Colombia’s drug war spills across Ecuador border

Ecuadorean soldiers patrol the town of Puerto Nuevo in Ecuador, made up primarily of Colombian refugees. Officials say the town is a haven for guerrillas fighting across the border in Colombia's civil war. (Kelly Hearn)Ecuadorean soldiers patrol the town of Puerto Nuevo in Ecuador, made up primarily of Colombian refugees. Officials say the town is a haven for guerrillas fighting across the border in Colombia’s civil war. (Kelly Hearn)
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SAN MIGUEL RIVER, northern Ecuador | For Servio Tuliogemeni, it was a son. His neighbor, Maria Salazar, lost her brother, as did her neighbor, Elsio Molano. But unlike the other two, Mr. Molano knows who did it.

“The Ecuadorean soldiers shot my brother in the back,” he said, motioning to the chocolate brown San Miguel River where Orlando Tapia Molano and two other men were killed in January by Ecuadorean troops as they rode in a small river boat — a confrontation that has led to no convictions or military reprimands. “Nothing is going to happen to them. No one will be punished.”

For years, the U.S. government has poured millions of dollars into Colombia’s civil war and cocaine-eradication programs, sending thousands of landless peasants into the relative safety of the Ecuadorean jungle, where many have rebuilt lives one borrowed nail at a time.

According to Ecuador’s directorate for refugees, there are 102,105 registered Colombian refugees and asylum seekers.

But more and more, Colombia’s war — complicated by drug syndicates and arms traffickers — is spilling across this border. And more and more, after a cross-border Colombian military raid on a guerrilla camp here in 2008, the Ecuadorean military has been beefing up its presence. According to government statistics, the number of Ecuadorean troops in one northern border province called Sucumbios quadrupled from 2007 to 2009, with military exercises rising from 22 in 2007 to 250 in 2009.

Now, Colombian refugees who found safety and, in many cases, at least a modicum of assistance from the Ecuadorean government, are complaining about insecurity, mass killings and impunity on this side of the binational river.

“People get killed but nobody gets caught,” said Marielle Lopez, a 42-year store attendant in Puerto Nuevo, an Ecuadorean river town identified by the military as a haven for Colombian guerrilla fighters seeking supplies, prostitutes and a respite from the fighting across the river. “It is like there is no law.”

A report by Philip Alston, the U.N. special rapporteur for extrajudicial killing, paints a sobering picture of crime and punishment in this border region.

Issued last month, the report cites frequent intimidation and harassment of civilians by the Ecuadorean military, an exceedingly high homicide rate and a shocking level of impunity for assassins.

One village on the Putumayo River, the report says, has a population of only 4,000 people but an assassination rate of one to two per week. The report says that only 1 percent of the killings reported to Ecuadorean police have led to convictions. In early summer, 30 bodies with signs of torture were found along a road in the Sucumbios province used for drug and weapons trafficking.

Ecuadorean military officials say Colombia’s guerrilla movement, known as FARC, is marbleized within the refugee community.

A group of soldiers in paramilitary gear stood in the main road at Puerto Nuevo. One of them, who asked not to be identified because he was not allowed to speak to the press, said: “They say they are refugees. But at night they go back across the river and fight.”

A year ago, the Ecuadorean army began conducting a census of the people living in the border area. One day, residents of Providencia say, a military helicopter landed on a nearby hillside. The soldiers stayed for four days. They went to homes. They asked questions about who owns the land. They barged into Maria Magaly’s shack, took her fingerprints, snapped a photo and made her sign a document. “I don’t know what I signed,” said the 23-year-old.

Months later, the purpose of the operation became clear. In February, Ecuadorean Gen. Hugo Villegas Torres issued a list of more than 400 names of Colombians in 88 villages along this border, claiming they were Colombian guerrilla collaborators and providing GPS coordinates of their houses. Media reports initially said the general had asked the Agriculture Ministry to dislodge them from their villages — a claim later disputed by the defense minister.

When we came 18 years ago, this was just jungle,” said Raul Sanchez, Providencia’s wiry founder. “We made houses from palm leaves and planted rice and cocoa. We wanted peace and found it here. But now there is all of this with the military. We are very worried.”

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