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.
“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.
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.
Mr. Lloreda said Mr. Santos also hopes multinational institutions will lend Colombia up to $400 million to invest in the Pacific coast. Last month, Colombia’s main Pacific port city of Buenaventura was militarized in an effort to clamp down on warring criminal gangs and stem a high homicide rate.
In Tumaco, many farmers say security has improved and that they are not pressured or extorted by armed groups. Some are even abandoning coca to join palm plantations, managers say.
Soldiers patrol muddy intersections on rural roadways in Tumaco, the site of a counternarcotics navy and army task force.
Mr. Santos last year sent an additional 200 police officers to Narino state, for a total of 498. Dressed in green fatigues and tropical hats, the officers patrol streets and man roadblocks.
Col. Hector Rodriguez, head of the Colombian army’s Joint Task Force Pegasus, said 40 percent of the military’s efforts are aimed at battling drug traffickers and 60 percent at reaching out to residents by building schools and health care centers, and improving infrastructure.
“You can’t compare the region with what it was five years ago,” Col. Rodriguez said, but “culturally, the population does not want to abandon coca.”
The U.S. Agency for International Development last year spent $173 million in Colombia, including support for indigenous and Afro-Colombian populations on the Pacific coast.
The international narcotics and law enforcement section of the U.S. Embassy in Bogota budgeted $142 million in fiscal 2013 to help Colombia and will spend $1.4 million in fiscal 2014 to train 400 minority police officers, including 50 from Tumaco. Both efforts are considered vital to create a conduit between the local community and the national government.
The U.S. Embassy declined interview requests for this report.
In the Havana peace talks, government and FARC negotiators have reached the fourth of five talking points: illicit drugs.
Under strict negotiating rules, neither side has released details of agreements, but many observers believe coca fumigation — on which the U.S. spent $48 million in fiscal 2012 — will be abandoned.
Colombia last year destroyed 247,000 acres of coca via aerial fumigation. If a FARC demand to cease fumigation becomes part of a peace deal, coca plants would have to be eradicated by hand in fields vulnerable to attack and protected by land mines.
In Tumaco, some view an accord with the FARC as a panacea after a half-century of conflict.
“This is a good step that the government has taken,” said Antonio Alegria, 68, leader of a communal farming group that represents 1,600 Afro-Colombian families. “If there is a good understanding between the government and illegal groups, this would be the best scenario for our people, and for all of us that live on the Pacific coast and in Colombia.”
Col. Rodriguez said that even if some criminal groups refuse to surrender their arms and the drug trade continues in Tumaco, his troops will stand with the locals.
Mr. Lloreda said that building confidence among the people of Tumaco is difficult after decades of neglect.
“We cannot ignore the feeling of abandonment, and for the farmers in particular to overcome this feeling is not going to happen overnight,” he said. “It’s not going to happen with words; it’s going to happen with deeds and results.”
• The African palm industry sponsored this reporter’s visit to Tumaco.