BUENAVENTURA, Colombia -- In a muddy creek on the outskirts of town, hundreds of thick logs were piled up waiting to be turned into planks and plywood. Luis Mercedes, a veteran logger, admits he felled the trees and floated them downriver without a permit, but he says poverty forces him to cut corners.
Authorities see it differently. They fear that unregulated logging, mining and other gray-market activities along the coast are turning into sources of income for rebels and criminal gangs that haunt the area.
Colombia and the nation’s largest guerrilla group resumed peace talks in Havana this week in hopes of ending a bloody, 50-year civil conflict. The talks come as the country is braces for a possible new spate of violence starting Sunday when the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, lift a unilateral ceasefire imposed over the holidays.
Both sides have said they’re optimistic that the sweeping five-point peace plan will bring an end to the violence by year’s end. But hurdles remain. Among them, the FARC will be required to give up the drug trade.
But on this marshy western Pacific coast, long-known for its cocaine smuggling routes, authorities say the guerrillas are diversifying into industries that are harder to detect because they’re easily camouflaged amidst the poverty, and the final products — wood and gold — are legal.
“The narco-terrorists have realized how lucrative these businesses are, and there are areas along Colombia’s Pacific that are abandoning coca cultivation and turning to illegal mining and other activities,” said Vice Admiral Rodolfo Amaya, commander of the Pacific Navy fleet. “These bandits want to control any industry that is producing cash.”
Along with their regular cocaine seizures in 2012, Amaya’s troops impounded 181,000 cubic-feet of wood — enough to fill two Olympic-size swimming pools — 19.4 tons of illegally caught fish and shutdown three mining operations run by the rebels.
Not all of the illegal trade is funding the FARC, Amaya said, but there are clear guerilla links among most of the mining and some of the logging.
Since its formation in 1964 as a largely rural guerrilla with Marxist underpinnings, authorities say the FARC has evolved into a powerful crime syndicate financed by drug-running, extortion and a wide-array of economic activities. In November, government troops found a clandestine oil refinery run by the guerrillas. Some analysts fear these profitable enterprises could keep factions within the FARC from embracing a peace deal.
These new industries “have to be on the negotiating table” in Havana, said León Valencia, director of Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, a think-tank that studies the conflict.
“Cocaine and kidnapping used to be the primary sources of FARC financing in the 1990s and part of the last decade,” he said. “But that has changed. Now they’re into mining, smuggling gasoline out of Venezuela and all sorts of other illegal activities.”
Often the lines between illegal and informal operations are blurry.
Mercedes, the 54-year-old logger, admits that he sometimes has to pay guerrillas and other armed groups to move wood out of or through their territory. But he said his line of work is not an exception. Street vendors, cattle ranchers and truckers in Buenaventura also pay the vacuna, but authorities aren’t cracking down on those industries, he complained.
“Why is the government coming after us, if this is what we’ve done our entire lives?” he asked. “If they really don’t want us doing this then they should give us some other job to feed our family.”
Colombia’s Pacific is one of the most environmentally rich areas of the hemisphere. Teeming with animal and plant life, its thick mangroves have long been a haven for smugglers running drugs to Central America and the United States. Despite the riches, about 77 percent of the population lives in poverty, making it among the most destitute and violent regions in the country.
As Ayala talks about the swath of coastline he oversees, he often sounds more like a development specialist than a military man.
At the heart of the Pacific’s problem is crushing poverty and the lack of opportunity, he said. Many people throw their lot in with criminal gangs because there’s little else to do.
“If we shut down an organization of 30 people supporting terrorists, I would bet that the next day there would be 30 more ready to work,” he said. “This is like a stew, and it’s far too easy for [armed groups] to recruit people who are willing to do whatever is necessary.”
Earlier this month, 10 bodies, some stuffed into the trunk of a car, turned up on the outskirts of Buenaventura. Authorities believe they were gang members hunted down by a rival organization.
At the peace talks in Havana, land reform and agricultural development are the current topic of debate. The guerrillas are asking the government to support small farmers by reviewing free trade agreements with the United States and others, setting limits on foreign ownership of land and breaking apart large unproductive tracts, among other proposals.
Amaya also sees agriculture as the hope for the region.
“The country has to be creative enough to help communities do what they did in the past,” Amaya said. “These were communities that farmed and fished in the sea. We need to help them market those products so they can have some dignity and a future.”
Creating a sense of hope will be key to the long-term prospects for peace.
In 2005, more than 25,000 right-wing paramilitary gunmen put down their arms and confessed their crimes in exchange for reduced sentences under what was called the “Justice and Peace” program. But thousands of the fighters were lured back into crime and now form the backbone of powerful new gangs known as the Bacrim. Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris estimates that former paramilitary fighters make up 80 percent of the Bacrim ranks.
In the FARC’s case, commanders have tighter control over the ranks and have been known to execute officers who step out of line, which should prevent massive dissent, said Valencia. But in any peace process, there will be holdouts.
At The Bahía Malaga Naval base, Amaya oversees some 8,000 troops that patrol a swath of the Pacific as large as Germany and a stretch of coastline that runs from Ecuador to Panama.
Like the rest of the armed forces, the Navy has been dragged into the war against the FARC and the Bacrim, but Amaya says the organization’s future will be fighting environmental crimes and protecting the high seas.
“History led us into the internal conflict, but we were created to defend the country and protect its resources,” he said. “We’ll get back to doing that.”