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November 28, 2004 - The Houston Chronicle (TX)

The War on Drugs May Doom Jungle Towns

A Colombian Military Crackdown Is Driving Out the Villagers Along With the Coca Traders

By John Otis

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

MIRAFLORES, COLOMBIA - Back when this jungle outpost was a drug-fueled boomtown ruled by Marxist rebels, cargo planes landed by the hour to unload rice, rum and chemicals to make cocaine.

Cantinas and bordellos overflowed with customers. Instead of Colombian pesos, people paid bills with bags of coca paste, an unrefined form of cocaine that merchants would resell to smugglers.

But earlier this year, Colombian soldiers expelled the guerrillas and began clamping down on cocaine production, plunging Miraflores into an economic crisis. Eighty of the town's 200 businesses have closed. Thousands of residents have fled. Food is scarce.

"Bags of brown sugar and pasta used to be stacked to the ceiling," said Daisy Ruiz, the manager of Miraflores' largest supermarket, as she walked through the store's barren warehouse. "I used to have 25 employees. Now, it's just me and the cleaning lady."

As part of a year-old Colombian military offensive, troops are pushing south into dozens of guerrilla-infested towns while the air force and police are shooting down drug-laden aircraft and fumigating fields of coca, the raw material for cocaine. But government control of these frontier backwaters could mean their demise.

To keep the rebels and the narcotics from coming back, some analysts argue that the Colombian government should take on a higher profile in these villages by sending in more teachers, judges and health workers and by creating jobs for out-of-work coca pickers.

But others say that communities dependent on cocaine have no reason to exist and should be swallowed back up by the rain forest.

"These towns will simply have to disappear," said Bishop Belarmino Correa of San Jose del Guaviare, the capital of Guaviare state, which includes Miraflores. "Besides cocaine, there is no other way for the people to make a living. I tell them to accept reality and leave."

Many already have.

After army and police units entered Miraflores in February, more than 500 coca pickers, prostitutes and rebel sympathizers left aboard government planes that took off from a rutted, dirt runway that serves as the town's main link to the outside world.

Passengers received free tickets on condition that they never return, said the Rev. Jose Cadavid, the parish priest in Miraflores who helped to organize the flights.

The population of Miraflores municipality -- which includes the town and its surrounding hamlets -- has dropped by half to 10,000. As owners padlock stores and tax receipts dwindle, Mayor William Chavez fears that Miraflores could forfeit its status as a municipality and lose $1.3 million annually in federal funding.

"The government wants to erase us from the map," complained Julio Gonzalez, secretary of planning at the Miraflores town hall.

Settlers Welcomed, Ignored

For much of the past century, Colombian officials urged homesteaders to settle in Miraflores and other parts of Guaviare to solidify the nation's claim to the territory, which lies in the Amazon River basin near Brazil. Yet the Bogota government paid little heed to the towns and villages that sprung up.

Miraflores was founded in the 1930s by rubber tappers. When the rubber boom ended, hunters made a living by selling ocelot skins. Then came the cocaine bonanza.

In the 1980s, Guaviare farmers began growing coca and selling the leaves to traffickers, who processed them into cocaine.

In 1998, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the nation's largest rebel group, known as FARC, overran the Miraflores police station, took over the town and essentially legalized the local drug industry.

Farmers, merchants and adventurers of all stripes poured into Miraflores to cash in. On weekends, "there was no room to walk on the streets," said Antonio Atehortua, a farmer in Buenos Aires, a hamlet just east of Miraflores that's now nearly deserted. "We had 15 whorehouses."

The drug binge finally ended this year with the arrival of the police and army, part of President Alvaro Uribe's strategy to wrest back Colombian territory from FARC.

"No more Scotch whisky, no more luxuries," said Col. Jose Rodriguez, commander of the army's 10th Mobile Brigade, as he marched down the main street of Miraflores flanked by escorts. "People here were living in a dream."

Today, the town is teetering on the brink. Store owners, who for years had dispensed food and supplies in exchange for cocaine, can no longer find buyers for their goods.

They lack the cash to replenish their stocks, which has created shortages of everything from meat to gasoline.

"Every day, people visit me and say: 'Colonel, I'm starving. I haven't eaten in the last three days,' " Rodriguez said.

Elsewhere in Colombia, former drug farmers have taken advantage of government programs to switch to legal endeavors, such as cultivating palm hearts or raising fish.

But Miraflores lacks a decent road connection to other large towns. Getting food crops to market via the river requires several days and drives up prices.

"You could raise cattle or grow plantains or sugar, but it would cost too much," the Rev. Cadavid said.

Another problem, said Oswaldo Porras, an official with the government's National Planning Department in Bogota, is the fact that Miraflores is within a forest reserve already ravaged by coca cultivation. Any development plan, Porras said, should seek to prevent settlers from cutting down any more of the Amazon jungle.

Pros and Cons of Exodus

For his part, Rodriguez suggests that all settlers evacuate, leaving local Indians to eke out a subsistence living off the land.

But Adam Isacson, a Colombia expert at the Center for International Policy in Washington, argues that pushing out the people and cutting state services could backfire.

"Ungoverned spaces in Latin America are a security threat," he said.

"And you can't govern unless you bring in judges, build schools and legalize land titles."

So far, about the only signs of the national government's interest in Miraflores are constant army checkpoints and police patrols.

Yet even the military's presence could prove fleeting.

Pedro Arenas, a congressman who represents the region, fears that Colombia's overstretched armed forces eventually will abandon Miraflores for more pressing missions, allowing the guerrillas and the cocaine trade to resurface.

In fact, some townsfolk claim that drug farmers and dealers have buried tons of cocaine in the jungle.

"People are storing their cocaine for the future," she said. "Users will always need their drugs."

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