- - Monday, April 7, 2014

TUMACO, Colombia — This impoverished port town on the Pacific coast has become ground zero for the Colombian government’s U.S.-funded efforts to quell a Marxist guerrilla rebellion and eradicate the drug trade, which serves as the group’s main source of financing.

Caught in the middle are Tumaco’s 100,000 or so residents.

Half of them live in poverty in Colombia’s “red zone,” where deadly violence is a constant threat. Late last month, two police officers were kidnapped and executed on the outskirts of town. Two other officers met the same fate in February. Guerrillas pay $1,000 to anyone who kills a cop, police say.

PHOTOS: U.S. helping Colombia quell Marxists guerrilla group

“The national government has practically abandoned us,” said Santo Banguera, 50, an Afro-Colombian farmer who cultivates a small plot of land and lives with his wife and four sons in a wooden shack. “There is fear here.”

Focus on Tumaco has intensified amid peace talks between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the Marxist guerrilla group that has waged an insurgency in Colombia since 1964. Government and FARC negotiators have been meeting in Havana for about 18 months — the third attempt at peace in the 50-year-old conflict.

Rebel Loot: Soldiers in Tumaco guard 3.9 tons of cocaine seized from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Tumaco has Colombia's highest concentration of cultivation of coca. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Rebel Loot: Soldiers in Tumaco guard 3.9 tons of cocaine seized from ... more >

FARC negotiators say the group has abandoned kidnapping and is not involved in the drug trade, but guerrillas in this far-flung corner of the country follow no one’s orders.

Tumaco has Colombia’s highest concentration of cultivation of coca, the plant from which cocaine is extracted. The border state of Narino, where Tumaco is located, harbors 26,500 acres of coca, more than any other area, according to 2013 figures from the United Nations, this despite a 38 percent decrease in acreage over the previous year.

Over the past decade, the U.S. has provided $3.5 billion in military and financial assistance to Colombia in its efforts to combat the FARC and end the cultivation of coca.

The Colombian government has set up two military bases and deployed more than 2,200 troops in Tumaco’s city limits. Still, three armed groups — the FARC, a terrorism-support organization and a criminal gang known as Bacrim — vie for control of drug-trafficking routes in this strategic zone along the Ecuadorean border. Here, the FARC is known to sabotage power stations and oil pipelines, plant roadside bombs and cross into Ecuador through jungle passages for rest and relaxation.

In October, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos tapped Francisco Lloreda, who was educated at Columbia University and Oxford, to lead an initiative to rescue the region.

Mr. Lloreda acknowledges that Tumaco has been abandoned for far too long. “The Colombian Pacific in general, going back a long time, has been a region very much forgotten by successive governments. To say the contrary is a lie,” he said.

The Pacific Alliance

The government’s five-year plan includes nearly $200 million in public works and infrastructure projects in Tumaco, in addition to promoting economic revitalization in the agricultural, fishing and tourism sectors.

A part of the agricultural effort is the 42,000-acre African palm industry, which once held 84,000 acres. The crop, which is used to make biodiesel, is included in the government’s microcredit initiatives. Others are cocoa and rice.

Colombia’s Pacific coast is far less developed than those of Mexico, Peru and Chile — its partners in an ambitious Pacific Alliance that would create a free trade zone representing 36 percent of the gross domestic product of Latin America and the Caribbean.

Story Continues →