Colombia's growing nightmare

Guerrilla commander Fabian Ramirez's kidnapping of a prominent Colombian senator seems motivated more by passion than politics. And it has set off a new round in the country's long, bloody narco-war.

By Ana Arana
Published February 23, 2002 3:24PM (EST)

The daring hijacking of a commercial plane and kidnapping of a Colombian senator by leftist guerrillas this week shattered the country's peace process, and led to a swift military attack against rebel forces. The abduction of Sen. Jorge Gerchen Turbay Wednesday is also the latest in a series of assaults on the Turbay political dynasty, part of an apparent personal vendetta waged by rebel commander Fabian Ramirez against the prominent family.

President Andres Pastrana immediately canceled peace talks after Wednesday's kidnapping. Fortified with new, state-of-the-art weapons courtesy of the United States, the Colombian military began bombing a rebel safe haven ceded to Ramirez's Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) on Thursday. Just how extensive the military operation will be remains unclear.

Colombian government officials believe the kidnapping was ordered by Ramirez, who grew up as the son of one of the Turbay family servants and harbors a deep enmity toward the wealthy, ranch-owning dynasty. But Ramirez's personal grudge has cost the rebels dearly.

FARC leaders denied knowledge of the kidnapping and blamed the government for breaking off the peace talks. But government officials say the bold hijacking was carried out by the rapid deployment rebel unit known as the Teofilo Forero, which is partially under Ramirez's command and is headquartered in one of the Turbay haciendas located near San Vicente del Caguan.

The Turbays were once big fish in Caqueta, a province in the rebel zone. They were rich, glamorous and powerful, boasting a former president, a Miss Colombia beauty queen and several national politicians among their ranks.

But their high profile has also made them tempting targets for Colombia's rebels. Popular congressman Diego Turbay Cote, and his mother, Dona Ines, were murdered by FARC rebels on Dec. 29, 2000. Local investigators say those murders were ordered directly by Ramirez.

Turbay Cote and his mother were murdered along the side of the paved road that connects the city of Florencia to the guerrilla zone of San Vicente del Caguan. Forty rebels stopped and surrounded his armored SUV. Unaware he was in danger, Turbay, who was the government's peace negotiator at the time, stepped out to talk to them. The rebels forced him, his mother, a friend, and four bodyguards face down on the ground and shot them execution style. Turbay received 42 gunshots -- a sign, investigators say, that the crime was more passionate than political.

The Turbays were killed while en route to the inauguration of Jose Lizardo Rojas, a political ally who had been elected mayor of Puerto Rico, a hamlet located next to the guerrillas' safe haven. Rojas was one of the last followers of Turbayismo in the region. Six months later he was also murdered by FARC.

Today, in downtown Florencia, the metal bust of Hernando Turbay y Turbay is in shambles. Hernando was the caudillo, or founder, of the province of Caqueta and father of Diego Turbay Cote. Weeds surround its pedestal, an unthinkable sight a few years ago when Turbay ruled this jungle territory with an iron fist. It was Turbay who in the 1950s transformed Caqueta from raw jungle into a bustling depot of cattle farms and large rubber, African palm and cocoa plantations. Now Hernando's immediate family has been driven out, its members murdered and kidnapped and a price put on the head of the lone survivor, a daughter who lives in Europe.

The demise of the Turbays symbolizes the decline of the Colombian political class in the country's provinces. The Turbay regime, which was mired in corruption and pork-barrel politics, is today being replaced by a harsher form of governance: a bitter war between leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups. Both armed groups are battling for control of the multibillion-dollar cocaine market. The current strife in Colombia is not just a civil war -- it is a reprise of the drug war that engulfed the country throughout the 1980s.

In Florencia itself, there are two thriving industries -- beauty shops for prostitutes, and bars frequented by the military and the raspachines, the coca workers who can earn up to $800 per kilo of paste. Flying into Florencia, you can see distinct clearings in the thick jungle, where coca flourishes. Crisscrossing the jungle vastness are rivers that make the territory wet and soggy and are used by the rebels to ship the drug out of the region.

Caqueta, a swath of lush jungle smack in the middle of the Colombian Amazons, is one of three southern provinces -- Meta and Guaviare are the others -- where the FARC has been rooted for decades. Guerrillas first came here in the 1960s because they could hide in the overgrown terrain and the region was lightly populated. It is a frontier area, where government control has always been weak.

Despite the presence of two large military bases in the province, half of Caqueta was under FARC control -- at least until the government launched its military campaign this week. President Pastrana acknowledged this in 1998 when he selected Caqueta to become part of the rebel-held demilitarized zone, which was the size of Switzerland.

The FARC received foreign government emissaries and journalists in their territory, but the safe haven also contained some of the highest-yielding coca plantations in all of Colombia. Caqueta was essentially the nerve center where FARC ran a roaring drug trade, including processing and selling cocaine for international distribution, according to government intelligence sources. The FARC's coca production is smaller than the quantities shipped by the right-wing paramilitaries, which include among their ranks the country's more powerful drug lords. But the FARC's product is highly prized. "Their cocaine is purer and better quality," says one military officer.

Caqueta politics were transformed in the 1980s when the guerrillas began taxing drug traffickers in the region. This new source of income gave them formidable power. In 1996 the FARC led demonstrations of coca growers against the U.S.-funded spraying of coca plantations. The government eventually agreed to limit spraying to large areas of cultivation. Traffickers began experimenting with better seeds and higher-yield plants in Caqueta.

After reaching the compromise with the government, the guerrillas won a strong following among the coca growers. "The balance of power changed tremendously after that," says Rafael Pardo, a former government official. The days were numbered for once-powerful families like the Turbays.

"If you are not with [the FARC], you can't do politics outside of Florencia," says one Florencia city council member, who has opted not to run for reelection.

The FARC controls about 400 towns in the region. But since Sen. Turbay's kidnapping and the resumption of fighting, it is not clear what will happen to the people who live here.

International aid organizations are watching developments in Colombia closely. New York-based Human Rights Watch cautioned that paramilitary forces could inflict brutal reprisals against civilians.

"We're worried that the people who live in the zone -- who were never consulted before the area was ceded to the FARC -- risk abuse by paramilitaries who might identify them as pro-guerrilla simply because they remained in their homes, farms and businesses," says Josi Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch.

But even before the collapse of the peace process, the future of Caqueta was cloudy. Seeking to challenge the FARC's military dominance in the province -- and to wrest control of its profitable cocaine market -- several hundred men from paramilitary units marched into southern Caqueta in February 2000.

During the last year, paramilitary members have bought or rented homes in strategic towns to the south of the province, disrupting FARC weapon and supply lines from Ecuador. In one such town, Morelia, there have been many murders, says a former resident who fled to Florencia, who accuses the local police of collaborating with the paramilitaries.

"If they find a civilian who is not from the area, they detain him, tie him up and question him. If he fails to answer their questions properly, he fails entirely [gets killed]," he says. The Colombian military looked the other way, happy that a force not reined in by international human rights rules could take care of its opponents. Some FARC hamlets have already been deserted by guerrilla sympathizers. In response, the guerrillas have tried to keep control by enforcing a curfew after sundown and murdering suspected paramilitary or army supporters.

There have been numerous cases of collusion between paramilitaries and military personnel in the murder of civilians. A top Colombian navy officer was tied to the killing of several people in the town of Chengue last year, according to an investigation by the Colombian attorney general; the investigation also found the murders were connected to an ongoing battle over drug-trafficking routes. In another notorious massacre in the coca-growing village of Mapiripan in southeastern Colombia, 49 peasants who were singled out as guerrilla sympathizers were tortured and had their throats cut. After the massacre, paramilitary members displaced the FARC in the area and negotiated with the coca farmers and drug traffickers for a lower tax than the FARC had charged, according to army intelligence documents.

Like the cartels of the 1980s, the FARC and the paramilitaries are fighting to seize control over coca- and poppy-growing areas and arms-smuggling routes -- rather than to advance the cause of the Colombian people. The blurring of lines between the groups' criminal and political agendas is worsening. Both the guerrillas and the paramilitaries are financing several candidates for the national and local elections to be held in August.

Which brings us back to the Turbays. The senator who was kidnapped on Wednesday is powerful in Huila province, a territory the guerrillas have been trying to gain a foothold in because of its bountiful poppy plantations, according to former rebels and Colombian military sources. Last year, the FARC also conducted a mass kidnapping of Huila residents, after a female rebel posing as a maid to a prominent family opened the doors to rebel special forces. "To do politics in Huila and Caqueta is impossible," says a local politician. Of the five senators kidnapped by the FARC, three are from Huila.

South of Florencia is Larandia Air Base, home of the Colombian army's 12th Brigade. U.S. instructors are often here training Colombian troops. Three U.S-trained counter-narcotics battalions operate nearby out of Tres Esquinas. The government's main anti-narcotics base is also close by, between Caqueta and Putumayo.

The United States has shifted its role in Colombia away from strictly anti-narcotics efforts to a more pro-government position. Washington has already given the government $1.3 billion. In a major new initiative made public this month, the Bush administration announced it has earmarked $98 million to train a special Colombian brigade and provide 10 "Super Huey" helicopters to protect a pipeline run by U.S.-based Occidental Petroleum. The brigade will work with small roving units, and will protect not only the pipeline, but also other potential terrorist targets, including electrical pylons, bridges and roads. According to the U.S. Southern Command, there are about 250 U.S. military personnel, 50 civilian employees and 100 civilian military contractors in Colombia. Many of the non-military personnel are engaged in a massive coca spraying operation.

Initially, the United States argued that Plan Colombia was not a counterinsurgency policy, but an anti-drug push against criminal syndicates. The FARC and the major paramilitary group -- the Colombian Self Defense Leagues (AUC) -- are both listed as official terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department. But the U.S.-backed Colombian military has a history of collaborating with the AUC, despite its links to drug trafficking and its official listing as a terrorist organization.

The AUC has admitted that it earns 70 percent of its income from drugs. And though the paramilitary group claims it comes from extorting drug traffickers, authorities suspect that members are directly involved in cocaine trafficking. Today the AUC controls most of the northern trafficking centers in the country. The AUC has also moved to the strategic area along the border with Venezuela, a zone once controlled by the FARC.

"There are approximately four large paramilitary groups that find their own financing and have their own leadership," says Carlos Franco, a former member of the demobilized guerrilla group Popular Liberation Front (EPL), and a consultant who has worked on the peace process. "Functioning like a federation, they pay some money to the central AUC command, but generally operate independently, procure weapons for their men, and keep separate accounts."

Meanwhile the coca and opium poppy business is booming. Colombia produces 80 percent of the world's cocaine paste (580 metric tons in 2000), 75 percent of the world's refined cocaine, and 1 percent of the world's heroin.

Coca cultivation increased by 50 percent in the last three years, as eradication programs in other Andean countries proved effective and traffickers moved their business to remote Colombian areas without government control. The FARC and AUC each earns an estimated $300 million to $600 million in the drug trade, and approximately $200 million in kidnapping and extortion rackets.

"It is business," says Robin Kirk, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, who adds that it is always civilians who bear the brunt of the violence.

And now that FARC commander Fabian Ramirez has shattered the country's uneasy peace by kidnapping another prominent member of the Turbays, more civilians are certain to suffer. Presidential elections are scheduled for August and the rebels have offered to talk with President Pastrana's successor. But with the country awash in drugs and weapons, and Washington backing a military escalation, peace seems a remote possibility.

Ana Arana

Ana Arana is an investigative journalist who focuses on criminal organizations in Latin America.


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