A distant explosion startles villagers in Vistahermosa, a paradise of nature in southern Colombia where the government is working to destroy about 4Ã‚Â 500ha of coca.
But calm returns quickly. After one month, this farm town has gotten used to the bombs — as well as the bursts of gunfire that come from the thousands of battle-hardened guerrillas who live in the area.
”It was in La Albania,” a soldier, one of a squadron in charge of protecting coca eradicators, says of the explosion.
He was referring to one of the villages where the teams are uprooting and destroying the plants, which are normally harvested, pulverised and processed into cocaine destined for the streets of the United States and Europe.
”After the explosions comes the gunfire. Perhaps they discovered a patrol there, or they think we are still there. So we move every day,” he says, under a tree blocking the intense sun, while a comrade tries to get information on the radio phone.
”Sometimes they make us return the gunfire, to find us that way. They follow us in their scopes. It is like a little war game,” he adds.
But his face turns more serious when he talks of the recent attacks by leftist rebels on the Serrania de la Macarena national park on Vistahermosa’s outskirts, a region of farmers and ranchers 250km south-east of Bogota.
On December 28, the guerrillas killed 29 soldiers accompanying the eradicators, pushing President Alvaro Uribe to declare war on the coca-cocaine machine that fuels the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
A little further away, on Monday on the Guayabero River, the rebels killed six police officers and injured another seven, along with an eradicator. And three soldiers were killed just Wednesday in a bomb explosion on the edge of a road coming from Vistahermosa.
The violence has already driven off two-thirds of the 930 eradicators hired to uproot coca fields here, leaving the team far behind schedule. In one month, they have only destroyed about 40ha, out of 400ha targeted. The programme has now been extended to six months from three.
”I suspect that the programme is a smokescreen to justify fumigation with herbicide,” a local civilian employee says, referring to a judicial ruling that allows the spraying of the park.
The coca fields are planted with anti-personnel mines as well, forcing a bomb squad to clear them painstakingly by hand. Four local people have been killed by the mines this year.
Immediately after the mines are blown up, the eradicators get to work, some uprooting the plants by hand while others dig with shovels. The bushes dry in a few hours and the soil turns a desert red from the fertilisers.
The fields belong to poor farmers who turn the leaf into a basic paste, which they then sell to traffickers, guerrillas or paramilitaries of the extreme right.
”A few days ago there was a shooting and people got scared. They pulled us from the site and some ran away in fear,” said Alex Romero, who oversees 31 eradicators who get about $420 for 45 days of work.
”One guy soiled his trousers from fear. The next day he decided to leave with two others,” added Romero, who drives a taxi in his town.
The eradicators live in tents set up in the middle of thick vegetation or by the rivers. The police fix their times for eating and bathing, and otherwise don’t allow them out of the camps.
”We must follow their orders,” says another labourer, who, like several of his companions — the majority are farmers and construction workers — insist they live in ”acceptable conditions”.
Several farmers quit the job two weeks ago over security and food issues.
But the coca-eradication programme faces much greater challenges when one looks at the surrounding mountains, where the coca plots are bigger, harder to access and guarded by much more determined bands of rebels. — Sapa-AFP