A protest by farmers in Colombia against government eradication of coca crops left several civilians dead and wounded. But conflicting version of events have made it difficult to determine whether blame for the bloodshed lies with Colombian authorities or FARC dissidents.
At least nine civilians were killed and 18 others wounded on October 5 while protesting the government's forced eradication of coca crops in the municipality of Tumaco, El Espectador reported. Tumaco lies within the western department of Nariño, which InSight Crime has described as "ground zero" of the cocaine trade.
According to an early statement by Colombia's Defense Ministry, released when the death toll stood at four, dissident members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) from the Daniel Aldana Mobile Column used explosives and firearms to attack civilians as well as police and military elements sent to manually destroy coca plants.
An official investigation has been launched to clarify the incident, but so far authorities blame a dissident FARC leader known by the alias "Guacho" for having orchestrated the attack. The statement from the military also says that Guacho and his men force local populations to protest against government eradication efforts.
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According to the Afro-Colombian Community Council of Alto Mira and Frontera (Consejo Comunitario del Pueblo Negro Alto Mira y Frontera), local rural communities have been under increased pressure from armed groups seeking to use civilians as "human shields" against government eradication activities.
At the same time, several other local civil society groups have contested the official version of events, claiming that security forces indiscriminately shot at unarmed protesters without any provocation. Audio recordings of alleged witnesses describe how farmers met with police and military officials to negotiate ahead of the planned eradication operation, when security forces opened fire.
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The lopsided death toll has raised suspicions of excessive force on the part of the security forces, especially because not a single police or military official was reported dead or wounded in what was alleged to have been a surprise attack by hardened guerrilla fighters with deadly weapons. In addition, it would seem illogical for the FARC dissidents to kill coca farmers they allegedly sent to protest against the eradication of coca crops from which they supposedly derive important revenues.
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Although the exact sequence of events in Tumaco remains murky, the incident appears to be the result of increasing tensions following months of coca growers' protests and confrontations with government forces carrying out forced eradications. While officials maintain that these protests are orchestrated by organized crime groups, some observers have reported that farmers who signed up to voluntarily substitute coca with legal crops have witnessed their fields destroyed without any accompanying government compensation or support, leaving them without their primary source of income.
Anti-eradication protests have turned deadly in the past. But the casualties in Tumaco are the most numerous yet seen in such an incident, and could suggest that the Colombian government -- under heavy pressure from the United States -- may be turning to more heavy-handed measures as it strives to achieve its goal of eradicating 100,000 hectares of coca by the end of this year.