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Colombia Troop Surge in Nariño: Too Little Too Late?

Authorities are following through on a promised security surge in southwest Colombia, one of the most troubled areas in the country. But it is not clear what the government hopes to achieve, considering that a similar operation in northern Colombia produced very few results.

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President Juan Manuel Santos said that 1,400 police officers will be deployed to the Nariño, Cauca, and Valle del Cauca departments, perhaps the most conflict-ridden area in Colombia right now. Accompanying the police surge is the creation of a naval brigade, based in Tumaco, Nariño, a port city highly valued by drug-trafficking organization (DTO) the Rastrojos.

This bit of attention for Nariño, one of the poorest and most violent departments in Colombia, is a welcome step forward. All of Colombia's armed actors are present in this area: rebel groups the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) and the National Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional - ELN); and DTOs like the Rastrojos and Aguilas Negras.

Nariño is a highly valued strategic holding ground for criminal groups: some of Colombia's densest coca cultivations are found here. After the government stepped up fumigation efforts in neighboring Putumayo in 2002, coca production shifted westwards into Nariño. According to the most recently available statistics on Colombia's coca production, in 2009 the United Nations (UN) counted 16,228 hectares of coca in Nariño, compared to Putumayo's 5,316.

The department's southern border with Ecuador and over 60 miles of coastline along the Pacific also makes Nariño a vital holding ground for both the rebels and criminal bands (bandas criminales - BACRIMS).

Key to controlling Nariño is Tumaco, which, with an estimated 4,681 hectares of coca, is the municipality with the highest concentration of coca crops in the country. In the district capital, local gangs fight over micro-trafficking profits, contributing to a murder rate of 139 per every 100,000 inhabitants, compared with the national murder rate of 33. These kinds of numbers led Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera to promise in January that the government would soon launch an "intervention" in Nariño, with a focus on securing Tumaco.

Committing additional forces in Colombia's Pacific southwest is a welcome development. But it's unclear if the number of troops and the proposed time -- six months -- is enough to achieve long-lasting results.

The surge is called "Operation Troy," after a similarly dubbed operation launched January in the northern departments of Cordoba and Antioquia. The government has praised the results of this two-month assault, which include the reported arrest of 236 presumed BACRIM members.

But many of these arrests were of low-level BACRIM members who worked as local drug dealers. We can also assume the courts will allow many to walk away on a technicality (as occurred with the much-publicized case of one member of the Paisas, Oscar Mauricio Galvis, alias "Pantera," who was arrested in 2010 and promptly set free by a local judge).

To definitively break the cycles of violence in Nariño will require much more than a six-month military and police surge. But the government's resources are increasingly stretched. The FARC are leading offensives in Cauca and Arauca, while the Urabeño-Rastrojo war threatens to boost violence in major cities like Medellin and Cali. This makes it unlikely that Nariño will see much more from the government than the currently promised aid.

Nariño is a long neglected corner of the country, which has helped turn it into a center for Colombia's coca cultivation. This makes the current attention from Bogota a step forward. But the new "Plan Troy" may amount to little more than a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.

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