TUMACO, Colombia: There is a price on their heads, and one of them has already been gunned down. Now, the leaders of a black community in Colombia who dared urge farmers to stop growing coca plants are “hiding like rats” from drug lords intent on maintaining their supply of narcotics.
“We started receiving death threats and left our area on September 26,” said Francisco Jacome, who heads the group of community leaders working to halt coca production, in line with a peace deal between the government and former rebels of the Marxist FARC group.
Armed men—whom the leaders are too afraid to name, even in hiding—showed up in their village and publicly threatened them, putting a five-million-peso ($1,500) bounty on their heads for pushing their communities to end the illegal cultivation of coca leaves.
They fled their region of Alto Mira y Frontera and are now in hiding in Tumaco, the port of the southwestern region of Narino, a 50-minute drive from their homes.
“Alto Miro is the largest area for the cultivation of coca leaves in the world,” said Jacome, the 40-year-old president of the government assembly of community councils.
The area was legally given over to descendants of slaves who once worked in the gold mines of neighboring Barbacoas, but of its 24,470 hectares, 6,879 are planted with coca, the base material for cocaine. Colombia was the world’s largest producer of cocaine in 2016, turning out 866 tons of the drug, according to the United Nations.
A splintering of armed groups
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, were for half a century Marxist rebels who turned to drug production in recent decades to finance their struggle.
Their disarmament in a landmark peace deal with the government last November triggered a bloody power struggle between 15 rival factions made up of FARC splinter groups, former right-wing paramilitaries and rebels from another left-wing guerrilla organization, the ELN, according to Christian Visnes, director of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).
“And there are other groups starting to spring up that we don’t even know about,” he said.
Narino contains 20 percent of the 146,000 hectares of land under coca cultivation across the country.
Afro-Colombians in the area follow a traditional lifestyle of fishing and growing cacao beans and palm trees, and reject any responsibility for the “colonos,” as they call the peasant farmers from neighboring areas who followed the FARC into the sector when they took control of it around 15 years ago.
Strategically placed on the border with Ecuador, Tumaco’s Pacific coast is a maze of inlets and mangrove swamps that provide access for smuggling boats and escape routes from the police, a combination of factors that have turned this town of around 200,000 people into an epicenter of drugs trafficking.
The authorities regularly break up cocaine labs, arrest traffickers and seize mini-submarines used to smuggle the drugs.
Local coca leaf growers, known as “cocaleros,” have denounced the forced destruction of their harvests and what they deem insufficient government aid to help them switch to alternative cash crops. Six of them were killed when police cracked down on a protest march in October.
Jacome, whose predecessor Genaro Garcia was murdered in 2015, appealed to both the government and the former guerrillas, who have reinvented themselves as a political party. “If the FARC and the government negotiated the substitution and the eradication of coca, it is they who have to underwrite it.”
Too much blood spilled
Local community leaders in the region are the go-betweens between armed groups and the state, something that “puts them in a very difficult position,” said Visnes of the NRC.
So, the 13 surviving leaders of Alto Mira y Frontera communities have remained in hiding for more than a month, under the scant protection of three police officers who log the identity of any visitors in a large black book.
“We are living like rats,” Jacome told AFP, tears in his eyes. “You don’t even dare lean out the window.”
He recalled how the council’s spokesman, Jose Jair Cortes, got a little too confident. He was riddled with 17 bullets on October 17.
“He said everything was quiet out there … right up to the moment when he was tragically assassinated.”
Under the pale neon lighting of their house, 41-year-old Luz Dari, piped up: “The government and the FARC have a debt to pay for our dead. There’s been too much blood spilled here, too many widows and orphans.”
The community leaders have been told the council will pay for their food and accommodation until November 26, but after that their fate is murky. The authorities in Tumaco declined to comment to AFP about what would become of the group after that date.
For Visnes, the “historic peace accord has not brought an immediate peace” to Tumaco, something he said was all the more tragic for being so predictable. Almost 200 community leaders and human rights defenders have been killed in Colombia since the start of 2016.