TUMACO, Colombia – The first impression people have when they land at La Florida Airport in Tumaco is of a war zone, what with the helicopters mounted with artillery and the combat uniforms of the police and soldiers they see at the air terminal of this city, which has the largest coca crops in Colombia.
The municipality, with more than 200,000 inhabitants and with Colombia’s second largest port on the Pacific, has been pummeled since early this month by a wave of violence associated with drug trafficking that has left at least eight people dead.
The post-conflict calm following the FARC’s signing of the peace accord has not reached Tumaco, located on the border with Ecuador, but rather the violence has grown since last Oct. 5 when at least seven coca growers were slain, supposedly by police in a confused incident.
Killed later on Oct. 17 was community leader Jose Jair Cortes, a member of the Community Council of the Alto Mira and Frontera Territory, one of the areas hit hardest by the conflict with the FARC and now by gangs of drug traffickers and dissidents of the former guerrilla group now transformed into a political party.
Alongside the landing strip at La Florida Airport are stationed six or more helicopters that are used to fly soldiers and police to rural areas where the coca leaf is grown and which seethe with growing violence.
In the poorest neighborhoods around the city, the wooden houses, mostly built on stilts, have their doors and windows closed and very few the residents come out to see what is going on in the street or agree to talk with reporters.
Even a circus installed in the town is guarded by soldiers who spend hours waiting for the show to be over.
For local farmer Jacinto Roque, the biggest problems afflicting Tumaco’s farm workers and make them end up growing coca are related to poverty, because, as he told EFE, “life is hard” in this region where 16 percent of the population lives in misery and the immense majority are below the poverty line.
The municipality’s rural areas are largely impenetrable jungle, to which must be added, according to a report by the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, at least 11 illegal armed groups seeking to take control of the region, not just for the coca crops but also for the innumerable laboratories producing cocaine thanks this “privileged location” on the drug trafficking routes.
“If the government steps up and helps us, we’ll be able to distance these country folk from the coca. And if the government helps them, they will soon leave the coca behind,” Roque said.