Govt. in Talks to Quell Coca Riots in East Colombia

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The government is negotiating with community leaders in the coca growing hub of east Colombia after over two weeks of violent protests sparked by eradication programs, illustrating the authorities’ continued failure to address the root causes of coca cultivation.

Since June 10, the region of Catatumbo in the department of Norte de Santander has been consumed by protests and riots that have left four protesters dead and over fifty injured.

More than 12,000 peasant farmers have participated in the protests, reported La Prensa Latina, demanding the government halt coca eradication until they can provide an economically viable alternative, and also calling for more investment in public infrastructure and services and for the region to be made a semi-autonomous “rural reserve zone.”

The riot police dispatched to the area to control the protests have received widespread criticism for their heavy-handed response, including accusations that they have fired indiscriminately on crowds.

Police meanwhile, have claimed the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are behind the unrest, and say they have come under attack by protesters armed with machetes, “potato bombs” (small explosives made by wrapping chemicals in foil), and “tatucos” (homemade mortars popular with the FARC).

The government initially refused to address the protesters demands, but backtracked earlier this week and began talks with community representatives on June 25.

InSight Crime Analysis

The department of Norte de Santander is one of Colombia’s prime coca growing territories. It is home to the guerrillas of the FARC, the National Liberation Army (ELN) and drug-trafficking remnants of the Popular People’s Army (EPL), and also has a significant presence of narco-paramilitary groups such as the Rastrojos.

It would certainly be in both the financial and political interests of the guerrillas to foment unrest in the region, as they would be protecting their sources of coca from eradication, while also drawing attention to an issue at the heart of their demands in the current peace talks, and causing political headaches for the government.

However, even if the guerrillas are involved in the protests, this does not detract from the legitimacy of the locals’ demands. The issues highlighted by the protesters epitomize the social issues that often lie behind coca cultivation — poverty and lack of economic development and opportunities. They also epitomize the main reason eradication programs have failed put a stop to cultivation — the lack of a legal alternative for farmers. Until these are addressed, coca eradication campaigns are likely to continue to spark conflict in regions like Norte de Santander, with or without guerrilla intervention.

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