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Post-conflict in Colombia: The International Potential of Peace
Post-conflict in Colombia: The International Potential of Peace
Building Trust in Colombia’s Hub of Coca and Conflict
Building Trust in Colombia’s Hub of Coca and Conflict

Post-conflict in Colombia: The International Potential of Peace

Originally published in Open Democracy

A Colombia in peace should be welcomed by the region because it means the return to the neighbourhood of an important, relevant resident, with first-order hemispheric tasks ahead.

If everything goes according to plan, the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) will be signing in the coming weeks an agreement to put an end to more than 50 years of armed conflict. This is certainly momentous news for Colombia, but also for the international community, which has expressed unanimous support for the process currently under way in Havana. Much has been said about the role of the international community in achieving peace and implementing the future agreement. I would like to propose here an analysis of the other side of the coin: the meaning and impact of this process on the international scene.

The anomaly

To many international analysts and Latin American political actors, the armed conflict in Colombia was, to some extent, an anomaly or an exception.[fn]Historical Commission of the Conflict and its Victims (CHCV): Contribución al entendimiento del conflicto armado en Colombia, February 15, 2015.  The documents by Alfredo Molano and Sergio de Zubiría are particularly useful for this reflection.Hide Footnote The fall of the Berlin Wall triggered or accelerated peace processes in Central American countries. Since the late 70s and early 80s, political transition processes had begun there from the once-dominant military dictatorships to democratic regimes. The influence of the United States fluctuated between active support to the democratic cause during the Carter administration, the campaign against the "evil empire" under Reagan, then towards appeasement and new democratic emphasis under President George Bush Sr. This swinging back and forth caused deep geopolitical changes in Latin America.[fn]Daniel Pécaut, Las FARC: ¿una guerrilla sin fin o sin fines?, grupo editorial Norma, 2008.Hide Footnote

The backdrop and ulterior purpose of the centre-stage role of Latin America in the peace processes in Central America (for example, in the Contadora Group) was the resolution of all ideologically-based armed conflicts. The presumption was that once the wars in Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador were appeased, the impact of the success of these processes would naturally open a peace process in Colombia. The Colombian constituent process of the nineties is coincidental with widespread optimism about the beneficial effects of the end of the Cold War. The peace negotiations and the disarming and demobilization of several Colombian guerrilla groups were seen as confirming the Latin American chapter of the "end of history".

But, as we know, the war in Colombia went on and became increasingly toxic due to the increasing overlap of its actors with drug trafficking and other illegal economies. In addition to Colombia, only Peru was going through a bloody internal conflict with the Shining Path and the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA). To any observer, it was no coincidence that the two countries most affected by coca cultivation and trafficking were suffering the brunt of violence.

This coincidence – while peace was being signed in El Salvador and Guatemala in 1992 and 1996 respectively - implied a different analysis of the roots of conflict. Led by the vision in Washington, the conflicts were interpreted as a direct and almost immediate consequence of drug trafficking and, therefore, their solution had to be found in a head-on struggle with the drug cartels and through aggressive crop eradication and prohibition policies. Latin American countries were mostly absent from these discussions, losing the centre-stage role they had had in Central America.[fn]Coletta Youngers and Eileen Rosin (eds), Drugs and Democracy in Latin America, The Impact of U.S. Policy, Boulder, 2005.Hide Footnote

The war ended in Peru during the 90s, more as a result of police and intelligence successes, and the rejection by civilians of the illegal groups, than to the fight against drug trafficking. The enormous corruption that held together the government of Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) showed also that those fighting subversion are not always interested in concrete and public interest results. In any case, the armed conflict in Colombia continued and extended through the brutal presence of paramilitary groups.

From justice and peace to Havana

The demobilization process of most of the blocks and paramilitary groups in Colombia was a result of a negotiation the full reach of which is still unknown, unrelated to international intervention. On the contrary, some external agencies viewed the scheme with suspicion, blaming it for being ineffective and promoting impunity, especially after the extradition of the main paramilitary leaders to the United States.

International support materialised, rather, for the management of the consequences of the enforcement of the law, such as the land restitution act, and, under Santos, the launching of a system of assistance to victims of the conflict.

The peace process in Havana was also a product basically drawn, designed and executed by the parties. Facilitators, associates, and other international actors were useful in resolving specific crises, giving confidence to the FARC, providing logistical aid, and expanding consultations. Resolution 2261 (2016) of the United Nations Security Council consolidated a process of increasing participation and oversight by the international community.

Peace in Colombia as a global opportunity

The peace process in Colombia has been welcomed with open arms by the international community, which is burdened with some intractable conflicts, growing tensions and new failed states. Unanimous international support for the talks in Havana is an expression of complacency with this process, a reaction that is almost unique if we compare it to the heavy boxing going on in the discussions on Syria, North Korea, and Iran. Talking Colombia in the international sphere tempers the spirits and pacifies relations.[fn]Amanda Taub, At last, some really good news: Colombia´s war with FARC could finally end, January 28, 2016, Vox The Latest.Hide Footnote

At the same time, the forthcoming Colombian post-conflict is an opportunity not only for Colombia, but for the recent experience in United Nations peacekeeping operations. There has been much questioning, for example, of UN peacekeepers taking military action against armed groups in African countries and of security interventions not being consistently supported by other components. In terms of results, the balance is dismal, as can be seen in Burundi and South Sudan.

The nature of an accompanying civil mission is consistent with the post-conflict requirements in Colombia, and eases the concerns of countries contributing human and financial resources to peacekeeping operations around the world. It remains to be seen, however, how soundly do countries which effectively provide personnel to any such operations located in high-risk areas sleep, but the experience of the civil and unarmed mission of the Peace Support Mission of the Organization of American States (MAPP-OEA) shows that security on the ground does not have much to do with bulletproof vests and armored vans, and more with a deep understanding of the context and with constantly measuring the threats.

And an opportunity for Latin America

If successful, the international mission in Colombia may carry important lessons for similar operations in other parts of the world, but the impact in Latin America should not be underestimated, even though it is of a different kind.

Peace in Colombia would put an end to the anomaly mentioned above - although it would still leave several pending questions - and lead the country into a more "normal" relationship with its neighbours. For years, the Colombian foreign policy has revolved around its own armed conflict. Its friends and foes have had to do with the positions and attitudes of other countries on Colombian domestic violence. As if the country was a sort of South American Israel, Colombian diplomacy has suffered from some degree of defensive cloistering.

But at the same time, relations with other countries and, more generally, the inclusion of Colombia in the regional context, may change substantially, although gradually. After some prominence in the eighties, Colombia has been absent from the hemispheric crises, such as the coups in Honduras and Paraguay or the latent conflicts on yet-to-be-defined borders. Its participation in the Organization of American States has been faint, as has its role in promoting other sub-regional trade agreements or blocks, such as UNASUR (with which it maintains a quiet animosity) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (Colombia being the only middle-economy country absent).[fn]A critical (and official) analysis is unusually to be found in the 2010 Report of the Foreign Policy Mission, published by the Universidad Militar Nueva Granada on April 19, 2010. For an external critical view: Alfredo Molano Rojas,Política exterior, crónica de males crónicos, UN Periódico Number 135, July 2010.Hide Footnote

A Colombia at peace would open up significant prospects for a country that has an undeniable geostrategic location, being a natural bridge between the Andean region, Central America, the Caribbean and the Amazon. No other nation in the region has Colombia’s potential for strengthening regional integration on water, energy and communications resources. And no other actor in the neighbourhood has shown such a political and macroeconomic stability, despite its internal weaknesses and frailties. That the war in Colombia has deprived the region of a consistent and relevant actor for a better consolidation of Mercosur, for example, for being more serious about UNASUR, and for an objective discussion of the relationship of the region with the US, has certainly been a tragic anomaly.

The impact of peace in Colombia will be felt particularly in Venezuela. Somehow, while the former moves hesitantly towards greater stability, the latter is rapidly plunging into political and social chaos. All forecasts are pointing to an implosion of tremendous proportions as a result of the erosion of the Bolivarian regime and huge uncertainty about how the Venezuelan transition will turn out to be. President Santos is right in saying that what keeps him awake at night is Venezuela.[fn]See the Crisis Group reports: Venezuela: un desastre evitable, July 30, 2015, and Fin de la hegemonía: ¿qué sigue para Venezuela?, December 21, 2015. The quote about the nightmares of President Santos comes from a Blu Radio interview, February 3, 2016.Hide Footnote

The border closure crisis in October last year was only a small sample of the instability waves that may be coming. Even if the peace process with the FARC appears to have been isolated from the vicissitudes of Venezuela, there are many other potentially dangerous elements at play. On the one hand, the National Liberation Army (ELN) will hardly enter into negotiations if the scene in its main refuge remains unstable. On the other hand, implementing the agreements with the FARC will be very difficult in key regions such as Arauca and Catatumbo North. Finally, the clash of these two countries has practically destroyed legal trade, which is the source of enormous resources and opportunities for both.

Colombia is expected to play a positive role in a major crisis in Venezuela. Not only for its own short-term interest, but because it is perhaps one of the few countries that can have an impact, given Venezuela’s growing food dependency. So far, Colombian diplomacy has been low-key and, again, too focused on Venezuela’s role in the armed conflict. It is time to push UNASUR and the OAS into taking concrete steps to prevent Colombia’s anomaly from being replaced by an even scarier Venezuelan anomaly.

Overall, the economic slowdown and the crisis of the left populist regimes in Latin America will open new, no less fearsome challenges. If Colombia succeeds in overcoming ideological violence, it must show the region that it is possible to reduce inequality and respect the rule of law, an equation that has been difficult to come by in the region in the last decade.

Conclusion

Peace in Colombia is undoubtedly good news for the international community and for the region. The participation (hopefully proactive and instrumental) of Colombian citizens is crucial to sail in the dangerous waters of the post-conflict. But also, in the medium and long term, a Colombia in peace should be welcomed by the region because it means the return to the neighbourhood of an important, relevant resident, with first-order hemispheric tasks ahead.

General views of Tumaco in Southern Colombia, near the border with Ecuador, 8 April 2019. CRISISGROUP/Zaida Marquez

Building Trust in Colombia’s Hub of Coca and Conflict

Two years ago, Crisis Group found that major threats to Colombia’s peace process with former guerrillas all intersect in the Pacific coastal district of Tumaco. Our Colombia analyst Kyle Johnson made it his mission to find out more.

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TUMACO – I’d travelled to many places in Colombia before I joined International Crisis Group, but never Tumaco. My first impression was that it’s a town that shares many qualities with others on the Pacific coast. It’s made up of two built-up islands and some mainland barrios, tucked into a maze of estuaries along Colombia’s south-western border with Ecuador. Just one road runs in and out. Around 115,000 people live in the town itself, with another 89,000 in the surrounding countryside. The great majority of residents are Afro-Colombian.

The more time I spent there, however, the more I came to see Tumaco as embodying Colombia’s political and economic dilemmas in microcosm. Despite a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in 2016 (FARC), rebel dissidents, criminal gangs and other armed groups proliferate throughout. It is a cocaine production hub with easy access to seaborne smuggling routes and a higher proportion of land used to grow coca leaves than anywhere else in Colombia. Its politics are so corrupt that several former mayors are in jail. Tumaco also suffers the country’s highest rates of unemployment, with many of its people working in the informal economy, and others in the drug trade.

There are people and institutions working unevenly to improve the situation. The Catholic Church is a positive and influential force for change, helping to organise communities, denouncing human rights violations and promoting peace initiatives. Meanwhile, as in many rural parts of the country, a mix of honest, well-intentioned and also occasionally corrupt soldiers and police are frustrated by their inability to expand state control. In many cases, they are just trying to survive their deployment.

General views of Tumaco in Southern Colombia, near the border with Ecuador, 9 April 2019. CRISISGROUP/Zaida Marquez

Demobilisation in Real Time

I fly in from Bogotá for the first time in March 2017 in an effort to find out more about the town and its troubled transition toward peace. The journey is just over one hour by air, though it would have taken over 24 hours by road. We approach the town over the green coastal jungle and drop down toward the most alluring part of Tumaco: an island on the edge of the Pacific Ocean with a one-runway airstrip, a military base, a sandy beach and some hotels for mainly Colombian tourists.

My aims are modest in these first few days. I want to make contacts with residents and government officials, begin our research and build up Crisis Group’s name in the city. Things are tense, with homicide rates spiking because of fighting between FARC rebels and a breakaway guerrilla faction. Soon after chatting to a community leader by phone, I am surprised when he calls back to invite me to a school in a neighbourhood I’d never heard of. He promises a breakthrough in my quest to meet the FARC breakaway faction.

I follow his instructions and take a motorcycle taxi to the school. As I go down the main “road” in the neighbourhood – about six feet wide, paved with cement and built on stilts over water – a young man stops me. He tells the driver to leave the neighbourhood. “Are you coming to the meeting?” he asks me. I say yes, and he escorts me to the school.

Inside the school, I’m astonished to see a negotiation underway between the dominant FARC dissident leader and three Ministry of Defence officials. An audience of some twenty people is arrayed behind too-small schoolroom desks, including a Catholic priest, someone from the UN human rights office and several community leaders. All eyes follow the arrival of an unknown foreigner. Nobody asks me anything as I find a chair and sit.

Things are tense, with homicide rates spiking because of fighting between FARC rebels and a breakaway guerrilla faction.

The negotiators have already been at it for some time. I am surprised at how directly and practically they discuss complex issues I want to learn about: disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration, for example. In less than two hours, they settle the disarmament process for all 330 members of the FARC dissident group. As a show of goodwill, the rebels introduce to the government officials one of Tumaco’s most wanted men. The commander goes by Chicken, an incongruous nickname given the fearsome reputation of his violent, ill-disciplined militia. They promise that he, too, will disarm. The officials are astounded to have him in front of them, and to discover he was sitting at the back of the classroom all along.

The last item officials, dissidents and attendees discuss is that there should be “no more statements to the press” — something that could complicate my goal of interviewing participants. As the gathering disperses, I stay behind. The community leader introduces me without ceremony to Chicken as “the guy who came to speak to you”. It does not go smoothly. Everyone assumes that I am with the media. It is hard to convince them that I’m not looking for news stories. I explain that Crisis Group tries to talk to all sides in a conflict and explores practical ways to prevent or end violence. One mid-level dissident officer concludes I am writing a book.

Chicken relents. He sends some men out to make sure the building is secure, then asks me to read out my whole list of questions, one by one. Some FARC commanders can be quite closed – in fact they are trained to be like that – and I worry the meeting will have little value. But after a while he warms up, even seems to enjoy getting his thoughts and feelings off his chest. We spend about 90 minutes together. We pause when an unknown motorbike enters the neighbourhood and look out a second-storey window to follow its progress. He radios his fighters to follow it and get it out of the area. Things relax again, and as I take my leave, he even says it’s fine to cite him by name.

Violence & FARC dissidents on Colombia's Pacific Coast

We were able to interview young FARC dissidents on camera in the city of Tumaco, one of the places most affected by armed conflict following the peace agreement with the FARC. CRISISGROUP

A Colombian Crossroads

Tumaco is unlike the wide-open spaces or jungles elsewhere in Colombia. In order to meet conflict-hit communities and rebels in the countryside I usually have to fly, then travel for hours by boat, motorbike, truck or on foot. Here everything seems around the corner. When the phone call comes that so-and-so is ready to meet, I can usually walk there, moving quickly to the densely populated, poor, violent barrios dominated by dissident groups.

With each new contact, I feel my way forward, taking any advantage to deepen my understanding of relationships and events here. On my eighth trip to Tumaco, I meet another group of FARC dissidents. The group’s commander has just been killed by the narcotics police, and the group wants to tell his story. They say they're looking for a journalist to tell their story to. I explain I work for Crisis Group. They decide that they're willing to chat either way. A go-between manages to arrange it in just a few hours.

A mid-level FARC dissident, a low-level fighter and the go-between take me by boat to a village about two hours north of Tumaco, consisting of roughly 50 houses several kilometres inland. Members of the breakaway group are there, though they try to be inconspicuous. A large speedboat shows up in the afternoon with about fifteen armed fighters on board. During the day there, we listen to the townspeople about the now-dead commander, known as David, describing him as a saint who the police killed in cold blood, a version of events officials deny. Their story weaves seamlessly between things I know to be true and statements that I suspect cannot be accurate. A few days later I interview the same mid-level officer who brought me to the meeting and he says that David’s ideology was the “well-being of the people.”

Interviewing armed group leaders can be dangerous so I take precautions. I know that it’s not wise to get too close to any leader, as the other armed groups in the city can think you are collaborating with their enemies.

I notice similar dynamics and motivations in my interactions with three of the five non-state groups operating in Tumaco that I’ve spoken to. Some realise their image is terrible and want to change it. They believe telling their story will help.

But things don’t always work out as planned. We advance toward an interview with a prominent local commander known as Guacho, but pull out when his group claims responsibility for killing two Ecuadorian journalists and their driver in April 2018. Another time, a journalist and I take a small boat to a village called La Caleta to meet a commander. We make it there, but in the end he does not. He’s on the offensive after another armed group attacked him and his group the night before. Back in the city, fighters from his group tell me that four kids from their neighbourhood sent to the rural battlefront died in this counterattack.

Interviewing armed group leaders can be dangerous so I take precautions. I know that it’s not wise to get too close to any leader, as the other armed groups in the city can think you are collaborating with their enemies. I am careful when I first sit down with them. The first meetings are usually so they can warm to their narrative. I ask few, if any, difficult questions. Later, I can probe more boldly. When one FARC dissident fighter claims no one in his neighbourhood is involved in the fighting – despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary – I ask him about evidence made public by the state. “What about the intercepted phone calls?” “What about the killing on Father’s Day?” “How do you explain the shootouts with police?” Or “Why is your commander in prison?” The police have captured some of the group’s fighters, charging them with various killings. Despite a difficult interview, with vigorous questions and answers, the tone stays professional and we meet regularly when I am in the town.

Kyle Johnson interviewing dissident members of the FARC in Tumaco in Southern Colombia, near the border with Ecuador, 8 April 2019. CRISISGROUP/Zaida Marquez

Amid the crime and violence, the low-level people, the foot soldiers, often have sad and harrowing stories. Talking to them, I hear of how they join as adolescents, some as young as twelve, and face hardship, stress and trauma. One who joined at the age of twelve tells how his best friend was killed and he became a fighter to get revenge. Others say they joined after being abused and abandoned as children. Once in the group, these fighters do not strike it rich. I interview a fighter who spent two days looking for a way to wash, as his neighbourhood – and much of the city at the time – did not have running water. On only one occasion, speaking to a high-level drug trafficker, do I meet someone involved in the violence who has had a full high-school education.

As I spend more time in the area, I also talk to community leaders, NGO members and churchgoers. With them I can talk about our day-to-day lives, grab a beer, have lunch. One or two even visit me in Bogotá. It creates a bridge of trust. I test out our findings and recommendations informally, better understand how the city works, and hear them express the fears the people have. They also share with me their ideas for solutions to Tumaco’s many problems.

State Security

It turns out that it is more difficult for me to develop contacts with the army and police than the armed groups. In Tumaco, the interaction between the security forces and the gangs is a curious duet. Some 500 members of non-state armed groups operate in the city, and 11,000 thousand police and soldiers cater to the whole of Tumaco and other towns in the region. Their strategy for bringing peace, stability, and protection to the area is to kill or capture gang and cartel leaders. But while this strategy may look good to politicians in Bogotá, it is not changing much here on the ground.

For example, targeting armed group leaders has not helped the authorities gain control of the barrios, where non-state groups can easily retain the upper hand even when the police make some effort to be present. Part of the problem is the fleeting nature of this presence. During the day, the police hang out in places which aren’t typically violent, for instance along the main roads, sending sporadic patrols into the barrios. They go in and leave, providing little by way of sustained protection. The groups watch their every move, and resume normal activity after they depart. At one point, while I’m with FARC dissidents in the city, three heavily armed policemen walk through the streets of the neighbourhood and leave. Nothing happens and in future visits, it is clear that nothing changes.

I manage on occasion to talk to someone from the Colombian navy force that patrols the coast off Tumaco, the head of the armed forces in the region and other senior figures. They meet me mainly for public relations purposes, and usually want to give me the message that “the strategy is working”. Sometimes I sense they know that they are only putting a plaster on a gaping wound. But it’s their job to do what they can.

Police, army and navy personnel are mostly posted from other parts of Colombia. Among them are those who are genuinely motivated by patriotism and committed to the fight against drugs and violence. Others are more cynical about the assignment. They simply want to survive it and then move on from remote Tumaco. Still others are in league with armed groups and profiting from corruption alongside them.

Kyle Johnson in Tumaco in Southern Colombia, near the border with Ecuador, 8 April 2019. CRISISGROUP/Zaida Marquez

On my eleventh trip to Tumaco I meet some of the counter-narcotics police. They open up quickly, anxious to tell their story. They are tired of looking to locals like the bad guys, fighting a futile war. They even take me up in one of their helicopters to show the scale of the problems they face. From up there, it’s easy to see why they think the country is being ravaged by an unstoppable force.

We fly along the Mira River – the region’s main waterway – and over improvised pools of stolen oil, set ablaze to refine it into the gasoline used to process coca leaves into coca paste. A massive illegal gold mine operates just across the river from the neighbouring district of Barbacoas, and it is unclear if the town or the mine is bigger. In some parts, fields of coca stretch as far as the eye can see. The police are under heavy pressure from the central state to eradicate as much coca as possible.

But these agents on the frontline of the drug war say they can only do so much. For instance, the law says state security can’t touch crops in areas populated by indigenous people, though coca fields are abundant there. Even when security forces manage to cut down coca bushes, it spoils just one harvest and the fields are replanted soon afterward. If the police burn down the coca labs, they face backlash from ordinary people whose principal source of income has just been destroyed. Security forces may be hitting the drug trade but, locally at least, it is fostering hostility to the state.

The officers in the helicopter appear genuinely angry at the burning pools of stolen oil, but at ground level we get a different perspective on the police. While travelling in a taxi not far from those pools, three young men stop our car. They tell us to wait because two “filled” vehicles are coming up the road. We observe the passage of pickups stacked with barrels of illegally produced gasoline. When the young men allow us to proceed, we see the contraband pass unhindered through a police roadblock no more than five metres away.

Coca Territory

Tumaco’s overlapping worlds of state and non-state, legal and illegal, are most highly visible in towns along the main road or small settlements scattered throughout the rural jungle and hills of Tumaco. Wherever I go, the economy is often entirely reliant on the coca trade. Most fighting in the region is for control of drug-producing territory, the engine of violence since the early 2000s.

Along the road to Tumaco sits the town of Llorente. It has huge supermarkets, casinos and brothels clearly profiting from booming economic activity. Llorente lives almost completely off the drug trade: it is home to countless transactions where coca paste and cocaine are bought and sold, coca farmers buy whatever they need and coca leaf pickers come here to spend their cash. Most of those in this area are not Afro-Colombian, as in coastal towns like Tumaco. In fact, many came from the neighbouring inland province of Putumayo some fifteen years ago, so locals have dubbed it Putumayito, or little Putumayo.

Given that the state isn’t fully present, armed groups often step in to create their version of law and order. In Llorente, the notorious commander Guacho set up traffic rules and introduced photo ticketing to end traffic jams along the main road. Cars and trucks very quickly began behaving themselves. Guacho’s group has now lost control of that stretch of road, and the traffic is terrible again. But his civic gesture underlines an enduring problem for the police: how do you establish rule of law where almost everything is based on or controlled by illegal forces?

Coca fields in Tumaco in Southern Colombia, near the border with Ecuador, 9 April 2019. CRISISGROUP/Zaida Marquez

Poverty, inequality and a lack of jobs also fuel the drug trade. Many young men and boys in Tumaco — and indeed up and down Colombia’s Pacific coast — are ready to take the risk of earning $20-30,000 working on a ship taking drugs up to Central America, for example.

When I take a walk with some locals down to the edge of the sea through one of the barrios, where the houses rise on wooden stilts above the sea, I stumble onto a sight of young men and a speedboat, which they are filling with tuna. It is immediately suspicious. The vessel bears no resemblance to a fishing boat, and there is no reason for it to be filled with tuna. Cocaine deliveries to the international market often start on vessels disguised as fishing boats, which take shipments out for transfer to fast ocean-going boats on the high seas. No one here wants to be in a photo. I act as if I don’t know what is going on and quickly leave. Being a witness to drug operations, even unintentionally, can get someone in serious trouble with armed groups and traffickers.

An Important Lady

Family is important to the functioning of the area’s armed groups. One commander I meet has seventeen children, several of whom fight for the armed group he leads. In September 2018, I renew contact with another group that also looks like a family business. It once belonged to the FARC but never demobilised under the 2016 peace deal. The FARC murdered its first commander, known as Don Ye, in November 2016, who then was replaced by his brother, David, killed by state security forces weeks before I visited his family home in September 2018. The authorities say his sister was also the financial brains behind the group and their drug trafficking operations. I go to visit their mother, who many say runs part of the group.

We’re in a poor neighbourhood of Tumaco but the mother’s house is huge, three storeys high and opulent. It has elaborate and expensive-looking decorations and furnishings, typical for people in the drug business. I gradually realise the mother is the one giving orders, sorting issues out as they arise right in front of me. But she denies leading the armed group or that her kids were criminals. I know the latter is simply not true.

Still, this important mother is flattered by the outside attention that I represent. I feel a bit surprised myself to be sitting with her. As far as I know, the only other outsider who has met her is a Colombian journalist. I see that she wants to tell her side of the story, to defend her children, to argue the armed group has been good for the region. She gives me a CD of songs in homage to Don Ye and pamphlets in which the armed group says they “provide order”. She later sends me a video of David’s funeral. Two weeks later, another armed group in the city attacks her house, leading to a massive shootout between fighters from David’s group and this rival outfit.

A Deal Unravels

As time goes by, it’s clear that the demobilisation deal I witnessed on my first visit is not working out. When the big day for the dissident groups to disarm comes in March 2017, only 128 of the 330 people on the list show up to hand in their weapons. Soon afterward, the 200 who didn’t disarm start attacking those who did. By October 2017, most of those who demobilised are back to fighting. The violence between these now-divided groups quickly becomes worse than ever before. Too much of what I see in Tumaco as I continue to return follows a similar rhythm – progress toward tamping down on criminal networks and violence is often illusory and impermanent.

These challenges are all very real, but they are also linked to problems that run even deeper.

Leaving the airstrip after my most recent trip in June, my head is still filled with questions. I came to Tumaco initially to focus on whether the FARC dissidents maintained something of their guerrilla ideology, but instead I found that many people in the region are occupied with something more basic: struggling to make enough money to buy food. I wonder how even the most patriotic members of the security services can face their jobs when the scale of the problems is so enormous. Coca eradication and burning drug labs seem like sound plans in air-conditioned meeting rooms and faraway capitals, but how can they be defended when they cannot accomplish their objectives on the ground? And what does a war on drugs mean in a region where right now the only economy that counts is the drug economy? A simplistic approach to eradicating the drug trade seems doomed to fail in Tumaco. Bogotá and the donors that support it need to create a licit economy that presents an alternative—no easy task either.

The questions will keep multiplying. But thanks to the unique access the people of Tumaco are granting me, I am now being given ever more ways to argue that the causes of Colombia’s still rumbling conflicts are not just guerrillas, crime and the international cocaine trade. These challenges are all very real, but they are also linked to problems that run even deeper — a precarious licit economy, the very limited presence of a state unable to respond to local needs, and people’s search for survival in a harsh, unpredictable environment.