By Samantha Wherry & John Walsh
The deaths of at least 6 rural farmers in Tumaco, Colombia on Thursday, October 5th showed yet again the high cost in human lives and human rights of the “War on Drugs” and its militarized approach. More than 200 rural farmers, or campesinos, were gathered to impede forcible eradication of the coca plants when the National police shot at the large crowd wounding a reported 20 people and killing at least 6, very possibly more. Due to lack of a distribution infrastructure for other crops and absence of the rule of law, coca is the local population’s only realistic option for making a living. Accounts by the Colombian authorities claim that police and soldiers opened fire after FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) dissidents launched cylinder bombs at the crowd. However, first-hand accounts by the community indicate that the Colombian National Police opened fire indiscriminately into the crowd. The Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, supports the claims made by the security forces, despite evidence and local sources accounts.
The National Police’s actions were brought into question again for shooting at human rights defenders that were there as part of a verification mission on Sunday, October 8th, a brigade of national and international human rights organizations including Justapaz, Justicia y Paz, the UN, and OAS gathered in Tandil, a place near where the massacre had taken place.
According to a denouncement by Justapaz, when members of the delegation approached the area where a possible cadaver laid from the incident, they were shot at by the National Police. Vice President and former National Police head Naranjo has said publicly that the police acted improperly, and four police members have been suspended because of their role in the massacre. Also, the local commander apologized for the attack on the verification commission.
Acute confrontation persists as the police continue to forcibly eradicate the coca plant. Paradoxically, voluntary substitution of coca with licit crops is a cornerstone of the internationally acclaimed peace accords between the government of Colombia and the now demobilized guerrilla army of the FARC, which has had a strong presence precisely in Tumaco.
So why is the central government of Colombia willing to order forcible eradication? One significant factor is the pressure the U.S. government is exerting for short-term “results,” defined as acreage of coca eradicated. Voluntary substitution takes time and intentionally planned support in order to succeed. Although, forcible eradication can happen comparatively quickly it has not succeeded. At most it suppresses coca cultivation. Truly changing the panorama requires a longer term approach that provides genuine alternatives to the small growers. This event is proof that the Colombian government is willing to do anything, even violate human rights, to show eradication results to the pressuring U.S. government. We urge the U.S. government to support voluntary substitution in the framework of the Peace Accords and to help fund rural development in coca-growing areas.