A trip through Colombia’s conflict zone

[MAP showing locations of current drug gangs in Colombia -vs–former paramilitary districts.] 

A trip through Colombia’s conflict zone

Elyssa Pachico

Colombia news - Caucasia

Caucasia is the kind of backwater we’d like to pretend doesn’t exist. It is too hot for puffy-eyed women to do much except sit by the road, selling limp pieces of mango stuffed into plastic cups. Two Saturdays ago a man on a motorbike tossed a grenade at an Internet café, the twenty-fifth time such a thing has happened in the city so far this year, by my count. The criminal gangs – known as BACRIMS –  have reportedly imposed a 10PM deadline for all civilians, prostitutes and bazuco addicts warned not to walk the streets at all.

It is a miserable, poor, and ugly place, utterly unimportant except for the fact that the highway passes through here towards the Caribbean coast, and it is only a few hours away from Medellin, and only a few hours away from the coca cultivations in the east. Controlling Caucasia means controlling Antioquia’s drug trade, which is why during Easter Week last April, I was told, there were grenade explosions nearly every day.

“It’s difficult to kill someone with a grenade,” an officer from the local police force told me, adding that a lot of the time the grenades are tossed into empty houses. “What matters is the fear.” Word on the street is you can buy a grenade for between 30,000 and 80,000 pesos (about $15 to $40). This is peanuts, considering the amount of money you can make, after buying coca base from the FARC’s 18th Front in Ituango and Taraza, or the 36th Front in Anori.

“In Caucasia, the drug routes are not respected,” commented another police officer, only a few days on the job in the neighboring municipality of Taraza. There were maybe over a dozen gangs operating in Caucasia, he said, and unlike the days when paramilitary blocs controlled the zone, these groups were smaller, fractured, their leaders easily killed off, replaced, then killed again. “There’s no clear leadership now. And these BACRIMS want to replicate that kind of hegemony in the area, that the paramilitaries had, but they can’t. There’s just too many.”

In the international press, especially if you’ve got one correspondent covering the entire Andean region (as is the case for the New York Times and the Washington Post), Colombia’s ongoing drug war is pretty much a story not worth reporting, aside from the occasional grabby headline. For an international audience, trying to explain Colombia’s drug war is like trying to explain Mexico’s – there are too many characters and too much backstory. There are no central protagonists anymore, no central conflict that is easily summarized.

But for those still interested, for now it looks like quelling the wave of Bacrim violence in filthy, rural outposts like Caucasia may be Juan Manuel Santos’ biggest security challenge. In some senses, he might be facing a more difficult time of it than his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe. For the most part, the competing BACRIMS are made up of demobilized paramilitaries, who were once mid-ranking commanders in now defunct groups like Bloque Nutibara or Bloque Mineros. Uribe successfully disarmed and/or extradited the top level of paramilitary leadership, and now all the regular Joes too stupid and violent to previously ascend the paramilitary ranks are all scrambling for a piece of the drug-trafficking pie. Territory that was previously respected has now splintered, boundaries ignored. It’s a little as though Uribe punched a mirror and now it’s up to Santos to pick up all the tiny shards of glass, which nobody can find and which everybody keeps stepping on.

In Anori, where hundreds of hectares of coca are grown and sold by the FARC to the BACRIMS, nobody really seems to know who’s who anymore, or who’s where. In the little mining towns by the river, you can find old-time miners with no thumbs, who floss their teeth with the threads of the paisa towel tossed over their shoulders. These are guys who remember growing small plots of coca, when not gold-panning the rivers, and selling the plant to the FARC or the ELN in the 1980s and early 1990s. When Carlos Castano’s paramilitaries showed up circa 1995, 1996, a lot of people had to leave, or else get chopped up and tossed into the river. Now the paramilitaires are gone, the guerrillas are practically gone, and everything is much more “tranquilo.”

But the “actores armados” are still there. Who are they? How many? Shrug, shrug. None of the locals know, or won’t say. The BACRIMS pass through, buy pounds and pounds of coca base from the 36th Front, then get out. The old-style paramilitarism – rooting out the “socialists” and the “FARC supporters” – isn’t really there anymore. Now it’s all business. There are no grenades here, just old landmines sprinkled by the guerrillas (“we used to make the farm animals walk around the fields, trying to find the mines,” one miner told me. “You had all these two or three legged cows hanging around.”)

None of the miners really grow coca anymore, not in the mining towns by the water – the crop has been pushed back into the thickest forests, in the northern part of Anori. These are places so rural and godforsaken you are at risk of contracting altudismo, I am told, which is supposedly a disease you get when a mosquito sucks the blood of a dead possum, or a poisonous snake, then transfers the microbe to you. Altudismo or not, it is in these kinds of places that coca is processed into cocaine in flimsy, ramshackle labs, run by the BACRIMS.

Caucasia is your final stop, where you get the product shipped northwards. But before getting there, you have to pass through Taraza. This is a cattle rancher’s town, not mining like Anori. In Taraza, I ate the best steak of my life, and studied the posters in the hotel lobby announcing the summer’s next big “ganadero” show.

I also saw the Taraza police station, reinforced with barbed wire and concrete walls, because here men on motorbikes are also known to drive by and toss grenades. I noted in my journal, “It rains like the wrath of God. It stinks of garbage. There are no restaurants besides the kinds of places that give you plastic gloves for eating your chicken. Little kids slap their bare feet through muddy sidewalks and oily puddles. The narcos drive fancy trucks, and everyone else whizzes by on motorcycles that look held together with wire.”

If Anori is where you get your coca processed, and Caucasia is where you go for shipment, Taraza is where you go to close the deal. This might explain the big, stone sign you see driving into town. Painted in blue and red capitol letters it reads: “Drugs Destroy You. Taraza and Everybody.”

Taraza, Anori and Caucasia are three cruddy little towns that will never show up in a Lonely Planet guidebook. It might make sense to try and compare these three places to the “ground zero” of Colombia’s drug war. But there isn’t really a ground zero anymore. There is no center to the conflict – it is exploding in Cali, in Caucasia, in the Comunas of Medellin. There are no more uniformed combatants, easily identified, and there is no more clear leadership among the many, fragmented groups all struggling for a stake in the Anori-Taraza-Caucasia chain.

As little as ten years ago, when I lived in Colombia, it really felt as though the country was about to fall apart. Now things don’t look so bad, but there’s a few things that haven’t changed. To quote another fine piece of writing, also about the lack of centers: “the best lack all conviction, while the worst / are full of passionate intensity.” I can only hope by the end of Santos’ term, we can get closer to switching those verses around.