Colombia's corner of conflict

At first glance, it is hard to believe the Colombian province of Narino is at the centre of the country's brutal civil conflict.

But the lush vegetation and beautiful countryside are a backdrop to the long-running armed struggle between Marxist rebels and the government.

There are also simmering border tensions with Ecuador and, with thousands of hectares planted with coca, the raw ingredient for cocaine, Narino has become a key drug-trafficking corridor.

"Every week, there are shootings in my area. It's really bad, especially in the middle of the night," says a woman living near the border.

"The guerrillas are less a kilometre from my house," she says. "We pray to God for help."

Despite the danger, she says she has no intention of leaving her little wooden house where she lives with her two children and elderly mother in Ospina Perez, a small hamlet of the town of Ricaurte.

But many people have fled their homes. The conflict in Colombia has left the country with one of the world's biggest populations of internally displaced people.

The regional government estimates that since 2001, some 117,000 people have been displaced in Narino.

Bad memories

You only have to look at the faces of people walking around the streets to realise just how scared they are.

Martha Isabel Velasquez was forcibly displaced from the countryside and now lives in Ricaurte.

"My husband, who was a cattle dealer, was attacked by the paramilitaries. We lost everything and had to leave the farm," Ms Velasquez says.

Xabier Hernandez, peace adviser for the provincial government, says that Narino is "a geo-strategic area", because its location in south-west Colombia means it connects the Amazon and the Pacific.

The region - rich in natural resources but one of the poorest and most backward areas of Colombia - has become a base from where traffickers can send cocaine to the Mexican cartels.

This hugely profitable trade has led to unlikely alliances being formed between guerrillas and paramilitaries, as they work together to control the areas of cultivation, the processing plants and the cocaine shipments.

"It's a perverse relationship," says Javier Dorado, president of the Permanent Committee for Human Rights in Narino.

The guerrillas are, as he puts it, "in bed with the paramilitaries".


Travelling south on the Pan-American Highway, then veering west, you go through Tuquerres, a mountainous area famous for its potatoes.

Just a few kilometres from a village, the burnt-out remains of a bus, destroyed by guerrillas, lie on the roadside.

Little by little, you begin to notice the increasing number of police and army patrol posts along the highway.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe recently urged the security forces "to restore total security to the area".

"Let the day come soon when we can truly say we have defeated the criminal drug-trafficking gangs and the guerrillas who still linger out there causing so much damage, killing our indigenous Awa," Mr Uribe said.

This was reference to a series of attacks on the Awa indigenous community this year that are thought to have left about 50 people dead.

Deepening conflict

While violence has decreased in many of Colombia's urban areas, the opposite has happened in Narino.

The rise in violence is attributed by some to the arrival of so many drug traffickers driven out of neighbouring areas by government forces under the US-backed anti-drugs initiative Plan Colombia.

"In several municipalities, the murder rate is double the national average," says Mr Hernandez.

But the government secretary of Narino, Fabio Trujillo, says drug trafficking has long existed in the area.

And he says that the authorities "have regained control of the territory".

"These days we have police stationed in every town and village and the conflict has shifted to the jungle areas," Mr Trujillo said.

But for the time being, Narino seems destined to continue suffering from the effects of drug trafficking and an armed struggle that shows little sign of ending.

[Source: By Hernando Salazar, BBC Mundo, Nariño, Col, 14Sep09]

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