This is the final installment of Witness’s February trip to Urabá (find links to past posts here and here). The subject I’ll be discussing is the large presence of illicit coca crops allegedly grown by paramilitaries along the Jiguamiandó and Curvaradó river basins and the risk they pose to communities.
Community members and Colombian organizations had long warned local government officials that illegal coca crops were being grown near some of the Humanitarian and Biodiversity Zones we visited, but their testimonies were routinely dismissed because the Army’s 17th Brigade, which patrols the area, contested their claims. One objective of our verification commission was to have international organizations verify the existence of these crops so they could no longer be denied.
While there, my team members and I saw around a dozen acres of coca crops near the communities’ collective territories. Some were recently planted but others were mature and yielding leaves that will likely be processed into cocaine and exported to the United States. The coca leaf itself is not a drug, but alongside these crops were labs in which the crushed coca leaves are mixed with cement and soaked in gasoline, battery acid, and other chemicals and converted into coca paste, which is later crystallized to form cocaine. These crops are maintained by illegal paramilitary groups operating in the area and pose three main risks to the communities’ security.
First, the presence of armed actors throws the communities into the middle of a conflict in which guerrillas, paramilitaries, and the U.S.-backed Colombian armed forces accuse the civilian population of collaborating with their respective enemies, leading to violence.
Second, the heavily militarized area can only be entered if people pass through three or four military and police checkpoints. Civilian residents are often prohibited from bringing in vital supplies, including gasoline to power their generators and necessary bulk foods for the communities, facing allegations of aiding illegal armed groups. This threatens the communities’ food sovereignty and ability to transport goods. At the same time, the labs we saw had barrels of cement, gasoline, and other chemicals, suggesting complicity between the military and narcotraffickers at checkpoints.
Third, Colombian law allows government seizure of any land used to cultivate illicit crops. The civilian communities unanimously denounce the presence of illicit crops in their territories, but there is little they can do without government involvement. Having been displaced many times already and finally engaging in the process of land restitution, they are once again at risk of having to abandon their homes to find new territory. If the government recognizes the presence of these crops and decides to carry out U.S.-backed fumigation with planes to destroy the crops, as is typical, the chemicals may pollute the land and the river, and the communities could again face displacement.
In order to resolve this very complicated situation, the crops will need to be eradicated, which should be done manually, in consultation with the local communities, to avoid environmental damage and further harm to the communities. More vitally, the paramilitary apparatus needs to be dismantled so that these civilian communities can live without being harassed by either legal or illegal forces.
The Colombian government is using this region as a pilot project for land restitution in a country where 10% of the population is displaced. This has been supported by the U.S. government. The Victims and Land Restitution Law has been a powerful initiative of President Santos to bestow titling rights and documentation of ancestral territory. However, without tackling the underlying issues of criminality and paramilitary power that continue to plague the area, the project is destined for failure.