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In Colombia’s drug-war backwaters, coca is still king

Antonio unscrewed a vitamin bottle and dumped a few chunks of coca base, a precursor to cocaine, in his hand. In this part of central Colombia, along the Guayabero River, mercancía is as good as cash. A gram is worth 2,000 pesos and might buy you a Coca-Cola.

Colombia has made dramatic progress in shaking off its dark past of drugs and guns. Coca crops and the homicide rate have dropped dramatically over the last decade, and the nation’s guerrillas have seen their ranks decimated by military operations and defections. President Juan Manuel Santos has hailed this new Colombia as an investor hotbed and magnet for tourism.

But in Nueva Colombia and other villages along the Guayabero River — where government presence is so tenuous that coca passes for currency — it’s clear that the nation’s transformation is incomplete.

“The only time we see the government is when they are either shooting at us or fumigating our coca crops,” said Pablo Vargas, 55, a cattle rancher who also grows coca shrubs. “They’ve never offered us loans, or set up a buying center or built a road that might let us switch to other crops.”

Last week, the United Nations reported that Colombia’s coca crops were on the rise for the first time in five years, albeit slightly. But in the Guayabero region, production was up 13 percent from 2010 to 2011.

The region has been a stronghold of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, since the 1960s and their presence in the area is palpable. Banners promoting the FARC’s 7th Front hang across streets and recruitment signs are stenciled on walls. On a recent trip down the river, FARC patrols were spotted twice while government troops were nowhere to be seen.

The region lives under two sets of rules, said Jessie Pereira, a farmer in the community of La Carpa: state law and guerrilla law, or what locals call the law of the jungle.

Cooperating with the military is a punishable offense, he said. And while the FARC don’t dictate what farmers grow, those who do grow coca need guerrilla permission to sell it outside the region, he said.

“We live in their territory and have to obey their regulations,” he said. “If you break their laws then you’re against them. And if you’re against them, well, there are consequences.”

While the FARC’s presence has made many of the villages off limits to civil servants and engineers who might bring in basic services, the communities’ sense of government neglect only feeds discontent and the FARC’s ranks.

Most of the towns only have electricity a few hours a day and don’t have treated water. While health centers exist, they rarely have doctors.

In the hamlet of Puerto Nuevo, Luz Miriam Garzón, 38, stood outside a roofless cinderblock church that was being used as a vulture roost. She said the road into town is so bad that priests only visit once or twice a year, so the community lost interest in finishing the structure.

“I don’t know if it was God who forgot about us or the government,” she said, “but we’ve been abandoned.”

The government acknowledges the problem. With U.S. funding, authorities launched a pilot project in 2007 to push public services into these long-neglected communities in lockstep with the military.

The “Integrated Consolidation Plan” brought coca cultivation down by 77 percent from 2007-2010 in the region, according to the United Nations. The project was deemed successful enough to be rolled out in seven other regions, and USAID has earmarked $235 million to the effort from 2011 to 2016.

But along the Guayabero, some farmers said they’ve tried to make the switch to legal crops, but with no roads to market and punishing cargo rates on the river, they’ve given up. Coca buyers, on the other hand, make house calls.

“I could grow plantains or yucca but who would I sell them to?” asked Dilma Quintero, 58, who lost her husband in the military-FARC crossfire in 2007. “We live off of coca because there’s nothing more we can do.”

Despite problems, there are signs of progress along the river, said Nicolas Lenssens, regional mission chief for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Municipal officials and the guerrillas sometimes reach tacit agreements to let teachers or health brigades into the villages. The Red Cross has launched a rice project in Puerto Nuevo. But when the government pushes too hard, the guerrillas send “clear signals,” Lenssens said.

Two years ago, when local officials tried to have a “service fair,” the FARC kidnapped the city counselor accompanying the delegation. The Red Cross helped win Marco Baquero’s release 19 months later, but it highlights the risks that public workers face in the area.

Villages like Puerto Nuevo and Nueva Colombia “are still considered red zones,” said Carlos Avila, regional manager for the government consolidation plan that covers the area. “Any state worker who goes there is at risk of being kidnapped or worse. So there’s a lot of historically rooted fear.”

Puerto Cachicamo was a FARC stronghold from 1999 to 2002, when the government demilitarized the area for peace talks. The guerrillas built a fueling station, a sprawling disco and the only road out of town. When talks broke down, the military shelled the disco and road, leaving the town isolated and with no place to dance.

While the military tried to reassert control, the town eventually ran troops out in 2008, after soldiers accidentally fired on the schoolhouse and injured students during a FARC attack.

The lack of a permanent military presence has kept infrastructure and social programs at bay, but Angelica Cabrera, who runs a local shop, said the peace dividend has been worth it.

She said she used to keep her toddlers tied up so they wouldn’t wander outside into the crossfire. Even when doctors or dentists come in with a military brigade she says the fear makes her keep her distance.

“If my teeth were rotting out I wouldn’t visit them,” she said.

Cabrera’s view is typical of the region, said Fermín Oviedo, president of the Association of Farmers of the Guayabero, or Ascatragua, which has been documenting military and guerrilla abuse in the region, and helping farmers report the legal crops and livestock that have been killed by coca-eradication efforts.

“We don’t want help from the guerrillas and we don’t want help from the military because that makes us a target,” Oviedo said. “We want to be neutral.”

Vargas, the cattle and coca rancher, said his family has had to flee the nation’s violence on three different occasions. Now, the government is asking him to leave Nueva Colombia because it lies inside the Macarena forest reserve. Asked about the prospects for peace, he laughed.

“We’ll always have coca and guerrillas because they’re a necessity,” he said. “We have guerrillas because of unemployment and the state’s neglect, and we have coca because there’s no alternative.”