The streets of the remote village of La Cooperativa in the La Macarena region of eastern Colombia were bustling with people going about their daily business. The restaurants were full and stores had no problem selling their wares to a steady stream of customers consisting of local peasants and leftist guerrillas who had controlled this region for more than four decades. There was plenty of work for everyone and local businesses were booming. At the heart of this robust economy was coca, the plant whose leaves provide the raw ingredient in cocaine. But that was in 2006. Today, La Cooperativa is a virtual ghost town. The coca is gone, the guerrillas are gone; and so has more than 80 percent of the population.
“Life is worse now than it was three years ago; the situation here is critical,” says one local resident. “In six more months there might not be anyone left here.” From the Colombian government’s perspective, however, a pilot project that utilizes a carrot and stick approach towards combating both the insurgency and coca cultivation is paying dividends as the state is finally establishing a permanent, and comprehensive, presence in a traditional stronghold of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
In 2007, a Colombian army offensive in the La Macarena region pushed the guerrillas out of numerous communities including La Cooperativa, Santo Domingo, El Tigre and Comuneros. Upon crossing the Guejar River and entering the region more than a year later, it is immediately apparent that something more than aerial fumigations and a military consolidation of territory is occurring. Construction machinery and workers are busily upgrading the primitive dirt roads, marking the first evidence of infrastructure improvements. In the small village of Loma Linda, the local school has two new computers for students who had been computer illiterate only months earlier.
On the outskirts of La Cooperativa, a large warehouse contains shiny new farming machinery and equipment while nearby rows of cacao seedlings are protected from the hot sun by plastic canopies. And the small school in La Cooperativa not only contains six new computers but also a small generator and a satellite dish that provides Internet access. These all represent a degree of state presence that had been absent during the previous eight years of Plan Colombia and five years of the Uribe administration’s democratic security strategy. Furthermore, one other important element is conspicuous in the region, not by its presence, but rather by its absence: coca.
More than eight years of aerial fumigations under the US-backed counter-narcotics initiative known as Plan Colombia have failed to reduce the amount of coca being cultivated in this South American nation. Additionally, the Uribe government’s democratic security strategy has established a military presence in many rural communities but has failed to provide viable economic alternatives to coca cultivation or social benefits such as improved education and healthcare. But in 2007, the government launched a pilot project called the Plan de Consolidación Integral de La Macarena (PCIM), intended to coordinate the eradication programs of Plan Colombia, the military policy of the democratic security strategy and the implementation of social and economic projects in coca growing regions.
Rather than fumigating coca crops in remote rural regions only to see them replanted because there is little or no state presence, the PCIM’s strategy seeks to manually eradicate coca crops while simultaneously establishing a comprehensive state presence that includes, not only the military, but also governmental agencies active in the social and economic spheres. The role of the PCIM is to coordinate the actions of all the branches of government involved, including the military, the police and the judiciary. According to Alvaro Balcázar, the director of the PCIM, “The plan is a new way of integrating all the representatives of the state to recuperate the national territory and to defeat the terrorists and the criminal groups.”
In many ways, the PCIM’s integrated strategy is what critics of the military-heavy Plan Colombia have been demanding for almost a decade. The PCIM has five long-term objectives: improve governability at the municipal level; improve infrastructure and the degree of connectivity to the rest of Colombia; land titulation; social investment in education and healthcare; and economic development. Six municipalities in the Department of Meta that contain La Macarena National Park and its surrounding environs were chosen as the initial targets of this new coordinated offensive. “La Macarena is fundamentally and strategically important for two reasons,” says Balcázar. “Economically, because the region’s narco-trafficking activities are a major generator of funds for the FARC; and symbolically, because it is a traditional FARC stronghold.”
Once the Colombian army had consolidated control over the region, manual eradicators were brought in to uproot the coca plants. According to Balcázar, “Coca cultivation in La Macarena has been reduced from 14,000 hectares to 3,500 and the objective is to eliminate all coca in the six municipalities by the end of 2009 and to have the presence of the state fully established by the end of the following year.” The PCIM is utilizing manual eradication rather than aerial fumigations not only because much of the crop is located within the confines of the national park, but also because a state presence is required to protect the erradicators. And it is this state presence, says Balcázar, that deters replanting. Balcázar’s claims were verified by several residents in La Cooperativa who admitted that cultivating coca is no longer an option because the army’s presence has made it difficult to obtain the necessary chemicals to process coca leaves into coca paste.
The PCIM also brought in several government agencies including Acción Social and Familias en Acción to implement social programs while the Ministry of Education introduced its Computadores para Educar initiative. Additionally, the Banco Agrario has made credit available to peasants to cultivate alternative crops including cacao, soybeans and to engage in cattle ranching. It also provides loans to peasants to cultivate African palm in areas outside the national park. According to Balcázar, the Banco Agrario had provided $20 million in credits to farmers in the six municipalities by the end of 2008.
The dramatic increase in social and economic investment marks a significant shift away from Plan Colombia’s prior dependence on aerial fumigations and a primarily military solution to coca cultivation. This shift has caught the attention of several European governments who had previously refused to participate in Plan Colombia because of its lack of social and economic investment. As a result, the PCIM is not only being funded by the Colombian and US governments, but also by Holland and Sweden as well as the European Union. Balcázar claims that the British and French governments have recently shown interest in also contributing to the project.
But while the PCIM has clearly placed a greater emphasis on addressing the social and economic factors that contribute to peasants cultivating coca, as well as on manual erradication efforts that have proven successful in La Macarena, it is still dependent on a strong military component. The military-social link in the PCIM is epitomized by the fact that the offices of the participating social agencies are situated inside the army base in the town of Vistahermosa and that no representatives of these agencies venture out into the communities without a military escort.
The PCIM’s strategy appears to be as much about counterinsurgency as it is about counternarcotics and social and economic development. Furthermore, the counterinsurgency component of the PCIM has been linked to human rights violations. Local peasants and human rights defenders claim that the Colombian army has worked in collusion with right-wing paramilitaries in its effort to consolidate control over the region. According to accounts provided by several residents of La Cooperativa, the Colombian army’s 4th Mobile Brigade arrived two years ago and accused everyone of being a guerrilla. The paramilitaries then followed the army into the community, threatening many people and killing four peasants. According to the Néstor Hernández, president of La Cooperativa´s governing council, known as the Junta Accion Comunal (JAC), his predecessor was forced to flee the region because of threats she received from the paramilitaries.
In December 2008, a regional human rights activist claimed that the paramilitaries had established a checkpoint on the road that linked Vistahermosa to the villages of La Cooperativa and Santo Domingo. Both army and police officials based in Vistahermosa, the largest town on the perimeter of La Macarena, acknowledge that the Aguilas Negras paramilitary group is active in the region. Commander Gilberto Gutierrez, head of the National Police detachment in Vistahermosa, says the paramilitaries recently strengthened their presence when an additional 300 Aguilas Negras arrived in October 2008. According to Gutierrez, the paramilitary group is consolidating its control over rural areas where the drug trade still exists.
According to many residents of La Cooperativa, it was the counterinsurgency operations of the army and the paramilitaries that laid the groundwork for the introduction of the PCIM. And the allegations of human rights violations related to these operations are of concern to some European politicians. In reference to Europe’s role in the PCIM, Jens Holm, a member of the European Parliament from Sweden, stated, “It’s extremely disturbing. It is contrary to the position of the EU, which calls for supporting social programs and NGOs and not Plan Colombia. Europe could lose a lot of credibility by being involved in such a project and should stay away from anything related to military actions.”
The threats and killings during the initial military operations in La Macarena were also a contributing factor to the massive displacement that has occurred over the past two years. During this period, the population of La Cooperativa has plunged from approximately 400 residents to 70. The nearby village of El Tigre has been even harder hit as only 12 residents remain out of a previous population of more than 200. Some of the displacement occurred immediately prior to the army’s arrival as peasants who were either members of the FARC or openly sympathetic to the rebel group fled to avoid becoming targets of the military. In the ensuing months, accusations, threats and killings made by the army and the paramilitaries drove more people from the region. And finally, with the eradication of coca, the economy plunged and peasants began abandoning their lands to seek a living elsewhere.
It is difficult to locate a single person in La Cooperativa who thinks that life is better now than it was under the guerrillas. The eradication of coca has eliminated the principal cash crop for peasants and the massive displacement has dramatically reduced the number of patrons for local stores, restaurants and hotels, causing many to go out of business. One of the reasons that peasants failed to achieve a smooth transition from a coca-based economy to one dominated by the newly-promoted alternatives is the fact that crops such as cacao and African palm require three years before they become productive. According to one local farmer, “The government offers us loans to cultivate cacao and other crops, but gives us nothing to support ourselves during the time it takes the new crops to grow.” Furthermore, many locals do not believe that they will ever be able to earn enough from cacao to be able to pay off their newly-acquired debts and achieve a decent standard living.
Balcázar admits that the government is not providing subsidies to peasants to help tide them over for the three years it takes many crops to become productive. He says the PCIM is instead promoting subsistence farming as a solution. In other words, the government is calling on farmers to cultivate maize, yucca, bananas and other food crops in order to survive until they can earn income from their new cash crops. The PCIM´s strategy appears to ignore the fact that it was a desire to move away from a subsistence lifestyle that drove many peasants to turn to coca cultivation in the first place.
It was the cultivation of coca that allowed many peasants to become consumers of material goods and contributors to economic growth in remote villages like La Cooperativa—ironically, it reflects the consumer capitalist growth-based model that the Colombian government has sought to promote throughout the country with the neoliberal policies it has implemented over the past two decades. This shift in lifestyle and material comfort was particularly evident when La Cooperativa and surrounding villages were included in the FARC-controlled Zona de Despeje, which existed from 1999 to 2002 to host peace talks between the guerrillas and the government. During that time, the FARC built the current network of roads, linking the remote communities to the rest of Colombia, and helped the JAC in La Cooperativa build an electrical grid for the village.
But today, there is no electricity in La Cooperativa. According to one female resident, “The electrical network stopped working one and a half years ago because the government wanted us to pay for it. What they are asking is too much because we don’t have the money now that the economy is so bad.” She goes on to explain that the village’s JAC previously covered the costs of operating the electrical grid by organizing fiestas that would raise money to cover the fuel, operating and maintenance costs. But the displacement that resulted from the army’s arrival in the region and the corresponding economic decline has made it impossible for the JAC to raise sufficient funds to maintain the system.
An additional consequence, at least for young men, of the government gaining control over the region is that they are now being forced to participate in the conflict through conscription into the military. An 18-year-old villager named Antonio recently received his notice to report to the headquarters of the local battalion to serve eighteen months of military duty. Many young men ignored these notices when the region was controlled by the FARC since they lived beyond the reach of Colombian law enforcement. During those years, enlistment with the FARC was voluntary, so locals did not have to fight in the conflict unless they chose to do so. But now, young men like Antonio are not only being forced to engage in the conflict, they will also have to fight against friends and family members who previously joined the guerrillas.
Regardless of the PCIM’s shortcomings, for many critics of Plan Colombia it does represent the long overdue introduction of a significant carrot component to complement the counterinsurgency stick. In many ways, the PCIM reflects the US response to the Cuban Revolution when it sought to undermine the revolution´s influence in other Latin American nation’s by simultaneously implementing the National Security Doctrine—the stick, which consisted of arming and training military forces to engage in counterinsurgency operations—and the Alliance for Progress—the carrot, which promoted social and economic projects, particularly in rural regions.
Plan Colombia’s over-reliance on seeking a military solution to coca cultivation and its promotion of neoliberal economic policies have stood in stark contrast to the approach of other governments in the region such as Venezuela and Bolivia that have emphasized addressing social problems by establishing “Socialism for the 21st Century.” Even in Colombia, the emergence of the center-left Polo Democrático Alternativo party has resulted in greater emphasis being placed on addressing social issues at the municipal level, particularly in the poor barrios of the country’s capital Bogotá.
In some ways, the PCIM´s coordinated approach represents a microcosm of the National Security Doctrine and the Alliance for Progress as the US-backed Colombian military targets guerrillas and their suspected sympathizers in the La Macarena region while social and economic programs are simultaneously implemented in an effort to undermine the appeal of more radical redistributive models being promoted by those on the left in Colombia and advocates of “Socialism for the 21st Century” throughout South America. And, like the Alliance for Progress, the objectives of the PCIM are not intended to achieve any radical structural changes in the social and economic order, but rather to undermine more socialist-oriented alternatives and to consolidate the neoliberal model in Colombia.
The PCIM was launched with little fanfare. The reason, according to Balcázar, is because the government did not want to create high expectations that could not be met in the short term. And, after fifteen months of implementation in La Cooperativa and surrounding villages, the successes of the PCIM have been few. While there have clearly been some infrastructure improvements — particularly with regard to roads — and social advances such as the introduction of computers into schools to make rural children computer literate, it has so far failed to win the hearts and minds of residents in the region who still prefer their old life under the guerrillas.
Furthermore, because more than 80 percent of the population has been displaced — and more will likely abandon the region in the coming year due to the dire economic conditions prevalent in these communities—the alternative crop projects, social programs and infrastructure improvements are benefitting only a small percentage of the original population. While Balcázar believes that the displaced peasants will eventually return to their lands, there exists the danger that a counter land reform will result from the PCIM’s strategy as wealthy city dwellers and large landowners are best situated to lay claim to the abandoned farms. Meanwhile, many of those who have been displaced from La Macarena have moved deeper into the rainforest to replant coca. As a result, the successful eradication of coca in La Macarena belies the national reality in which coca cultivation has been increasing in recent years, according to the US government’s statistics.
Balcázar claims that the PCIM model will only prove truly successful when it has been fully implemented throughout all those parts of the national territory that still lack a state presence, thereby ensuring that there is nowhere left for peasants to cultivate coca. Consequently, the government’s objective is to expand the PCIM strategy beyond La Macarena to other areas of the country that are currently dominated by both the FARC and coca cultivation. According to Balcázar, “The PCIM’s strategy against the FARC and drug trafficking is the same as bringing down a tall building. You place charges in certain strategic places and then the entire structure will collapse. The PCIM will be implemented the same way in strategic places of the national territory in order to bring down the FARC and eliminate coca cultivation.”
This article previously appeared in the London Progressive Journal