Regional | 2/27/2009 12:00:00 AM
The seven plagues of southern Colombia
As if it were a curse, Nariño department, in southern Colombia, continues to be battered by natural disasters, coca cultivation and illegal armed groups.
Up until September 2008 the department was overrun with fraudulent investment companies and the authorities estimated that at least 80 percent of the 1.6 million residents had invested in them. One company, DRFE, created by Carlos Alfredo Suárez of Pasto, had 27 branches, of which 22 were in Pasto, the capital of the department. The notorious DMG had two branches and the Police had detected another 15 branches of other companies. These investments were so prevalent that merchants and agricultural and industrial employers were complaining about a lack of workers. Nobody wanted to work, because everyone aspired to live off of the profits of their pyramid savings.
When the bubble burst last November, at least 100,000 people were affected and around $500 billion pesos (194 million USD) were in jeopardy- just in the case of DRFE.
It is considered the curse of the department. Geographically, Nariño has the perfect conditions to accommodate thousands of coca leaf harvesters, cocaine laboratories and illegal armed groups that manage the business. Cultivations grew so much in seven years that the region became the leader in the number of hectares of coca crops in 2007. According to the report that the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) presented in 2007 the department had 21 percent of the 99,000 hectares (245 acres) of coca in the country. That is 20,259 hectares (about 50 acres). Nariño was followed by the departments of Putumayo (14,853 hectares / 35 acres ) and Cauca (4,168 / 10 acres ).
The arrival of the FARC coincided with that of coca crops and followed a territorial strategy of geographic expansion and retreat after finding themselves hounded by the AUC paramilitary group. It did not take them long to realize that controlling the coca business was the most profitable for their purposes. To that end they dispatched their 29th Front and the columns Daniel Aldana and Mariscal Sucre which, it is calculated, have about a thousand fighters.
Corrupted by drug trafficking, the FARC admitted last week to massacring eight indigenous people (it is believed there were 17) from the Awa tribe, who they accused of being Army informers. They had already perpetrated similar acts of barbarism at the end of 2008 when they assassinated four teachers from that community with the same pretext. Because of the FARC, Nariño today occupies 10th place in Colombian departments with the greatest number of landmine victims. According to the Office of the Vice President, of the 64 municipalities in the department, 23 are mined and through 2008 there had been 335 victims. Many of them were children.
Reborn armed groups: Nueva Generación, Águilas Negras and Rastrojos
These armed groups arrived in the region attracted by coca. They have the same purpose: to control the territory in order to guarantee the growing and processing of coca and later the trafficking of cocaine, which is brought to the Pacific Coast and from there sent to Central America to later arrive in the United States. After the demobilization of the paramilitaries of the Libertadores del Sur Front in 2005, part of the Central Bolivar Block of the AUC, redoubts rearmed and created the so-called New Generation Self-Defense Forces and the Aguilas Negras. There is also the Los Rastrojos group, mercenaries in the service of the capo Wilber Varela, alias “Jabon,” who was assassinated in Venezuela in January 2008. These last two groups were under the command of Luis Enrique Calle Serna, alias “Comba,” who allied himself with the ELN in order to force the FARC out of the area. In just 2008 22,445 people had abandoned their homes and it is the 10th department with the most such displacements. In total 93,481 have been uprooted, according to Acción Social, a national government social program.
Tumaco, the social time-bomb
The number of murders speak for themselves. From 2005 to 2008 this coastal municipality of 160,000 residents was the most violent place in Nariño. Its homicide rate is 157.5 for every 100,000 residents (in 2008 the total number of murders was 235). The national average is 36.2 murders per 100,000. A report from the Departmental Observatory on Crime found that more than 90 percent of the victims from Tumaco are men between 15 and 34 years of age and 66 percent of those crimes occur in the town’s outlying areas. In that town there is a complex mix of drug trafficking, illegal armed groups and poverty. This Pacific Coast port has become the point of embarkation from drugs, thanks to the large number of rivers that flow into the ocean. In fact, in nearby jungles, they have found shipyards where submarines are built to transport drugs.
The flooding that affects Nariño made them request a declaration of public disaster in the department. The overflowing of the Mira River and the increase of the volume of water in others affected at least 40,000 people who live in a half dozen towns. Tumaco has suffered the most with 32,000 condemned, 247 houses destroyed, 26 disappearances and 12 deaths. Added to that is the failure of aqueducts in municipalities such as Barbacoas, Roberto Payán, Olaya Herrera, Ipiales, Cuaspud and Cumbal. “It is the first time that flooding has affected coastal towns as well as the Andean area of Nariño at the same time,” said Lina Dorado, from the Regional Office on Prevention and Disasters.
This sleeping lion has roared eight times in the last four years and each time that it does so Nariño is shaken. The eruption last Friday February 20th forced them to declare a red alert in the threatened area of Galeras, which covers 8,000 hectares (20 acres) nearby. The local government has nine temporary shelters set up to receive rural residents, but many of them refuse to abandon their houses and farms in an excess of confidence that could result in tragedy. That is why in these circumstances many are asking where are the 170 billion pesos (66 million USD) that the government destined to emergency aid in 2005 for a plan of relocation and resettlement. Regarding that, Fabio Calvache, coordinator of that government initiative called Proceso Galeras in Pasto, explained that the project is in the technical study phase and estimates that in the next few months they can advance somewhat in the purchase of lands. Hopefully there will be enough time before the next eruption and that those resources will not have to be invested in coffins.