They say that during the worst times, between 1999 and 2002, when right-wing paramilitaries who went by their acronym the AUC carried out their violent assault in Catatumbo -- a jungle-covered region between Colombia and Venezuela in the northernmost part of Norte de Santander province -- about five families a day were expelled from the town of Tibu and about two a day from El Tarra. It was a common sight to see children playing, lying down on piles of coca leaves and aiming sticks at imaginary enemies, shouting in the rhythm of machine gunfire.
A decade later, those paramilitaries no longer exist, as they demobilized at the end of 2004 as part of a larger nationwide demobilization process that lasted from 2003 to 2006, but the lives of the children who imitated the right-wing fighters didn’t improve. Less than half of those who lived in the town of El Tarra finished primary school, and only 14 percent finished high school. In both El Tarra and Tibu, the majority of young people don’t have many skills and have little to do anyway. With 3,000 hectares of coca around them, they could become “raspachines” -- the Colombian term for coca pickers. Both legal and illegal armies are fighting over that coca. There are no roads, the water is bad, and official efforts to provide health services and education are remedies that do little to cure the deep scars of poverty.
The government of President Juan Manuel Santos has reinforced battalions and military bases, trying to hold off the leftist guerrillas. They are the other fighting force in this region, known as the Catatumbo, who are looking to reclaim lost territory.
In El Tarra, men in uniform are everywhere. There is a police station and a military base. In Motilonia, a village four minutes away by car, there's another military base.
From El Tarra, the army is trying, without much success, to control the jungle. The guerrillas block roads, leave landmines, fire explosives and fight to the death to protect their illicit crops. In December 2011, rebels soldier from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) threw a grenade at a police station; in January and February 2012, there were 13 skirmishes between security forces and rebels in the countryside and, according to humanitarian organizations based in the region, some 800 people left their homes. Some were displaced for a few days and found respite in the ombudsman and the mayor's houses. They returned a few days later.
[See InSight Crime's FARC Profile]
“Running away is a strategy of protection for people,” said one person who witnessed the event. In San Pablo, Teorama, another municipality of Catatumbo, the security forces launched an offensive last March, and, again, faced a strong guerrilla response. The fighting left several injured and dead, including a woman and her baby. No one arrived to provide medical and psychological attention, or food and clothing. The locals fled, but by the time the emergency aid finally arrived, people had returned to their homes.
On May 14, at 11 a.m., there was heavy fighting in Filo El Gringo, another hamlet in El Tarra. The FARC launched a cylinder bomb against a mobile army base in front of an elementary school. The military opened fire and the students were stuck in the middle. Fortunately, no one died.
The school had been empty since 2001, when paramilitaries burned homes and forced people to abandon this exceptionally well-organized and visually striking district. The more enterprising residents of Filo El Gringo began to trickle back in 2008. The school restarted shortly thereafter, but now, with the latest fighting, the children no longer want to study.
On June 11, after an attack on a military base in Motilonia destroyed several houses, 33 families fled into town. Soon, all of the families of this rural district, some 86 in total, fled “from mere physical fear,” as ombudsman Alexander Collante told local newspaper La Opinion. They found refuge on a farm owned by the mayor’s office. Nineteen children no longer want to go back to school, says one official who attends to them. They have nightmares, which they say are littered with the smell of gunpowder; others wet their beds.
The irony of Motilonia, as one person said with a bitter smile, is that it’s practically the only district in Catatumbo where the people don’t live off coca. There, families farm cachama (a breed of fish) in artificial ponds. These days, though, the fish are abandoned. The bullets and the explosions have scared them, the locals say, and they are not fattening up like they should.
One protagonist in this story of displacement is Victor Ramon Navarro. Known as “Megateo,” he is a former leader of the leftist Popular Liberation Army (EPL), a guerrilla group that mostly demobilized in 1991. Magateo did not. He survived the paramilitary invasion and has gained considerable power on the basis of a drug trafficking empire he's built along the border, and by co-opting various public and social works projects. Navarro's territory has been the site of numerous displacements.
In Tibu, which acts as the unofficial capital of Catatumbo region, people are also fleeing. An average of ten per month have left the area, according to a June report by La Opinion. In Tibu, it's not war, it's criminal gangs that systematically extort and bully in order to gain fast money from those who’ve worked for years to earn it. In Tibu, the extortionists are a group of delinquents who say they belong to the Rastrojos, the private army created by a drug trafficker in Valle del Cauca province in southern Colombian in 2004.
[See InSight Crime's Rastrojos Profile]
Nobody complains to the authorities: the gang has good contacts in the security forces. Once in a while the police make a move and capture a couple of criminals, but the line of young men ready to replace those arrested is long. There is a lot of money in the game, and these would be soldiers have little to lose, aside from their already unhappy lives.
One specialist in rural development who knows the zone well said the drug trade is eating away at the government and the guerrillas themselves, in the same way that termites devour wood in these tropical lands. And when the leadership is weak, the lower echelons do whatever they want. So while every explosion is reported as a terrorist attack, what is really behind them are fights over profits from the illegal trafficking of gasoline and fertilizers -- chemicals that help produce the cocaine -- and money laundering.
Crime and Forced Displacement
Puerto Santander, a municipality to the north of Cucuta, is the entry point into Venezuela’s illegal trade. There, it seems calm, and the official statistics on displacement are low. However, this isn’t because there’s peace, as one police official says, it’s because the Rastrojos' domination is practically absolute.
[See InSight Crime's Colombia News and Profiles Page]
Awake the giant, though, and you will have to leave. This is what happened with Adolfo and Rosita [these are not their real names]. He weaves wicker furniture and makes shoes. She is a housewife and a natural leader who didn’t recognize her own talents until late in life. They moved to the capital of the province and, bit by bit, began building up a small business. At first, Adolfo had to peddle his shoes and chairs on foot. With his earnings, he bought a bicycle. And over time, he saved and invested in their house.
Their daughters eventually joined them in the city, and for about a dozen years they lived peacefully, prospering. The neighbors convinced them to join the community council. Adolfo was elected the council's head. His wife also took on a bigger leadership role.
“The paramilitaries demobilized in 2004, but they left their people behind. It’s like, for example, if I left town and leave my children behind here to keep working the shop,” the shoemaker told VerdadAbierta.com.
But the "demobilization" was only partial and those who did not hand in their weapons began the cycle anew. They started by getting an ally elected head of the community council. That's when the neighbors stopped attending the meetings. They then accused Rosita of aligning the people against them. Tensions rose. Armed men on motorbikes visited Rosita's house and asked about her.
Startled and afraid, Adolfo and Rosita abandoned everything, and moved to another municipality in the province. After a couple of months, they sold their house at a loss. The government then gave Adolfo the equivalent of some $700 to start his own business. It was just enough to buy the heater to melt the glue that binds shoe soles, as well as a few other basic instruments.
These days he pays rent and occasionally risks going back to Catatumbo, because there he can sell more shoes: sandals at 12,000 pesos (about $6.50), boots at 15,000 (about $8). If he had a steady client, maybe he could climb from poverty. But Adolfo isn’t complaining: at least none of his children were killed.
“If the government thinks that with a million pesos ($550) you can start up a business, you need to be real lucky and win the lottery,” Adolfo said with a sigh.
All the job fairs and training he's received will not bring back his prosperous little shop or the good life he'd built with his wife. The young criminals who forced them to leave are still in the neighborhood, as though nothing had ever changed.
Chepe [not his real name] and his extended family lived in a district less than two hours from Cucuta, the capital of Norte de Santander, a department of a million and a half residents, until Mother's Day. He'd started out with a small plot of land that he'd gotten when the government passed an agrarian reform law some 39 years ago. Later he'd bought a few neighboring plots for his seven children. They preferred farming over school and growing rice rather than studying history. Later, they'd taken out a joint loan and bought some tractors and other machinery to help them during the harvest. The parents' wide, albeit modest house, was the natural gathering place for this growing family, which, by then had 33 members, including 16 children.
Chepe was generous. He and his neighbors formed a rice producers’ co-op. Six women gave birth in his car. He gave rides in his truck, and he happily lent his machinery to his less endowed neighbors. “They were the best of the people from these parts, hard working and honorable,” a neighbor who once did a job for them told VerdadAbierta.com.
Tears – either from anger or sadness – still fall, when Chepe's children talk about the attack last May. Lunch was over, and most of the kids and their children had left. That's when they heard a noise and a gunfight began. Chepe’s wife raced to slam the door. Bullets pierced the walls. Scrambling amidst the chaos, she lifted a mattress and threw it over the children to protect them. They cried quietly, terrified.
Then they heard the hiss of the grenade flying through the air and a sudden thump as it bounced off a railing and landed where it'd been thrown. The assailants -- which the family says numbered close to 15 -- scattered, but the explosion caught some of them by surprise. A few limped away. Hearing the explosion and gunshots, Chepe’s children raced back to help, but the attackers had already left.
The family moved quickly, gathering a couple blankets and whatever else they could fit in the truck and driving to the mayor's office where they slept on the floor. The next day, they sent their kids to school and discussed what was next.
The attack was surprising; the identity of the perpetrators was not. In the weeks leading up to it, armed men on motorcycles had told Chepe and his children they would have to pay five million pesos ($2800) per month, or face the consequences. This wasn't the first time he'd faced down armed groups. A few years earlier, he'd asked the GAULA (police specialized in kidnapping and extortion) for help, and they'd captured the perpetrators. But this time was different. GAULA was not an option. And other families were fleeing. Some neighbors from El Zulia had already gone to Venezuela after they were extorted by the same gang. They'd killed one of them, a 14-year old, when he'd tried to protect his family. So this time around, Chepe was ready to pay. He would have slept better. But he simply couldn't. With the price of rice plummeting, he had just enough to keep the banks at bay.
It is maddening for a successful, hard working, and independent farmer to live in squalor with his children and grandchildren. So it was with Chepe and his family, who, after they fled, have been holed up in a school for almost two months. The mayor’s office gives them food in the city, while his tractors, for which he's still paying, sit idle on his land. The police say they've captured the leader of the extortionists, and that Chepe can go back. But when Chepe tried, he saw two motorbikes go by, and was spooked anew.
Chepe feels the injustice. In contrast to those who want something for nothing, Chepe and his children worked for what they have, and that's precisely why they don't go back. They dream of going far away, somewhere where they don’t have to strain their ears trying to guess whether the buzz of a nearby motorbike means the gunmen have come back to kill them.
“It isn’t a coincidence that they tried to drive Chepe’s family from the region. It’s a way of sending a threatening message to everybody else. The neighbors are asking, 'If the strongest and most prestigious family of the area was attacked like that, what will happen to us if we don’t pay up?'” said an official in Cucuta, who has a long history working with displaced people.
Colonel Alvaro Pico, an intelligence expert who currently commands the police of Cucuta and the surrounding metropolitan area, assured VerdadAbierta.com the police have already put 180 suspected criminals behind bars, all of them members of the groups that appeared after the AUC’s demobilization. These include members of the Aguilas Negras (Black Eagles), who were the first to appear, and the Rastrojos, who became lords of the urban underworld thereafter. Now, the police are arresting members of a group called the Urabeños, which came from the northwestern corner of the country.
[See InSight Crime's AUC Profile]
The profits of the drug trade are enough to inspire several generations of ambitious, confused, or poverty-stricken youth to become cannon fodder in this business. The 3,490 hectares of coca which the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime calculates was in Catatumbo in 2011, produced a little more than 17 tons of pure cocaine. In Colombia, that translates into $42 million. In the US, the value is closer to $2 billion.
The precursor chemical trade also reaps large profits. According to the police, the Rastrojos earned about a billion pesos, or close to $580,000, a month from gasoline contraband. The gasoline -- which comes from the heavily subsidized market of Venezuela and is sold in Colombia for as much as 16 times the Venezuelan price -- is for commercial use as well as the illegal cocaine business: it is an important ingredient in processing coca leaves into the gooey paste that represents the first stage of transforming the leaf into the powder.
Currently profits from cocaine are dropping. In 2006, the paramilitaries' coca crops extended for nearly 10,000 hectares. Now the area is closer to 500 hectares. And sales are 10 percent what they were at that time. Since then, the growers -- almost all of them backed by leftist guerrillas from the FARC -- have increased their yield and harvest an average of 6.2 times per year. Coca growers also improved the efficiency of producing coca paste, one official at a government eradication program explained to VerdadAbierta.com. And in 2009, the area under cultivation extended again and the market is showing signs of returning to its old form.
As cocaine market decline, the market for other illegal activities increased: local drug distribution, theft, extortion. Those who can’t or don’t want to pay have been forced to travel varying distances to escape. Some have gone to Venezuela, others to neighboring villages. And still others, have swapped neighborhoods within the capital city. As the honest ones leave, the dishonest ones flourish and so has their confidence: your son won't join us, you have to leave; you are in an area we need to do our business, you have to leave.
“After 2004, violence went down, but starting in 2007, there was another clear phenomenon that had to do with drugs, leadership, and sales,” a teacher in the Cucuta neighborhood of Ciudadela Juan Atalaya told VerdadAbierta.com.
In this area, about a third of the population has been displaced, but they've not escaped the troubles. Gang wars over local drug markets, specifically crack and powder cocaine, have broken out in the city, including here.
Cucuta, a bright and sweltering city, is the largest recipient of displaced people in the province and is now generating its own exiles. Pushed by extortion, threats, and violence around the drug consumption business, some 500 Cucuteños left their homes in 2010, according to government figures. That same year, another 734 people arrived fleeing from another area. From 2005 to 2011, the government registered 22,669 displaced people in the capital city. Four of every ten were minors.
Father Franceso Bortignon of a missionary community of Scalabrinians has spent 12 years serving communities in the poor neighborhoods of Cucuta. He says there is a significant exodus because extortion is increasing, and people prefer to leave than risk becoming a victim. People feel threatened even when someone looks at them askew, he said. Meanwhile, the influx continues. But now its the guerrillas and government fighting in Catatumbo that is causing it. In a typical week, school officials receive requests to open as many as ten new spots in the school for children displaced from other areas.
“The displaced people I see every day have stories that are really sad, but I can assure you that for 60 percent of them, their tears come from their poverty,” the priest said. “‘How can I be displaced for four or five months and a piece of paper says they’ll take care of me if I’m sick, but I’m so poor I don’t even have the money to get there?”
There are several organizations dedicated to seeing to the needs of the displaced in Norte de Santander. The main one is the government agency called the Victims’ Unit. It forms part of a larger entity called the Department for Social Prosperity. The unit used to be called something else, and the bureaucratic change has made it difficult to tend to the displaced. This is further complicated by that fact that for some, such as those from Filo El Gringo, in Motilonia, in Villa del Rosario or in Cucuta, it is the second or third time they are asking for government assistance. Those displaced from El Tarra in January, for example, were only put into the displaced database in June. Without that official registration, they had no access to schools, emergency funds, or emergency health care.
The government of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced at the beginning of the year a multimillion dollar investment (the equivalent of some $450 million) in social protection and the improvement of services in Norte de Santander. But people on the ground are skeptical.
According to a funds management report on the Catatumbo region, between 2004 - 2011, some 175 billion pesos ($90 million) was invested in humanitarian aid, economic development, social development, governability, justice and security, and property reform. The national government did not consult with local communities or local governments on how to invest this money. And, according to one knowledgeable source, military officials are angry because much of the money ended up in the hands of contractors, some of whom are friends with local politicians. Various mayors and community leaders are now asking where the money went because the majority of the promised public works have not been executed.
The Colombian government, meanwhile, is scrambling to keep up with the pace of the conflict. New victims mix with the old, and the traditional war overlaps with the new, multi-layered conflict. The reemergence of the coca economy since 2011, the rise in displacement -- especially from El Tarra in Catatumbo in 2012 -- and the rapidly regenerating criminal groups make it clear that this border area will remain a hot spot for years to come.
*For original version in Spanish, along with interactive features and video, go here.