The Time of Coca

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.

In the mid-1990s, two events shifted the power balance. First, the leaders of the Medellin and Cali drug cartels were killed and captured, respectively. As a result Colombia's narco-industry was decentralized, and hundreds of small, mobile narcotrafficking crews sprung up. Second, the United States shifted strategy in the war on drugs from destroying the cartels to eliminating illicit crops; from extradition to spraying aerial herbicide. The war moved from cities to the rural areas.

With these changes came the rise of the right-wing paramilitary units (closely allied with the Colombian military and the "private armies" of the old cartels) and increased militarization of the left-wing guerrilla movement. The Colombian military is regularly accused of subcontracting extrajudicial murder and mayhem to local paramilitary groups, which are responsible for 75 percent of the human rights abuses in Colombia. "The paramilitaries are a small problem," concedes Comandant Trujillo, "but they are merely the bad children of our good army."

Outside the barracks four or five soldiers play with a 6-foot boa constrictor. It starts to rain. The deeply rutted roads fill with mud. A white horse darts out of the jungle, then rears up and away.

Here's the game: How to tell the armed actors apart when they crawl out of the jungle and wave your bus to the roadside. The 24th Brigade wears camouflage greens and good leather boots. The paramilitaries have no uniforms (or maybe a shirt patch) and good leather boots. The guerrillas have plain brown or green uniforms and cheap rubber boots. Shoes are the clue to who is winning the war.

THE 24th BRIGADE is situated 15 kilometers from Puerto Asis, Putumayo's largest city and the transportation linchpin of the south. Rows and rows of shiny new Kawasaki motorcycles line the front of the disco. The pharmacy is well stocked; various brands of shampoo and deodorant fill the shelves. Puerto Asis is a boom town with no visible means of support. No fruit plantations. No mines. No quarry. No lumber mills. Only the long green teeth of the Amazon jungle gnawing on the muddy brown paws of the Putumayo River.

On the cusp of the town sits its namesake, squat and colonial: La Iglesia de San Francisco de Asis (St. Francis of Assisi Church). A statue of the saint himself is perched beside the bell tower high over the town. His left hand rests on the head of a wolf.

The priest here—Padre Alfonso Gomez—will soon be re-assigned to Chile. Phone calls and messages detailing how he will die have been coming too frequently. There is an unspoken formula of when enough is enough. "Of the 207 funerals performed in this church last year, 97 of them were assassinations," says Gomez. "But we cannot speak openly about this. If you speak out you will get a visit. So the law of Putumayo is silence." A 1970s "wanted" poster of Jesus hangs on the wall: "Have you seen this man?" Mosquitos fly through the open cement blocks that serve as windows in the parish hall. Molded white plastic chairs give away nothing in the humid night.

Putumayo is a land that has been stripped and robbed. First the English rubber plantations, slavery, and massacres. Then oil and massacres. "Now," said Gomez, "we are living in the time of coca."

THE ROAD FROM Puerto Asis to Puerto Caicedo has been swapped so frequently between guerrillas and paramilitaries that control is checked daily. Members of the Colombian military act as referees, but no one accuses them of being impartial. Flat-bed horse-drawn carts carry old men and women into town. Dogs trot underneath, staying out of the equatorial sun. Trees are draped with the straw "Christmas stocking" nests of Oropendola birds, whose haunting calls slip through the morning air. A thick blue line of smoke rises on the western horizon. According to the radio, guerrillas have blown up a petroleum line near Orito, 10 miles away.

Three thousand people are gathered in Puerto Caicedo to sign their bankruptcy papers. Officially, the process was a social pact offered to small coca farmers by the Colombian government as a means to avoid having their fields forcibly destroyed by herbicide. If the farmers manually eradicate coca from their fields within 12 months, then the fields would not be targeted for aerial herbicide fumigation.

The mood of the crowd is surly and rough. There had been paramilitary "encouragement" to attend. One man wears a "No Fear" T-shirt with the slogan "Live free or die" across the back. A woman stands with her hands clasped behind her. These are the hands of a coca farmer in southern Colombia: short fingers thick with work, palms rough, nails split, cuticles filled with soil.


A boy harvests surviving coca plants after hervicidal spraying. Coca plants are highly resistnat and take two to three weeks to die after spraying.

Twelve months is not enough time to substitute a legal alternative cash crop for the coca. Other towns that signed social pacts were fumigated anyway. With no viable licit alternative, the family that signs a contract to eliminate its coca consigns itself to death. Coca money buys clothes, sugar, and school for the children. For 20 years, coca leaves have been the means of survival for these subsistence farmers.


There used to be a priest in Puerto Caicedo who the people called "the little giant of faith." His name was Father Alcides Jimenez. He warned the farmers against coca. He trained the community to organize itself independently of the armed actors. He helped the people believe that the dreams of God were true, to have reverence for nature, to respect indigenous cultures. Coca only brings violence, he said.

He was assassinated by the guerrillas on September 11, 1998, while celebrating Mass. He was 49 years old.

"Seventeen bullets," says the new priest, Ernesto Estrada, "one for each year he served in Puerto Caicedo." In the church reception room, Estrada points to a glass case. "Here are Padre Alcides' vestments. You can see the bullet holes. Here is the Bible he raised up as his shield, with a bullet hole in the corner." This is the passion story of one man in an obscure village in the Amazon jungle. "Here is the chalice with the bullet hole through the bottom. He was shot here in the church," Estrada points. "Then he stumbled out to the base of this tree. Here is where he died."

Father Estrada was named priest in Puerto Caicedo just 15 days after the murder. "I wasn't afraid," he says. "I just didn't know anything."

Now what does he know? He knows that Puerto Caicedo was a self-sustaining agricultural region until coca showed up 22 years ago. Now the economy is coca dependent. Small farmers can grow coca and not have to rely on the government for processing, transportation, or market. With two hectares of coca on an eight-hectare farm, incomes rise to just below minimum wage for a family of four in Colombia.

Now, with fumigation and armed repression, farmers must rethink this strategy. Because of poor infrastructure and an open trade policy with Ecuador, their legal crops can't compete. Hauling out rice, corn, bananas, and heart of palm to market costs more than a farmer can sell them for.

"We know there is money coming [to Putumayo] to support Plan Colombia," says Estrada, "but we don't think the money will ever reach the farmers. We suggest that [the United States] figure out the price of one fly-over for a fumigation plane and give that money to the farmers instead."


BACK IN PUERTO ASIS, the town is inundated with the throbbing chop of Black Hawk helicopters. A fumigation operation is under way in nearby La Hormiga. The helicopters and crop dusters are using the airstrip of the 24th Brigade.


Rosa Maria Zabrano, 71, surveys her farm after it was sprayed with herbicide by U.S.-piloted planes.

Two days before, fumigation planes flew over San Miguel, eight miles south of Puerto Asis. Now the trees there are all dead—soaked in a broad-spectrum herbicide. There was supposed to be a warning before fumigation started. There was no warning. There was supposed to be a study to make certain that the pilots' maps matched what was on the ground. There was no study. Oropendola bird nests now hang in dead trees.


The fumigation planes, flown by private U.S. pilots, are programmed with navigational instructions from global positioning satellites geared to identify coca by its spectral analysis. An embassy official from Narcotics Affairs said they could be accurate to within 3 meters.

Memory cards in the fumigation plane's navigational computer record precisely where the pilot sprayed. But the memory cards do not take wind drift into account. They do not take water sources into account.

The herbicide—a glyphosate supplied by the Monsanto Company—dries out everything. Fruit falls off the trees: bananas, star fruit, coconut, rendered inedible for humans or livestock. Houses are fumigated; the porch plants are dead. Fields of corn and rice, all dead.

Luis Vivas has a four-hectare farm. Two years ago he pulled up his coca. His family started an orchard of native fruits with trees provided by a government program. All were fumigated. He cracks open ears of corn. The kernels are completely dry. "We can't eat this," Vivas weeps. Fish gasp at the surface of his fumigated pond.

The government was going to give a prize to the farm with the most successful Amazonia reforestation project. Instead it fumigated and killed all the trees it had given to him to plant. "This is my question," Vivas says. "What are we going to eat? What was [Colombian president] Pastrana thinking? Was he trying to exterminate coca or trying to exterminate us?" His voice trails off in the hollow rustling of leaves.

People arrive in medical clinics with blood poisoning and boils. There have been unconfirmed reports of small children and the elderly dying after being fumigated.

The U.S. State Department says that only large coca plantations are fumigated; that fumigation is very precise because of satellites; and that the herbicide glyphosate breaks down quickly, causing no peripheral harm. At the roadblocks, the 24th Brigade distributes a free notebook supplied by chemical companies. On the front it says "Glyphosate doesn't harm the land, coca does."

Last week the mayor of Puerto Asis narrowly escaped injury when dynamite was thrown at him by "unknown actors." Now his bodyguard stands close by, brushing cookie crumbs from his shirt. He watches warily as a young man in dusty boots walks down the unpaved street, pushing a flat cart carrying bright yellow plastic chairs, chickens, and a little girl. The guard wears a Dissent Jeans T-shirt with a 9mm Uzi slung across his right shoulder.

This is what the war on drugs looks like in southern Colombia.

Rose Marie Berger is an assistant editor at Sojourners. For comprehensive information on Colombia, contact the Latin America Working Group ( or Witness for Peace (

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