Target: Coca

Target: Coca
Posted by FoM on February 20, 2000 at 07:14:17 PT
By Richard Chacón and John Donnelly, Globe Staff
Source: Boston Globe
The rusted gates to the cemetery were locked, so Sister Sofia entered by crouching carefully between two strands of barbed wire, making sure she didn't snag her white cotton habit.As she straightened herself, the 31-year-old nun looked around the ankle-high grass. Her large brown eyes fixed on four fresh mounds of reddish soil.
"These are the ones we buried, and this is where we put them," she said in a calm, soft voice, as if to keep from disturbing these sleeping souls.On another small hill, three leafless branches were planted upright in the soil."This is a married couple here," the nun said, her voice quivering slightly. "One stick is for the husband, the other for the wife. The third is for the baby she was carrying. She was six months pregnant."When she took her vows to become a Franciscan nun 12 years ago, Sister Sofia expected to be a teacher, helping to sharpen the minds of Colombian children. But much of her work over the past year has been with bodies, not souls. Almost daily, she retrieves corpses from the banks of the Catatumbo River or from the muddy road that leads into this remote northern village near the Venezuelan border. When she buries them, only rarely is she aware of who they were or how they got caught up in the constant violence that pervades these jungle hills.Like most everyone else in La Gabarra, Sister Sofia's life is dominated by Colombia's brutally entwined conflicts -- the booming trade in cocaine and heroin and the 40-year civil war that is largely financed by drug money.Years of government neglect and chronic poverty have turned rural areas like these into fertile ground for producing much of the cocaine and heroin that is sold in the United States. It also makes these residents more vulnerable to the unwanted attention of leftist guerrillas or right-wing paramilitary groups fighting for control of the lucrative bounty from coca fields.To help restore peace to places like La Gabarra, Colombian President Andres Pastrana and the Clinton administration are lobbying the US Congress for $1.6 billion in aid -- most of it in military equipment and additional training -- to stop Colombia's drug supply and to strengthen South America's longest-running democracy.But it won't be easy. Despite two decades of antidrug interdiction by US and Colombian authorities, Colombia's drug business is booming. Figures soon to be released by US drug officials are expected to show that Colombia produced 520 metric tons of cocaine last year, more than triple the original estimate of 1998's harvest.In Bogota and Washington, the generals fighting the drug war say they need US-made Blackhawk helicopters, better surveillance technology, and more American-trained units who can swoop into places like La Gabarra and eradicate its coca fields. But their strategy focuses primarily on left-wing guerrillas -- not the right-wing paramilitaries who control and tax the open and flourishing drug trade in towns like La Gabarra.Supporters of the Clinton administration plan say the Colombians need the hardware and expertise if they are to find and eliminate drug fields and break up the cartels that transport 85 percent of the cocaine into the United States and a growing amount of heroin."I would prefer to see less consumption in the United States or in Europe, rather than to have more helicopters," said Rosso Jose Serrano Cadena, Colombia's national police chief who oversees most of the country's antidrug efforts. "But we have an obligation to do all we can with the best equipment and personnel we can get."The US-Colombia strategy is to push primarily into the south of the country, prime coca-growing territory controlled by the 15,000-member Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the largest insurgent group, also known as the FARC. Planners expect a minimum of 10,000 people will be driven from their homes by the new operation, likely to begin next year.For 20 years, US advisers have helped the Colombian police and military identify fields and laboratories where harvested plants are processed into drugs. Then crop-dusting planes, provided by an American subcontractor, fumigate the fields. Days later, a special team of government engineers and scientists is flown in, flanked by armed troops, to inspect poisoned fields.Colombia last year received about $300 million in antidrug funding from the United States, and American authorities are present in almost every aspect of the country's antinarcotics operations. At any one time there are roughly 200 to 300 US personnel in Colombia, according to one senior official. They include military trainers, as well as agents from the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Justice Department, Treasury Department, National Security Agency, and the CIA.By contrast, the United States is currently providing $5 million for crop substitution and other social and economic projects administered by the Agency for International Development.Critics of the current antidrug strategy say that more money should go toward programs that foster rural economic development, a better court system, and basic government services. Fumigation, they add, only worsens a bad situation for many peasant farmers who resort to growing coca and poppy -- the flowering plant used for heroin -- either for economic survival or because they have been coerced by a rebel group."All fumigation does is displace poor people who are already living under extremely difficult conditions," said Ricardo Vargas, director of the Colombian office of Accion Andina, an umbrella group of antidrug activists in the Andean region. "Once their field is lost, they'll simply find another place to try again." Month by month, more of them are coming to La Gabarra.Located a few miles from the Venezuelan border in an oil-rich swath in the state of Norte de Santander, there are only two ways to get here: by canoe along the Catatumbo River, or a spine-shaking 10-hour drive -- most of it over rocks, mud, and thick, wet clay -- from the city of Cucuta.The area was once a hub for banana and mango farmers. But over the last five years, it has become the center one of the country's fastest-growing coca-producing regions.On weekends, La Gabarra's population swells from 2,000 people to nearly 10,000. Young males, wearing knee-high black rubber boots, descend from coca fields in the surrounding hills and arrive in one of the dozens of canoes that taxi them along the Catatumbo River. They come to the village to "rumbear," the local slang for "partying," which usually involves two days of heavy beer drinking, several games of pool, and two nights with some of La Gabarra's 500 prostitutes. In one weekend, a worker can easily spend most of his week's salary, about $1,000.Back on the coca farms, the workers perform backbreaking and often noxious tasks. Those who pick the leaves are known as "scrapers," for the way they harvest the leaves off plants with their bare hands. Meanwhile, "chemists" assigned to the rustic processing labs are exposed to large quantities of cement dust, gasoline fumes, and sulfuric acid that are used to make the cocaine base."Nobody around here consumes cocaine, probably because everyone knows the kind of things that go into it," said one 20-year-old farm worker who goes by the nickname, "Diablo."Fumigation and other government-sponsored eradication programs haven't begun here yet, although Colombian and American officials say this area will be targeted under the new aid plan.One of the first challenges for authorities will be to update the government's outdated estimates for the amount of coca grown here. Officially, the La Gabarra region contains about 8,000 acres of coca. Most residents and farmers, however, say the figure is closer to 50,000.Another reason these programs haven't arrived yet is that La Gabarra remains a volatile zone in the civil war.For years, Marxist guerrillas controlled La Gabarra as if it were an independent state, dictating who entered and exited the area, painting Che Guevara graffiti on walls and creating a tax system that allowed them to collect a portion on all the coca that was grown and processed on nearby farms.But paramilitary squads launched a massive surprise attack last May, pushing the guerrillas they didn't kill deep into the jungle or up the Catatumbo into Venezuela. Then they killed or evicted farmers and residents suspected of being guerrilla sympathizers.That's when Sister Sofia began collecting bodies, about 50 of them from that attack. Three months later, the paramilitaries swept through the town again, looking for guerrilla infiltrators and killing another 30 residents. They currently are in control of the La Gabarra region, but the guerrillas still operate in the countryside.Because of protests by human rights groups over the August massacre, the Pastrana government sent in 500 soldiers and a unit of the National Police. The troops remained until late last month, leaving behind 80 police officers who patrol La Gabarra's unpaved streets twice a day.There is no mayor here, no school system, banks, or courts. The top government official is Marceliano Castiblanco, the 32-year-old police captain who sometimes performs civil marriages. But his main concern is looking out for his officers, who have bunkered themselves in foxholes and behind sandbags outside a storefront next to Holy Trinity Church, a block from the convent where Sister Sofia and five other nuns live.Despite the police presence, paramilitary troops dressed in civilian clothes walk confidently through the village, the butts of their 9mm pistols jutting from their baggy jeans. Nearly everyone knows where they live.By themselves, the police can do little to stop them, since they provide the only protection against the guerrillas who lurk nearby, waiting for their chance to reclaim the area."We're either waiting for the next guerrilla attack or for the next [paramilitary] massacre," said one officer who requested anonymity. "There is tension here all day and all night."By seizing La Gabarra, the paramilitaries have also taken control of the area's lucrative cocaine industry, which centers around an outdoor market that operates every weekend at a bend in the Catatumbo.Canoes filled with large white bags arrive from the local coca farms. The bags, which contain coca paste, are sold to drug cartel buyers, who form one long and orderly line.Before each sale, a spoonful of paste is held over a burner and melted to check for its purity. Every transaction is recorded in a spiral notebook and conducted under the watchful eyes of armed paramilitary troops, who take a percentage from each sale.This type of tax system was begun by the FARC to help fund its operations and has been duplicated by nearly every rebel group. Experts say these taxes now account for up to 50 percent of all guerrilla and paramilitary funds and offer strong proof that Colombia's civil war and its war on drugs have become one and the same.The system also shows how the country's narcotrafficking industry has evolved over the last two decades. When the government first began its joint eradication operations with the United States in the early 1980s, marijuana was the main target. But in the mid-1980s, as American forces were successfully eliminating coca crops in Peru and Bolivia, the plants were brought to Colombia.That gave rise to the notorious cartels like those in Cali and Medellin, and to drug lords like Pablo Escobar, who were known for their violence, kidnappings, and cold-blooded efficiency with which they ran their operations.One by one, authorities dismantled the cartels, culminating with Escobar's death in a gun battle with police at one of his hideouts in 1993.But in breaking up the cartels' vertically-integrated businesses, the government also opened the way for hundreds of smaller organizations to step in and take over different pieces of the drug-trafficking operation. It also allowed insurgent leaders -- many of whom had previously fought against cartels like Escobar's -- to pick up where the drug lords left off.Standing in the middle of his 40-acre coca field outside La Gabarra, Luis, a 57-year-old farmer, isn't sure who he'd rather sell to.When the guerrillas controlled the area, he could count on getting about $1,500 for each kilo of cocaine paste he sold at market, even after the rebels collected their tax. It was just enough to pay his 60 farm workers and to feed his family of six. Now, under the paramilitary system, he gets roughly $900.But even worse, Luis said, is the anxiety that fills their lives -- fear that the paramilitaries will order them off their land or raise the tax, fear that guerrillas will return and take revenge on him for paying the paramilitaries. And the new fear: that fumigation and rapid intervention by US-trained forces will dramatically escalate the violence in the region.Like Sister Sofia, Luis is doing something he'd rather not do. For a moment, it's enough to make him reconsider coca farming."I know that growing coca is bad and it causes problems not just here but all around the world," said Luis, a former carpenter. "I'd much rather grow fruit. But if I can't make money, then we die. And I'd rather die producing something than die starving."Sister Sofia's mother has been so worried about the danger around her daughter that she once called the mother superior, begging that Sister Sofia be reassigned to a safer place. The daughter refused.Soon, however, she will be reassigned, perhaps to a quiet girls school like the one in Bogota where she used to teach. Maybe then, after three years in La Gabarra, she can start to heal, can start to forget the endless war that drugs have brought to this remote village."I know this has had an effect on me psychologically and spiritually," she said while walking along the dirt road from the cemetery back to the town square. "I've had to deal with a lot and it's taken some enthusiasm out of me. But I know it's the same for everyone else who lives here."Globe reporter John Donnelly can be reached at: j_donnelly globe.comTomorrow: The war at homeTuesday: Washington's dilemma Forum: A GABARRA, Colombia Published: February 22, 2000 © Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Related Articles:Boston Globe Series On War On Drugs Shows Futility Some, Aid To Columbia A Risky Maneuver for U.S. Aid to Colombia the New Drug Lords - Newsweek International
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Comment #3 posted by kaptinemo on February 20, 2000 at 13:16:26 PT
I just did, Doc
And I urge everyone else to do the same. The elites running this country never seem to bother with rational discourse, but they are enormously interested in poll results. Numbers are easier for them to digest, I supppose.
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Comment #2 posted by Doctor Dave on February 20, 2000 at 12:50:46 PT
Get out the vote!
Check out the story at the Boston Globe,'s a poll question, "Should the U.S. be spending $1.6 billion over the next two years fighting drugs in Colombia?"Make your e-voice heard!Doctor Dave"A nation that makes war on huge numbers of its own people can never truly be free."
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Comment #1 posted by kaptinemo on February 20, 2000 at 08:14:58 PT
When I was a grunt troop, I had to go through survival training. While travelling in marshy, swampy areas, we were told to beware quicksands. The best thing was to carry a walking stick and pole the ground in front of you as you went, because you probably wouldn't be able to tell the difference between solid ground and quicksand by eye.If you found yourself in it, you weren't supposed to thrash around; most often you'd stop sinking when you got in up to your armpits. If you stayed calm and moved slowly, you could get to dry land.The analogy to Colombia is obvious. The difference is we can *see* that it's quicksand. We've been 'poling' the ground there for almost two decades, now. We can see the b*****ds sinking in it. And Slick Willie, Barry, and Co. want us to just jump in?After you, gentlemen. After you.
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