Timoleon ‘Timochenko’ Jiménez, new leader of the FARC: call for peace.Timoleon ‘Timochenko’ Jiménez, the supreme commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), opened the New Year by issuing a public statement announcing that the Marxist guerrilla group is willing to engage in peace talks with the Colombian government as long as those negotiations addressed ‘the privatisations, the deregulation, the absolute freedom of trade and investment, the environmental degradation, market democracy, the military doctrine’. In essence, the guerrillas are demanding, as they have done for decades, that any peace agreement would require a public debate about the implementation of the neoliberal, or ‘free-market’, economic model that they so vehemently oppose.
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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).
Several hours up the Tapaje River from the Pacific Ocean, the monotony of the lush green rainforest is broken when we round a bend and the remote village of San José comes into view. Most of the buildings on the riverbank are fragile wooden structures precariously perched on stilts. Afro-Colombian women busily wash clothes in the river while their children splash around in the fast-flowing brown water. The motorboat slows, glides past the women and pulls up to the crumbling cement steps that constitute the dock. There is little to distinguish San José from hundreds of other remote jungle villages in Colombia that have suffered from goverment neglect in the social and economic spheres. And, like many other rural communities, San José has also been devastated by the US-backed counternarcotics initiative called Plan Colombia.
In December 2000, U.S.-trained counternarcotics battalions, U.S.-supplied Blackhawk helicopters and U.S.-piloted spray planes descended on Putumayo department to conduct Plan Colombia’s initial aerial fumigation campaign. In the more than three years since the initial spraying of coca crops, Putumayo has been a repeat target, as have many of the country’s other southern departments. Although the U.S. government claims its fumigation prescriptions finally began decreasing coca cultivation in 2002 and 2003, there is still no evidence that Plan Colombia has achieved its principal goal of dramatically reducing the flow of cocaine to the United States. But while Plan Colombia has failed to affect the price, purity and availability of cocaine in U.S. cities, its militarization of Putumayo has contributed significantly to increased oil exploration by multinational companies in this resource-rich region. Neoliberal economic reforms that constitute the economic component of Plan Colombia have further sweetened the pot for foreign oil companies.
A visit to the coca growing regions of southern Colombia clearly illustrates that more than coca is being eradicated by the U.S.-sponsored aerial fumigation. While the spraying has eradicated thousands of acres of coca over the past one and a half years, it has also destroyed the food crops and livelihood of impoverished Colombian farmers in the targeted regions. Recent attempts to more accurately direct the aerial attacks against illicit crops have also failed to protect food crops. And as both the fumigation campaign and the civil conflict intensify, there is evidence of collusion between the Colombian army’s U.S.-trained counternarcotics brigade and paramilitary death squads that are on the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.