Colombian Paramilitaries Take Dirty War to Ecuador
Plans by Ecuadorian officials and the UN High commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) to deal with the effects of worsening violence in southern Colombia as a result of Plan Colombia focused on setting up camps for displaced Colombians in Ecuador. When indigenous people in Ecuador were forced to flee their homes, however, only the Catholic Church was willing to take them in. More than 42 indigenous families in the eastern border province of Sucumbíos fled after receiving death threats from Colombian paramilitaries.
Since mid-January, indigenous people from communities including Shumac Pamba, Tarupa, Curiyacu, San Antonio and Charip, near the town of La Bermeja, on the border with the Colombian department of Putumayo, began an exodus toward the district of Cascales, near Lago Agrio, the capital of Sucumbíos. An armed group had given them “twenty-four hours to abandon our land, or they would murder 50 people,” Juan Noteno, a leader of the Kichwa people, said.
The threats came after soldiers, apparently with help from local indigenous people, found and destroyed a large drug-processing laboratory on January 19. The action forced the drug traffickers to abandon the area, leaving behind another larger lab.
More than 500 indigenous people made their way to Cascales, where they took refuge in houses, schools and makeshift shelters, because the official shelters set up there were only for Colombians. The Catholic Church provided aid to most of the displaced Ecuadorians.
The UNHCR, armed forces and government agencies, have designed a contingency plan for dealing with people displaced by the effects of the U.S.-financed Plan Colombia, which involves eradicating illegal drug crops in Colombia (see, Plan Colombia and its Consequences in Ecuador). The Catholic Church in Sucumbíos initially refused to participate, but joined the plan after the UNHCR agreed to redesign parts of it.
“They wanted a scene full of tents, with soldiers and mobile equipment, like you see on newscasts in other countries, but they should have realized that it’s better to adapt the structures and shelters that organizations already have, for two reasons: the displaced people are treated with greater dignity and the organizations have the opportunity to improve their infrastructure,” Succumbíos Bishop Gonzalo López said.
In December, Anselmo Salazar, vice-president of the Federation of Kichwa Organizations of Sucumbíos, Ecuador (FOKISE), warned the assembly of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) of the danger of a military presence in the area, given the long history of cross-border family and commercial relationships. “For years indigenous people have been trading with people on the other side of the border. They go across to sell their products or work. They have families and friends there. That makes the soldiers pressure us to denounce people,” Salazar said.
But his warning fell on deaf ears, which increased local residents’ fears. “We don’t trust the military to protect us. The armed forces don’t provide security and indigenous organizations are also unable to protect our lives. The church is the closest and can help us, but it can’t keep us from being killed,” Salazar said.
In revealing the site of the drug lab, the local people opted for military protection. But after the initial publicity faded, the communities were left unprotected. “They abandoned us. They don’t want to listen to us. They haven’t included us in their organizations, their protection or their contingency plans,” FOKISE representative Mónica Chuji told a committee of human rights organizations in Quito. “Now we’re all afraid.”
While various community and religious groups, as well as the military, have roles in the government-designed contingency plan, the measure does not include any national indigenous organizations or groups from the affected area.
Chuji also criticized human rights organizations for not including indigenous groups in networks they have formed to monitor the effects of Plan Colombia. This was corrected in April with the formation of an Observatory of the Implementation of Plan Colombia on the Borders, which includes both human rights groups and local organizations from communities along the border.
“They asked FOKISE to take responsibility for the people who have been displaced, but no one has told us how to do it or with what resources,’ said Chuji, who traveled to the affected communities to accompany the last indigenous people who fled the zone. “They haven’t taken us into account at all and now they want us to take care of our people.”
Defense Minister Hugo Unda, who admitted that Plan Colombia will have repercussions in Ecuador, said that the price of these consequences “must be paid by everyone, because we’re all responsible for the fact that Ecuador isn’t developing.” He also said the problem is a social, rather than military, one.
President Gustavo Noboa announced that he plans to name governors with military experience to provinces along the Colombian border. He appointed Agustín Alejandro Luna, a colonel not on active duty, governor of Orellana, which neighbors Sucumbíos and has also been affected by the conflict in Colombia.
Meanwhile, the indigenous people who were displaced in January are receiving assistance from FOKISE and the International Red Cross. Several indigenous communities associated with FOKISE have offered the displaced people some of their lands, but military officials are asking them to return home, assuring them that they will be protected. The people who fled, however, are reluctant. “The soldiers arrive in town and then return to their camps. They never even go to our communities,” said José Huatoca, president of the community of Curiyacu.