The Time of Coca | Sojourners

The Time of Coca

On the Colombian front of the drug war, it's hard to tell who—or what—is the real enemy.

Sojourners assistant editor Rose Marie Berger traveled to Colombia in January with the human rights organization Witness for Peace to get a firsthand look at the supply side of the "war on drugs." She sought to assess the on-the-ground effects of "Plan Colombia"—the $1.3 billion U.S. military aid package approved by Congress last fall. The group met with a wide range of people, from local pastors and human rights workers to U.S. Embassy and Colombian government officials. They met subsistence farmers who grow coca that is processed into cocaine, a product that ravages neighborhoods across the United States—neighborhoods like Washington, D.C.'s Columbia Heights, where Berger lives. The effects of this "Colombia-to-Columbia Heights" connection, Berger writes, can be seen every day "in the form of discarded crack bags, late-night weapons fire, and prostitution."

The most difficult aspect of the experience for Berger was dealing with the despair that is a natural response to the horrors she witnessed. How do you bring a message of hope, for instance, to the woman Berger met one afternoon in a refugee center—"a woman whose brother had been murdered by paramilitaries, crying uncontrollably in my arms." In the end, the only answer to that question may lie in the telling of the story.   
—The Editors

The pistol is shapely against his hip—hard glint of steel, sweaty camouflage. "I wasn't expecting you, but you are most welcome. Please sit. I'll send someone to get you water." Commandant Roberto Trujillo Navarro, a 1976 graduate of the School of the Americas, graciously welcomes the Witness for Peace representatives to the Santa Ana Forward Post, headquarters of the 24th Brigade in the sweltering jungle of Putumayo, in southern Colombia.

Trujillo is new to this post. The last commander was transferred after human rights groups publicized evidence that the 24th Brigade allowed paramilitaries to massacre civilians in the Putumayo region.

Behind the barracks condors sun themselves on the fence posts, blue-black wings stretched wide. The grassy ditch along the entrance road flaunts little metal signs warning of mines.

Putumayo takes its name from the river that is a natural border between Colombia and Ecuador and Peru. An area roughly the size of Vermont, Putumayo grows about 60 percent of the coca exported from Colombia—which produces 70 percent of the world's coca supply. Until 1996, the region was beyond the reach of any arm of government, a "Wild West" controlled by the world's oldest leftist insurgency, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Roads were built with grading equipment stolen by the FARC. Hospitals and schools were built by the FARC, too. And FARC "justice" was swift and permanent.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 2001
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