A strike against Plan Colombia

Guerrillas blockade food, supplies in a coca-growing region to protest anti- narcotics initiative.

For five days, Omar Ramos, his wife, and their five children have been sitting on a concrete curb outside the airport of this Colombian jungle town, waiting for a military helicopter to take them away from the frontier that for four years was their home.

"There's no food for the kids, there's no transportation, no gas or lights, and there's no work for me," says Mr. Ramos. "Why would we stay? How could we stay?"

The Ramoses are among 335,000 residents of the southern-border, coca-growing department of Putumayo who, for more than a month, have endured an "armed strike" called by the Colombian Armed Revolutionary Forces (FARC), the country's largest insurgent group.

Aimed at blocking the supply of food and other goods to the isolated department, the transport strike is the guerrilla group's first salvo against the government's ambitious new offensive, Plan Colombia.

To the government, Plan Colombia is a way to rid Putumayo and other departments of a thriving coca industry - and help bring peace to areas where guerrilla organizations and right-wing paramilitary groups have challenged the government's authority. President Andres Pastrana insists that Plan Colombia, announced last year by the government, will offer social progress and a stabilizing institutional presence to areas that have lacked both for decades.

But to the FARC, Plan Colombia is a declaration of war.

Some $1.3 billion of the $7.5 billion plan comes from the United States - with nearly $1 billion of the US aid earmarked to train and equip Colombian anti-narcotics personnel.

For four decades Marxist guerrillas have been fighting Colombia's government, for much of that time in marginalized rural areas. While other insurgencies in Latin America died out with the cold war, Colombia's only intensified as the guerrilla groups built up income as associates of Colombia's cocaine traffickers.

Paramilitary groups entered the fray over the past decade, first as security forces for rural landowners, but increasingly as an independent militia with its own agenda, at times linked to the armed forces.

The FARC is protesting the buildup of right-wing paramilitaries in Putumayo and insists that alleged Army support of the paramilitaries must end.

Some analysts say the continued heavy fighting between the FARC and paramilitaries in Putumayo is part of a war for the right to protect and profit from the region's cultivation of coca leaves, used to make cocaine.

While the FARC, paramilitaries, and the government grapple over the future of Putumayo, local residents say they are coming up the losers. "The guerrillas, the paras, they fight, but those who suffer for it are the poor," says Ramos.

The FARC have burned cars and buses that defied the strike order. Electric lines have been cut and gasoline supplies reduced to a trickle. Food is increasingly scarce, prices skyrocketing.

Just across the silty Putumayo River from Puerto Asis, FARC soldiers openly man a river port checkpoint. They interrupt their pool game and flirtations with local girls to bar local residents from carrying produce across to hungry Puerto Asis.

"The people understand why we are doing this," says one FARC officer, who declines to give his name. "They are with us in opposition to Plan Colombia and the paras, so they are willing to put up with the hardship of the strike."

"Putumayo has been abandoned for 20 years, so people have gotten used to surviving by avoiding taking any side," says Oscar Montero, a young truck driver idled by the strike.

Puerto Asis store owners, however, took a stand Tuesday by closing their shops in protest against the slow arrival of government help.

Mr. Montero says most people wouldn't oppose the Army "taking care of things" - meaning ending the FARC strike by force - but he adds, "The government won't let the soldiers do it." Noting that the government will return to peace negotiations with the FARC later this month, he adds, "We're being sacrificed for the peace talks."

That's a view shared by the mayor of Puerto Asis, Manuel Alzate.

"We're victims here. As a mayor I can't do anything about the guerrillas and the paras, so while the government decides what to do about the peace process, we have to sit here like this."

Government officials say they are working overtime on addressing the emergency - and are not sacrificing anyone to the FARC.

"I recognize this is a crisis, but we're getting it under control," says Humberto de la Calle Lombana, Colombia's interior minister. Regular electric power is about to be reestablished, dwindling chemicals for the Puerto Asis drinking water system will be replenished, and the Army is continuing its airlift of food and supplies, he says.

Minister de la Calle says Plan Colombia is the strongest proof that the government has no intention of abandoning Putumayo. The government is working to develop a new economy not based on coca, he adds.

But farmworker Ramos, who says he worked in Putumayo's coca fields, doesn't want to hear about "one more government project that never reaches the people."

He adds, however, "If they really got something going in the place of the coca, I'd come back. The only thing that matters to me is that there's work."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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