1999 the paramilitaries were blamed for killing at least 36 people and taking away 10 more (now presumed dead) in the village of El Tigre.

In spite of their bloody record, Miguel said, the paramilitaries today provide the people under their control with peace.

"It was the civilian population that called us to come here," he said. "Talk to the merchants and ask if it is better now.... Ask anyone. [Yes] it has been violent, but ask the merchants what would happen if we left, if they didn't pack their bags and leave behind us. It would return to [the way it was under the guerrillas]: blackmail, extortion. We don't do that."

The peasants -- coca growers and ordinary farmers alike -- say they feel stranded on the front line of a war they never wanted and nowhere to turn.

"They live in fear," said Rev. Ernesto Estrada, a Catholic priest in the guerrilla-controlled town of Puerto Caicedo. "Because if you rely on the guerrillas to solve your problems, you become marked by the paramilitaries. To rely on the army to solve any problem is to be marked by the guerrillas as an assistant to the paramilitaries.... It is the law of the jungle that operates here."

"We are caught between a machete and a revolver," said another man, who refused to give his name.

Hundreds of people in the vicinity have fled the fighting, converting schools and churches into makeshift refugee camps. Among dozens of families crammed into classrooms at one complex in La Hormiga, near the border with Ecuador, a woman named Flor helps prepare soup for other displaced residents.

Flor owns a small farm near the village of El Placer (Spanish for "Pleasure"), where she and her family grew coca for the last 10 years. Although she used to cultivate corn, beans and plantains, she switched to coca when she saw that her coca-planting neighbors were making much more money.

Her village had long been under the rule of the FARC but in November 1999 it fell to the paramilitaries. The change in power did not seem to change the coca business and Flor continued with her crop.

Then in June 2000, a guerrilla knocked on her door and called her to a secret town meeting. FARC soldiers warned they were preparing an offensive to retake the village. They ordered everyone to leave.

For the first time in 15 years, Flor and her family fled their farm and took up residence on a cement floor at the school in La Hormiga.

"We were so afraid, so nervous," she said. "We only had enough time to pack a few clothes and some blankets."

Campesinos on the move

A family of refugees takes shelter in a school in La Hormiga. The civil war has forced many to flee their farms and homes in fear of being killed.  

Flor's fate will be shared by hundreds more in Putumayo, peasants and guerrillas say, if the Colombian government moves forward in its anti-drug offensive. Crop-spraying planes will kill farms, not just coca, they say, forcing campesinos to abandon their homes and move elsewhere. Coca growers will simply choose another section of Amazon jungle to tear down and begin again, they say.

Others have vowed to resist.

"There's going to be more war here," said one man. "But we'll stay here. If we have to die, we'll die standing."

One of Colombia's leading military commanders dismisses fears of widespread displacement.

"The narco-trafficker who has 20 or 30 hectares, he is going to leave, of course," said Gen. Mario Montoya, who heads an anti-narcotics base on the edge of Putumayo. "[But] the indigenous people and the [farmers], they want to change and with a good social and government program of crop substitution, they will have no problem."

Angel Guarnica, a peasant from Puerto Caicedo, has not heard of any crop-substitution programs in his village.

He is still trying to restore a farm that was nearly destroyed by three police fumigation planes last November. The coca-killing herbicide dumped by the planes wiped out his crops of plantains, yucca and pineapple. The coca the police were targeting, however, managed to survive.

As he clears rotting leaves and weeds from the withered field, Guarnica keeps a watch on the sky. He worries the planes will return, putting him out of business for good. If that happens, he says he will probably go to another province to seek work in another field.

"How can you fight it?" he asked. "All I have is a machete and a shovel. If they come to fumigate, I'll just go to the village."

Come back to this section of our Colombia site for future reports by Steve Nettleton.

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