Colombian coca growers killed at protest against crop removal
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Farmers' protests against a Colombian government policy of eradicating coca plants descended into violence on October 5, leaving six people dead. The killings have been blamed on the army, which points the finger at “FARC dissidents” instead.
Tumaco, in Colombia’s far south-east, is no stranger to the violence surrounding the cultivation of coca, a raw material for making cocaine. For decades, the local area has been a key source of the plant – and consequently a battleground in intense struggles for control of Colombian drug trafficking.
On October 5, at least six coca growers were shot dead and 21 wounded while protesting against a coca eradication operation carried out by the Colombian army. A FRANCE 24 team went to report on this.
Contradictory versions of events
An official in a farmers’ organisation, who declined to give his identity for security reasons, told FRANCE 24 that 500 rural workers had gathered to form a “human shield” to protect coca fields that the armed forces were getting ready to tear up and burn.
Another witness said that his “brother died when a policeman shot him at point blank range”. A third source told FRANCE 24 that “it was a peaceful demonstration, because – as everyone knows – we all depend on coca farming to make a living here. But they [the soldiers and the police] attacked us.”
Some organisations go further in their allegations. Coccam, a coca growers’ association, said “these weren’t just clashes: it was slaughter.” Another such group, the Asominuma association, said the army “responded disproportionately to a peaceful demonstration".
In a joint statement, the army and police claim to have faced mortar fire from a group of dissident FARC guerillas. Luis Carlos Villegas, Colombia’s defence minister, alleged that this group of rebels both forced the farmers to protest and shot some of them. He also singled out the alleged ringleader of the killings, whom he identified as ‘Guacho’, a FARC official who separated from the former guerrilla group a year ago, along with fifty other militants.
Meanwhile, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos declared that the country’s “police forces do not fire on the civilians” and ordered an investigation to be opened.
But local farmers’ organisations do not believe the government’s version of events. They point out that no soldiers or policemen were killed or injured in the operation.
Coca cultivation: eradication versus substitution
One member of the protest movement told FRANCE 24 that “an agreement was signed in Havana, but the government doesn’t respect it. We’re against coca eradication and that’s why we’re protesting.”
The peace accord between the Colombian government and FARC, the then guerilla group, was signed in September 2016. A key part of the agreement was a provision for the government to set up job schemes to replace illegal coca production work, which has provided employment for many disadvantaged rural workers.
In this south-eastern corner of Colombia, farmers’ organisations are keen on this aspect of the agreement. It includes the government’s commitment to build an agricultural sector that will allow farmers to earn the same income – or a higher one – than what they were paid for cultivating coca.
In this context, one can see why farmers protested when the country’s security forces – carrying on with Colombia’s decades-long eradication policy – tried to get rid of coca plants without the government offering alternative income sources at the same time.
Dealing with coca production, a tough challenge for the peace process
The violence on October 5 highlights the difficulties in implementing the peace agreement. The main reason for it is the continued presence of armed groups (mostly in areas along the Pacific coast) that make a lot of money from manufacturing and trafficking the pulp used to make cocaine.
Whether they are mafia groups, FARC dissidents or paramilitaries, these groups try to control the impoverished areas where people depend on coca production to earn a living. In Tumaco, 86% of the population lives below the poverty line; the local area is also one of the largest producers of coca leaves in the country.
Jean Arnault, head of the UN mission in Colombia, said “these events reinforce our belief that we must give rural workers the means to avoid having to choose between illegal activity and poverty.”
While the government has banned the use of aerial pesticide dispersal to eradicate coca fields, it remains committed to getting rid of 50,000 hectares of them this year.
In 2016, the area of coca plantations in Colombia was up 52% on the previous year, while cocaine production increased by 34%, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
That is while the US – which has invested $10 billion over 20 years in combatting cocaine production in Colombia – last month threatened to put Bogota on a blacklist of countries linked to international drug trafficking.
Translated from French by Tom Wheeldon