ISCUANDE, Colombia – Running north and south of Buenaventura, Colombia’s largest port on the Pacific and a major center of development, there is a coastline where a perfect storm of drug trafficking, illegal mining and gang conflict is blowing up that threatens to extend the violence to the rest of the territory.
This coastline, between Colombia’s borders with Panama and Ecuador, includes part of the provinces of Cauca, Valle del Cauca, Choco and Nariño, and makes up 7 percent of Colombia’s land surface.
This vast area of dense jungle extends along the coastal area dotted with villages that can only be reached by sailing up its rivers.
Such rivers as the Naya, Micay, Timbiqui and Iscuande on some occasions have also provided the names of settlements that the locals have dared to establish along them, and where the gangs that dominate these territories mark real and very visible boundaries around them.
“The Pacific area has long been a time bomb...Two years ago it enjoyed the longed-for peace for several months, but we waited too long to occupy its spaces and those who did so were dissidents of the FARC and ELN who were not only seeking territorial control but also economic control of the area,” Public Defender Carlos Negret told EFE.
Those two months were the ones following the signing of the peace accord between the government and the now demobilized FARC guerrilla force, which had dominated a large part of the territory.
With the FARC’s withdrawal after the treaty was signed, neither the police force nor the army came near the area with its vast crops of coca, the raw material of cocaine, that so attracted the former paramilitary units and Mexican cartels.
The locals went to bed dreaming of peace and woke up in a nightmare.
The gangs fight to control the rivers by which they can ship out the cocaine and bring in the arms so necessary to stay alive in this violent region.
The best example is Tumaco on the Ecuadorian border, the municipality with the most hectares (acres) in Colombia dedicated to growing coca, and where the vicious Walter Patricio Arizala, alias “Guacho,” lays down the law as head of one of the FARC dissident groups that calls itself the Oliver Sinisterra Front.
So what is the solution? For Negret the answer is obvious: “It is of course very important” for the police and army to be present, “but if no social investment is provided, it’s impossible that there will be peace.”