At first the drug traffickers were the partners. Mario Chamorro, his parents and two brothers left Antioquia, Colombia in the early 2000s after the offer of a promised land. They settled in the San Pedrito village, a rural area of Córdoba. “They,” as they all refer to the criminal groups in these hot spots of the country, gave the Chamorro family a plot of land to grow coca. The money began to arrive and they acquired more land. More and more “silver” and more and more fear. “When there are problems between them, the problem belongs to all of them, I sometimes said to myself: what am I doing here with three children?”, Says Mario.
The communal leader of San Pedrito, which was home to 93 coca-growing families, embraced the peace process that was signed between the Government of Colombia and the FARC guerrillas in 2016. Through a program included in the agreement, he promoted between the producers of the village voluntary substitution of crops. The plan included the exchange of coca for a legal activity, paid for by public funds. The Chamorros and the other families embarked on the project, a decision that their “partners” did not like.
One early morning in January 2018, the drug traffickers stormed the community. They assassinated the leader and gave the rest of the inhabitants a few hours to disappear. With what they were wearing, the Chamorros arrived in the municipality of San José de Uré, in Córdoba. Today they lease a plot in this town, where only a few years ago no one dared to cross their paths, kidnapped by criminals. On the farm, they try to get ahead with a livestock project, driven by government aid. They still dream of returning to San Pedrito, where their houses and lands were left, but the only time they tried, the drug traffickers appeared threatening on the first night: “Who gave them permission to return?” They fled again at dawn.
In San José de Uré, land of peasants, there was a time when there was only drugs. Not a single yucca was planted and all the food had to be brought from afar. John Eduard remembers that between the ages of 12 and 30 he learned nothing more than to plant coca. Every three months, the drug traffickers gave him 17 or 18 million pesos (about 4,500 dollars) for his cultivation. “A lot of talk” that went in “drinks and women” and watered life out of fear. Like that day they “fought” [mataron] to his uncle when he took the merchandise out of the farm.
Eduard is one of the 100,000 growers who signed up for the Government’s crop substitution plan, which contributes 39 million pesos ($ 9,700) to each one. With the first installment of 12 million pesos (about $ 3,000), which some 76,000 families have already received, the 34-year-old man set up two ponds and built a shed for pigs on his father’s land, which can be reached by a dirt and stone road that he expertly dodges on a motorcycle. He also bought 400 cachamas (a freshwater fish), which today he claims have multiplied to 6,000. The fish, impossible to count hidden under the dark water, poke their mouths to the surface when the farmer throws food at them. Wrapped in sticky and humid heat, which exceeds 30 degrees, Eduard also raises, fattens and slaughters pigs. Now he has eight, but three are already “ready” to fill the windows of the butcher shop that his family has in the municipality this January.
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Today he earns, he calculates by eye, about two million pesos ($ 500) every two months. But he likes this money more than that which multiplied his salary. “Now my mom is happy,” he says. With that he removes the temptation that sometimes haunts him and reminds him of his past, of continuous rumba. “I already prefer this way, this life of sacrifice and family than that of money, violence and death.” So most think. The UN found that less than 1% of coca growers returned to illegality after taking advantage of the program.
The government of Iván Duque, which came to the presidency with an ambiguous position on the peace process, but was obliged by law to comply with it, is now proudly showing progress on some of the points of the agreement. Crop substitution is one of them, although the plan is not infinite. Since 100,000 families were reached in 2018, the quota is closed, so other interested coca growers do not have access to aid. Emilio Archila, Counselor for Stabilization, recognizes the problem of lack of funds and requests international collaboration: “We need money. We need all countries to work towards substitution beyond the 100,000 families that we have already supported ”.
The program has eaten some 40,000 hectares from the cartels, according to government data this November. The UN found that coca crops in 2020 totaled 143,000 hectares, a 7% reduction compared to the previous year, as a result of voluntary programs and forced substitution of crops, pushed by the public force. The decrease, however, does not mean less drug. The production of pure cocaine hydrochloride reached 1,228 tons in 2020, an increase of 8% compared to 2019.
The streets of San José de Uré, at noon on this leaden Monday, are full of people. The loudspeakers of the shops flood him with music. At 14,000 pesos per kilo ($ 3.50), some take Eduard’s cachamas to fry for lunch. Children play outside the houses. Dozens of motorcycles raise dust when crossing the roads, through which you can go without fear. The drug traffickers no longer have much to watch here, although they do have a few kilometers away, undetermined places that the peasants point out with their arms outstretched in any direction. Neither Eduard nor Chamorro have felt threatened again since dedicating their lives to fish, pigs and cows. They managed to get off the wheel that still today maintains Colombia as the largest coca producer in the world.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.