Introduction To Putumayo

Cecilia Zarate-Laun

year the United States Congress and the Clinton administration made Colombia
the third largest recipient of U.S. military assistance, approving a $1.3
billion package largely for a bilateral project called Plan Colombia. The
focus of this assistance, about 70 percent of which is for military equipment
and training, is the department of Putumayo in southwestern Colombia.

Putumayo takes
its name from the river that crosses the department from west to east and
serves as a natural border between Colombia and Ecuador and Peru. The capital
of Putumayo is Mocoa. The department’s population was recently reported as
332,434 inhabitants. Most of its territory is located in the rain forest area
and it has 3 natural regions: High Putumayo, Middle Putumayo, and Lower
Putumayo. Its two main rivers, the Putumayo and the Caqueta, were for many
years the main form of transportation. In 1985 Putumayo’s indigenous
population was calculated at 11,900. The indigenous communities are Ingas,
Kofanes, Sionas, Huitotos, Paeces, and Embera-Chami.

The process of
colonization in Putumayo goes back to the 16th century. Spanish Conquistadors
arrived searching for gold and quinine. Catholic missionaries and encomenderos
came to the region and established isolated settlements using the indigenous
labor force, particularly the Ingas, who were descendants of the Inca Empire.
The Jesuits came in the 19th century and later on, in 1886, the Holy See and
the Colombian government assigned Spanish Capuchin monks the task of
introducing “Christian civilization” to Putumayo. These monks dictated a
set of rules giving themselves the right to distribute lands belonging to
indigenous communities, and founded the town of Puerto Asis. These legal
mandates came from the Colombian government, which until 1980 had as a goal to
dissolve the communitarian life of indigenous groups. These attitudes began to
change in 1958 as a result of indigenous struggles in Colombia and with the
establishment of new protections in the new Constitution of 1991.

Since the 19th
century, according to a 1993 report on the Putumayo published by the Comision
Andina de Juristas, there have been six stages of economic development in
Putumayo, most of them accompanied by a lot of violence.

1. Rubber
Starting at the end of the 19th century until the 1920s, a
process began which incorporated the Amazon region into the world economy.
Small settlements of rubber plantations along the river, mainly in the hands
of English merchants, characterized this period. The rivers were the main
source of transportation, sending raw rubber to the Amazon ports in the
Atlantic. In the 1920s the rubber produced in Malaysia became cheaper, and
therefore Putumayo’s rubber production was abandoned. In the process of
development of the rubber plantations, thousands of indigenous died working
for the Casa Arana Company, on the border between Colombia and Peru. In a book
published in Lima by the Peruvian judge Carlos Valcarcel, he relates that more
than 20,000 indigenous were assassinated in the rubber plantations of the
Putumayo in a period of 10 years.

2. Frontier
: In 1933 after a war with Peru in which Colombia defended its
right to the Amazon, the Colombian government initiated a migratory process to
Putumayo, bringing peasants from neighboring departments of Narino, Cauca, and
Huila, with the idea of strengthening the frontier and using its army to
defend it. Colombia started towns such as Puerto Leguizamo and built roads to
Florencia and Pasto as a demonstration of sovereignty over its territory.
People came attracted by gold in the rivers.

3. The
economy of the 1950s:
The situation of chaos and institutional disorder in
the period known as La Violencia (roughly 1946-1957) in the center of the
country, when more than 200,000 people were killed, caused violent
displacements to remote regions such as Putumayo. The most fertile lands in
the country were concentrated in a few hands near the large urban centers and
the mistaken belief that the land in the Amazon areas was fertile brought many
peasants to this area. But the lack of roads and working capital and the low
productivity of the land caused many settlers to become disillusioned.

4. The
economy of the 1960s:
In the 1960s the development of Putumayo became
strongly associated with the oil boom. This brought the construction of roads.
Towns started to grow and many fortune seekers arrived looking for land and
work. In 1963 oil drilling started and in 1973 Texaco agreed to the reversion
of its oil fields to the Colombian government for development by the
state-owned oil company, Empresa Colombiana de Petroleos (ECO- PETROL). In
this period the population was made up of urban workers in the oil fields and
peasants, who populated the valleys of the rivers to plant food crops such as
corn, cassava, and plantains. Unfortunately, this dynamic process of
colonization was not supported by the state by constructing utility services
and farm-to-market roads or by providing security to its citizens.

5. The coca
Since the 1970s the illegal cultivation of coca has
attracted a great number of people and this economy has brought more money
than the oil boom. Even the people who came with the idea of developing
agriculture and the indigenous communities were incorporated into this
economy, out of need. Legal crops did not receive credit or technical
assistance from the Colombian government. The Cali and Medellin cartels
profited from the desperation of the peasants by stimulating the cultivation
of illegal coca crops. In March 2000 there were more than 120,000 hectares of
coca cultivated in Colombia, of which more than 60 percent were in Putumayo,
employing 50,000 peasants. According to the report “Los Cultivos Ilicitos”
from the Defensoria del Pueblo, one hectare of coca produces 1,250 kilos of
coca leaves every 100 days. To produce 1 kilo of coca paste, it is necessary
to produce 568 kilos of coca leaves, which means that there are an average of
2.2 kilos of paste per hectare in each one of the 3 harvests in a year. In
1993 a kilo of coca cost in Colombia $600. That same kilo in the United States
could be sold for between $10,500 and $40,000. The largest profits are in the
international market on the demand side. Plante, the Colombian government
crop-substitution office, has calculated that for each 1,000 pesos that a
buyer of coca paste pays, the Colombian peasant only receives six pesos. Even
so, the profit for the peasant is larger than what the traditional crops

6. The
current economy
: The current situation in Putumayo reflects a combination
of several political, economic, and strategic factors. Putumayo’s land and
resources are being disputed by the guerrillas, the paramilitaries, and the
Colombian government, which through Plan Colombia promotes United States
interests such as market penetration for its products and access to raw
materials, particularly minerals and the rainforest canopy. The United States
government is especially interested in promoting “stability” in South
America, wary of the possible consequences of a spread of violence and
disorder to the neighboring countries of Venezuela, a top supplier of oil to
the U.S., and Brazil, a major trading partner.

Human Rights

dirty war in the Putumayo started in the 1980s. The increased number of
violent deaths is directly associated with the cultivation of coca and the
presence of guerrillas. The fact that the Putumayo borders on Peru and Ecuador
made it ideal for the trafficking of cocaine, with the increased presence of
bodyguards and hit men. The high prices of the coca leaf gave peasants and
indigenous large amounts of money, which altered their traditional ways of
life and increased the solution of conflicts in a violent way.

Local power was
in the hands of politicians from the two political parties, Liberals and
Conservatives, who kept up their traditional patronage customs, such as
offering public jobs in exchange for votes or for working in their electoral
campaigns. In this way, they kept control of the towns’ budgets and of local
governments. The same happened at the state government level, where even with
the high income from the oil revenues, there was no investment in utilities
such as electrification, telephones or water purification for the countryside.
If roads were built, they were constructed to connect towns where the oil
industry was being developed. In 1983, FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias
de Colombia) opened its 32nd Front in Putumayo, in order to defend the
peasants, indigenous and settlers (particularly small producers of coca
leaves) against the abuses of the drug lords. FARC set a tax called gramaje
which caused an uproar among large drug dealers, generating both levels of
cooperation and confrontation which eventually would evolve to link FARC to
the coca business.

In 1986 in the
towns of Orito, Puerto Asis and Valle del Guamuez, there were an increased
number of violent deaths. Just in Puerto Asis 73 persons died violently, not
counting the bodies thrown into garbage dumps or into the rivers.

particularly in Puerto Asis, the Union Patriotica (UP), a legal third
political party, became very strong. The UP developed as a political
expression of the Communist Party, FARC guerrillas who decided to lay down
their arms and become active in politics, activists of other groups and people
who were unhappy with the two traditional parties. If anyone was found
carrying Voz, the magazine of the Colombian Communist Party, it could
cost the person his or her life. Militants of the UP were automatically
considered guerrillas or their sympathizers. Motorboat operators working on
the Putumayo River were considered FARC members, because the army suspected
they transported guerrillas and food for them. On March 4, 1989 the
headquarters of the UP in Puerto Asis was searched and its account books
disappeared. Rigoberto Torres, the local UP coordinator, was assassinated by a
captain of the National Police who was the head of the campaign against
political opposition groups. That same year, 12 UP activists were assassinated
and the rest had to flee to others parts of the country. This was part of a
national campaign to eliminate the UP by paramilitaries with the support of
the Armed Forces and the money of drug dealers. These latter wanted to gain
the favor of the rabidly anti-communist Colombian elites. As a consequence,
the UP disappeared from the political scene in 1989.

In the 1980s a
second institution developed, the Civic Movement of the Putumayo. It was
pluralist, heterogeneous and above suspicion of collaborating with the
guerrillas. It acted above the parties and demanded electricity, sewer
systems, roads, and adequate public services. In 1987 leaders of this group
started to be killed. For example, a journalist, Luis Cristobal Arteaga, was
assassinated in Valle del Guamuez on August 20, 1990. In addition 15 leaders
of an indigenous movement, OZIP (Organizacion Zonal Indigena del Putumayo),
were killed in its first four years of existence. OZIP promotes the peaceful
invasion of government offices to pressure the Colombian government to meet
its commitments such as land titles, technical assistance, credit and
promotion of human rights. The political establishment sees indigenous people
as potential guerrillas. The idea is to weaken the grass roots movements by
accusing them of cooperating with the rebels.

In 1987 a
paramilitary base was created at El Azul, near Puerto Asis, which was part of
the private army of the military leader of the Medellin cartel, Gonzalo
Rodriguez Gacha. He was fleeing from persecution in the center of the country
by the police and the army. The existence of this base was denounced by the
state intelligence services, but in reality the war against drugs in Putumayo
was limited to repressing medium-size drug dealers who were not closely linked
to the cartels and whose detention served to show that the government was
doing something against drugs. Basically, those were the ones who were not
parties to the economic agreements with the public forces, which facilitated
freedom of movement and trafficking. An example is the case of Edgardo Londono,
whose farm was located near Puerto Asis. He reportedly was incarcerated
because he refused to pay 25 million pesos to the police commander of the
department of Putumayo, since he already had paid that sum to the local police

At the
beginning the relationship between drug traffickers and FARC was one of
cooperation, doing business together with no aggression against each other.
Two members from FARC’s 32nd Front controlled the airport in El Azul,
protecting the airport and charging a tax for this protection. Hit men
employed by Rodriguez Gacha killed them and FARC and a small guerrilla group,
EPL, then attacked El Azul, losing the battle. In 1990 three FARC fronts
captured the place and killed 60 paramilitaries there.

authorities ignored the emerging problem by doing nothing when the public
forces abused citizens. A group called Los Combos patrolled a great part of
the territory, and the political and economic power of the dealers increased.
Liberal and Conservative activists allied with the paramilitaries to persecute
the left and other political opponents. Captains of the police in Puerto Asis
were denounced before the Procuraduria as “accomplices of the para-militaries,
by allowing them to operate in the region and by tolerating the existence of
paramilitary training centers.”

mercenary Peter MacCalese was in charge of training the paramilitaries.
Another group called MACQ (Death to Communists and Civics), known as Los
Masetos, came out of this training. There were 200 young men brought from
other regions of the country, because the idea was to rotate the assassins
around the targeted regions. After the killing of Rodriguez Gacha, the
paramilitaries came under the leadership of the Castano brothers, Carlos and
Fidel. Carlos Castano is today the ruthless nationwide commander of the AUC (Autodefensas
Unidas de Colombia), the largest paramilitary army in the country.

The human
rights situation deteriorated more and more. There was a massacre at Las
Palmeras rural school located five kilometers from Mocoa, on January 23, 1991.
Five persons were executed, accused of being guerrillas, by a joint attack of
the Army and an Elite Corps of the National Police using helicopters. Among
the victims was Hernan Cuaran, a 25-year-old school teacher. Cuaran was
assassinated in front of his students. When a child said Cuaran was their
teacher, an agent answered: “No. All of them are guerrillas.” Artemio
Pantoja, a plumber who was at the school building, and whose daughter was the
secretary of the police headquarters in Mocoa, insisted they respect his life
since his daughter worked at the station. An agent called Mocoa and Colonel
Linares ordered all of them killed. Later Colonel Linares made a public
statement saying “they were guerrillas killed in combat who were going to
dynamite a pipeline.” The interior secretary of the state of Putumayo
countered this statement, because he knew the victims and because there was no
pipeline in Mocoa. The enraged citizens of Mocoa carried out a public protest
against this criminal act.

This situation
resulted in displaced people, who carried with them fear, uncertainty,
distrust, grief, and resentment because all their rights as citizens were
violated and the Colombian government seems indifferent to their problems.

In 1990
Colombian president Cesar Gaviria ordered the creation of commissions and
mesas de trabajo (working groups), with the participation of all citizens
around the country, to debate the new Constitution. The ones in the Putumayo
became open town meetings, where people questioned not only the administration
of the local government but its cooperation with the drug dealers and
paramilitaries and its failure to defend them. At the end of 1990 the army
attacked FARC’s National Secretariat, on election day, when the referendum
to approve the new constitution was being held. The answer from FARC was to
attack the economic infrastructure around the country. In the Putumayo alone,
from December 10, 1990 through April 1991, there were 20 dynamite attacks
against ECOPETROL, 2 work stoppages and 10 direct confrontations with the

Situation In Putumayo

1998 the paramilitaries came back to Putumayo and they are now present in most
of the region. There is a paramilitary base in El Placer. The paramilitaries
are present in the urban areas and the guerrillas in the rural areas. The
situation for the population is very difficult, because if they go to the
rural areas they are branded as paramilitaries or their helpers. If peasants
come to the towns, they are immediately accused of being guerrillas. In both
cases they are killed. In 1999 there were 13 massacres in Putumayo killing 77
persons, according to the document “Luz para la Vida” from the Defensoria
del Pueblo and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Office.

In general
during the 1980s market forces decided coca prices: supply and demand. It
seems that now the coca price is defined by the paramilitaries and the
guerrillas, which impose the price. In other words there is no such thing as
free markets in Putumayo. FARC sets a price for a kilo of coca and only allows
the sale to those authorized by them. The same is true for paramilitaries.

In general a
kilo of cocaine is sold at 1.5 to 1.7 million pesos (about $6800-$7,700 ) and
net profit per hectare is 200,000 pesos (about $90). Comparatively speaking a
carga, which is about 100 kilos of corn, is sold for 30,000 pesos, and after
paying the costs the peasant is left with only 10,000 pesos (about $4.50) per
carga. It is said that the guerrillas allow peasants to plant coca as long as
they also plant food crops. They do not allow consumption of drugs.

Since the 1990s
people in Putumayo have observed the presence of U.S. military personnel
alongside Colombian military in the coca-destroying operations. This usually
happens at the end of the year, when U.S. military would come to the military
base in Puerto Leguizamo to train Latin American soldiers.

One should
understand that in the Putumayo colonizers have to plant coca as the only
agricultural possibility that guarantees their maintenance. The root of the
problem is a social conflict that has not been solved; as long as there is no
technical assistance, no credit, no roads, and no marketing strategies, the
Putumayo peasant, who is generally a displaced peasant from other regions of
the country, has no other alternative than to plant coca to survive. A
military solution is no solution.

The society
also suffers because young people do not want to study any more, but want to
work as “raspachines,” or pickers of coca leaves. Now with the spraying,
many want to join the guerrillas because they say they do not want the
government to poison them. They say they prefer to die fighting. Peasants
prefer crop substitution by peaceful means and help with loans and technical
and financial assistance. For a long time, Colombia has been a center of
controversy around the globe, on the issue of the production and trafficking
of illicit drugs. In 1998 Colombia was a leader at the United Nations in
calling for the international community to design a new and more balanced
global strategy in the fight against drugs. This call concluded in new United
Nations agreements in 1998 focused on “alternative development,” which
have as a goal the promotion of socio-economic alternatives for communities
that have had to turn to illicit crops to survive. The UN strategy emphasizes
the creation of new sources of employment and cooperation between countries to
avoid the displacement of illicit crops from one place to another.

In 1998
President Pastrana unveiled his Plan Nacional de Lucha contra las Drogas,
which besides alternative development called for manual eradication of illicit
crops. This Plan emphasized social aspects, creation of infrastructure, and
human development. But at the end of 1999 this Plan was turned upside down in
its logic of peace building, and became a part of Plan Colombia, designed
bilaterally with the United States. The fight against drugs became a
repressive, military-focused strategy, guided by the concept of national
security for the U.S. and with little attention paid to Colombia’s own needs
and to diplomatic efforts at the UN. Fully 70 percent of Plan Colombia is
allocated to buying combat helicopters and sophisticated intelligence
equipment, for training and equipping specialized army battalions, and for
eradication of illegal drugs not only by spraying crops with herbicides, but
also by developing biological agents to attack the coca plants.

According to
Colombias Ombudsmans Office (Defensoria del Pueblo), the social and political
problems of Colombia are reflected in the destruction of those areas of the
country which are richest in bio-diversity, such as the Putumayo, with the
accelerated destruction of the tropical Amazon basin rainforest. Coca crops
are the direct result of the desperation of numerous poor people displaced by
the violence and social conflicts in other areas of the country. They arrive
and cut the rainforest, causing ecological destruction of the rivers, water,
and soil, and depriving endemic plants and animals of their natural habitat…
A process called “triple deforestation” occurs: coca is planted, spraying
occurs, and peasants flee to plant coca in a new place. According to data
taken from Colombian government experts, for every hectare of coca, four
hectares of the rainforest have to be destroyed.

destroy microorganisms, such as algae, nitrogen-producing bacteria, protozoa,
and larvae, which determine the biology of the soil and prevent its
destruction. This destruction unbalances the natural biological chain.
Monsanto’s Roundup, which is the principal chemical being sprayed in
Colombia to reduce the coca and poppy crops, contains phosphorus, which upon
contact with water captures oxygen and destroys fish in lakes, lagoons, and
marshes. Crop spraying affects food crops such as cassava, plantains, corn,
and tropical fruits. Likewise, peasants exposed to the spray have reported
cases of diarrhea, fever, muscle pain, and headaches attributed to their
exposure to the chemical spray.

In January 2001
Putumayo will be the principal site targeted to experience Plan Colombia, with
the destructive spraying it is to include.

The world
decided to demonize Putumayo and its people are victimized. After being
excluded for a long time, finally they are included but as victims of the war.
The only answers they receive to their multiple needs are military, when what
is urgently needed is a social solution. All their rights are violated: human,
civil, political, social, economic, cultural, and ecological rights. This
becomes an example of how Plan Colombia will be applied in a cruel society
where the poor and humble become pariahs in their own country.

Cecilia Zarate-Laun is co-Founder and Program Director of the Colombia Support
Network with headquarters in Madison, Wisconsin (