The Dark Side of Plan Colombia
Paramilitaries and La Violencia
Even in Colombia, with its tremendous geographical and cultural diversity, the jungle province of Chocó is considered exotic. Chocó's tropical rainforests, wedged into the northwest corner of the country where South America joins Panama, are among the most biodiverse on the planet. But most Colombians still see it as a violently contested backwater. Torrential downpours nourish low-lying mountain ranges, which feed hundreds of rivers and swamps that stretch veinlike across the landscape. Most of these waterways flow into the large Atrato River, which snakes its way north through the rainforest until its delta empties into the Caribbean gulf. Locals call this area Urabá.
The farmers of Urabá most affected by the palm business live near two lush tributaries: the Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó river basins. In 2000 the government's rural land management agency, Incoder, awarded collective title to 250,000 acres here to slave-descended black communities, who enjoy the same territorial rights as indigenous peoples under Colombia's Constitution.
But the government, in an effort to attract global investors, has also branded Urabá "the best corner of the Americas." And in recent years, palm companies have taken more than 20 percent of the land fronting the two rivers--the most habitable and agriculturally viable part of the territory.
In the late 1980s this part of Colombia became a base for paramilitary groups, or "paras," founded by three brothers from the Castaño family: Fidel, Vicente and Carlos, who came up through the ranks of the infamous Medellín cartel of Pablo Escobar. The Castaños received generous logistical and financial support from businessmen, wealthy landowners, drug traffickers and members of the army. They collaborated so closely with the Colombian military's dirty war against guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) that a 2001 report by Human Rights Watch referred to them as the army's "sixth division." Fueled by zealous anticommunism, warlords like the Castaños slaughtered thousands of innocents accused of harboring guerrilla sympathies.
By the mid-1990s, human rights reports show, the paras turned their violence to an economic purpose: gaining lands and businesses, eliminating opponents and protecting their most lucrative activity, drug trafficking. The Castaños and their allies became Colombia's undisputed cocaine barons, earning them top spots on the US government's most-wanted lists. The warlords began a bloody march into Urabá.
First, leaflets appeared warning all guerrilla collaborators to leave, and towns were riddled with paramilitary graffiti. Uriel Tuberquia, one of Enrique Petro's campesino neighbors, recounts that in the months before the paras arrived, rumors coursed through the community that the mochacabezas (decapitators) were coming, a reference to the gruesome way paramilitaries would dismember the bodies of their victims.
When the paras finally came, they killed Tuberquia's father as he grazed his cattle. "They shot him from behind, at long range," says Tuberquia, staring into the palm fields. "My dad never got a proper burial. He's just buried there, somewhere, underneath all that palm."
In October 1996 the paras had a macabre coming-out party in Chocó, with the murder of eight campesinos in the tiny town of Brisas on the Curvaradó River, an hour's walk from Petro's farm. What followed was a crescendo of terror locals simply call la violencia. In February 1997 the military, backed that year by $87 million in US support, teamed up with its "sixth division" to hammer northern Chocó. Army helicopters and fighter jets rained bombs and high-caliber gunfire on the jungle communities, while the paras "cleaned up" behind them. Military and paramilitary roadblocks cropped up everywhere. International human rights groups documented massacres, torture, murders and rapes. Paramilitaries capped off the year by slaughtering thirty-one campesinos a week before Christmas.
According to the UN Refugee Agency, the 1997 offensive forced some 17,000 people from their homes. In the Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó basins alone, 140 farmers have been confirmed killed or disappeared, all but four by soldiers or paramilitaries. By 1997 Petro had already lost his brother and two sons to la violencia--one killed by the FARC. Paramilitaries repeatedly warned him he'd be killed if he didn't leave his farm. He tried to stay on, but after another son left, Petro abandoned the land.
"They said they came here to clean out the guerrillas," recalls Petro, "but it was us, the campesinos, they cleaned out." In interviews, several survivors tell me that when the violence began, paras came to their farms with the same chilling offer: "Sell us your land, or we'll negotiate with your widow."
By 2001, when the paras announced they had gained definitive control of Urabá, Petro and the other campesinos were scattered. Some were hiding out in the jungle; others had left Chocó entirely. Though paras prevented them from visiting their farms, the campesinos heard rumors that their lands were being planted with palm.
Gustavo Duncan, a security analyst at the University of the Andes, in Bogotá, says the paramilitaries' turn to palm was the obvious business decision: "Palm was a perfect way to consolidate their militarized social control over a territory and invest capital accumulated from drugs into a profitable business." According to an affidavit by a former Urapalma employee who cooperated with the attorney general's investigation, the main bridge between the Castaños and investors was Hernán Gómez, an early ideological mentor of the Castaño brothers and husband of Urapalma's current CEO. The affidavit states that Gómez, who did not return multiple calls to his home, helped the Castaños recruit wealthy narcos with experience in the palm business to invest in Urapalma.
As farmers began trickling back to their homes after 2001, many found their lands razed and planted with palm saplings. Companies like Urapalma had posted signs on the land with big block letters: Private Property. A permanent paramilitary presence terrorized the area.
Petro spent five years without seeing his farm, taking refuge in the nearby town of Bajirá. He returned only in 2002, to a devastating sight. "All the work of my youth was gone," he says. "One hundred ten head of cattle, nine horses, my wife had tons of chickens, pigs... everything gone." Urapalma had plowed his pastures for palms. A year after his arrival, he says, shortly after he began working his land again, "the paramilitaries came to kill me." Petro had left for town that morning, and so he avoided harm. But he returned to find his home ransacked and covered in graffiti. The paras' slogans are still visible on the walls of his dilapidated house.