Caught in the crossfire

As the gang war over the country's lucrative drug trade escalates, locals are increasingly the target


To hear what Colombia’s continuing drug war is starting to sound like, board a motorboat in Montelíbano, a small city in the department of Córdoba in the country’s north. At every other bend in the river, listen to members of the unarmed Civil Defence force as they point out where they happened upon floating bodies swirling in the chocolate-coloured eddies; the likelihood of such gruesome discoveries is even higher further upstream, at La Curva de los Muertos—the Curve of the Dead.

Once in a while, pass by a clearing in the verdant wall of trees lining the riverbank, where one or two men stand. They appear to be doing nothing, but they are likely informants of one of several drug trafficking groups who use the San Jorge river as a cocaine throughway, ready to radio their colleagues about who is arriving.

Two hours later, step off the boat and go up a dirt path to the village of Villa Carminia. Walk through thatched-roof homes with emptied closets and shoes strewn on the ground, and peer into backyards where roosters would normally crow. Step into the tiny church of upturned benches where the faithful might otherwise sing. But today, the latest sound of this country’s intractable drug war greets every step: silence.

That’s because what was once a community of 350 people is empty. There’s not one resident left to explain how the fear that grew with the armed men who started coming to town over a year ago, the gunshots they would fire at rival drug gangs, and finally, the massacre in a neighbouring settlement, drove all of them to leave on July 5, 2010. Villa Carminia is the first known village that has been displaced in its entirety by the latest incarnation of criminal groups who are fighting to gain control over Colombia’s lucrative drug trade. But the silence of abandonment that blankets Villa Carminia is encroaching upon communities across Córdoba, as an increasing number of selective murders and massacres committed by drug gangs, as well as death threats and orders to leave, are causing inhabitants to flee their homes.

Though Colombia has a long history of drug trafficking groups, today’s variety pose an increasing threat to security as they consolidate their local and regional power, and take urban and rural communities into their grip. For much of the 1990s and the early 2000s, after Colombian police brought down the country’s once all-powerful drug cartels, most of Colombia’s drug trade was controlled by right-wing paramilitary groups brought together under the banner of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known as the AUC. Between 2003 and 2006, after signing a peace deal with the government, over 32,000 AUC members put down arms in exchange for reduced sentences for top commanders and immunity for foot soldiers. Many of the top leaders were extradited to the United States on narco-trafficking charges.

But most mid-ranking paramilitary commanders either never demobilized, or returned to criminal life, starting new drug trafficking groups and recruiting many former AUC fighters to work for them. By 2006, the national police estimated that 4,000 men belonged to these paramilitary successor groups. Stepped-up police efforts have resulted in 2,765 arrests of their members in 2010 alone, but don’t appear to have put a dent in their size as others fill their ranks. The police put their membership at 4,100 in 2010, while the Nuevo Arco Iris research organization estimates they number at least 10,000. “They have a capacity to keep operating, while losing people and then recouping people immediately,” says Victor Negrete, a professor at the University of Sinú in Montería, Córdoba. Indeed, Mauricio Romero of Nuevo Arco Iris estimates neo-paramilitary groups control about two-thirds of Colombia’s estimated 68,000 hectares of coca crops.

Since 2000, the U.S. has poured $6 billion into fighting Colombia’s drug war, including efforts to decrease coca production. But while the amount of coca grown was down 16 per cent in 2009 according to the UN Office of Drug Control, Colombia remains the world’s top coca producer. And although today’s drug trafficking groups do not have the wide-reaching influence of the famous cartels of the 1980s and ’90s, nor the national scope of the AUC, they now operate in 24 of Colombia’s 32 departments, and their local and regional power is strengthening and expanding.

In few other places can their presence be felt more than in Córdoba, a narco-trafficking mecca, home to extensive fields of coca, labs that process it into cocaine, and roads and waterways that can transport it to the Atlantic coast within three hours. Córdoba was the birthplace of the AUC, and after the group’s demobilization there in 2006, the department became awash with former paramilitary fighters, many of whom joined newly established drug gangs. Homicides have climbed every year since 2006, and by mid-December of 2010 had doubled to 569, according to Córdoba’s governor’s office, serving a population of 1.5 million.

As ruthless as the massacres and terror unleashed by the AUC were, that organization operated with a tight military structure that made it possible for many civilians to learn how to live under its domain. But many Córdoba residents say they are worse off now, trying to navigate survival amidst various and competing drug gangs who are often faceless, and constantly undergoing change. “Today, there is no organization nor structures. Everyone here does what he wants. Each boss does what he wants in each region,” says Father William de Jesús Guzmán.

His parish in El Palmar in southern Córdoba has the unlucky fortune of sitting on a contested boundary line: it lies in the territory of Los Paisas, but just across the San Pedro river from the land of the Black Eagles, a paramilitary successor group of national scope. Over six months ago, Los Paisas’ armed men started visiting here. They offer villagers $500 a month to be informants. They hold town meetings to lay down their rules, or hunt someone down. Anyone who has collaborated, however unwittingly, with the army or a rival gang becomes their target—collaboration can mean selling food or providing a boat ride to the enemy.

Anyone with even the smallest business, or good-sized crops or a cattle farm, must pay a “protection tax” to whichever armed group comes knocking. Failure to pay (the tax is often unaffordable) results in an order to leave the area, or face death. Fear of encountering armed men or fighting outside El Palmar often prevents residents from leaving to tend to their crops. “It’s like we are in a prison. Free, but in a prison,” says Guzmán.

In November, Los Paisas told the four operators who ran the town’s boat they must lock the boat down after 6 p.m., and that there would be no problems if their rules were followed. The next day, they shot one of the boat operators, slit his throat and walked out of town. Shocked residents can’t comprehend why he was murdered, but many suspect Los Paisas wanted to drive their threat home. Over the next two days, 17 families, including the other boat operators, fled. In the last three months, the town has lost a quarter of its population.

Guzmán fears El Palmar and other villages across Córdoba will soon look like Villa Carminia. Mass displacements were characteristic of the AUC’s era; Guzmán fears they are now making a comeback due to the AUC’s successor groups. In fact, displacement of individuals and families continues at high rates—government figures show Colombia has at least 3.5 million displaced people. And priests and others working with such populations in Córdoba can rattle off one case of mass displacement after another that they know of personally over the last two years—groups of 50, 90, 150, up and leaving. But many cases of mass displacements don’t show up in government statistics, so complete numbers are hard to determine.

Much of the crisis that is unfolding across the hills and flatlands of Córdoba is silent, as is the exodus of its people. Fear of being discovered again prevents many from registering themselves as displaced with the government to receive temporary aid. Many disappearances and murders are never recorded either, out of fear of reprisal from the perpetrators. After Beatriz Tirado’s 19-year-old son disappeared in June 2010 outside of El Palmar, fear gave way to despair and she marched to the camp of the local commander of Los Paisas and demanded her son back. “They said if we investigate, then they’d also kill us. So I’m staying quiet,” Tirado says.

Her son is not even a number among the statistics, but he is yet another sign of the growing control of the drug gangs. While the police documented 33 drug gangs in Colombia four years ago, there are now seven—a shift that, considering no drop in their membership numbers, points to their consolidation. Some are calling themselves “the Confederates,” and are making alliances over territory and drug routes, according to Romero. He says it’s a critical time: “We will see what is more decisive—the pressure of the armed forces or the reorganization that is happening among these groups.”

The fate of Villa Carminia is pretty much decided. Its former residents have lost their community and are now spread across Córdoba and beyond. Nineteen displaced families continue to take shelter in Montelíbano’s former abattoir, the Plaza de Sacrificio. Here, they contemplate their future from concrete pens, where cattle once awaited their slaughter.

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