by Kintto Lucas
(IPS) QUITO --
farmers in the Ecuadorean province of Sucumbios, on the border with Colombia, reported that drug traffickers were trying to tempt them to plant coca instead of coffee.
The farmers said the "strangers" had offered them much higher profits than they earned on coffee, as well as three-week courses in coca cultivation. "It takes months of training to grow high-quality coffee, but planting coca is easier and you earn more," said a peasant farmer who asked not to be identified.
Defense Minister Hugo Unda had said on Feb. 9 that "coca has already begun to be planted in Ecuadorean territory."
The coffee-growers' reports coincided with the start of an indefinite stoppage of activities by local authorities and representatives of civil society in the Amazon jungle provinces of Sucumbios and Orellana to protest the Plan Colombia, which they complain has already begun to have repercussions in this country.
The Plan Colombia, a program of the government of Andres Pastrana aimed at eliminating the production of drug crops in Colombia, which purportedly provide a source of financing for insurgent groups in that country, went into effect this year.
It is partly financed with $1.3 billion in mostly military aid from the United States, and is objected to by non-governmental organizations in Colombia and abroad as a plan that will escalate the war.
The organizers of the protest in Ecuador said they would not lift the stoppage until solutions were found, and warned that if necessary, they would seize control of oil wells, stage roadblocks or cut off the transport of fuel through the oil pipeline that runs through the area.
"The government has to come up with solutions for having gotten us involved in the Plan Colombia, and it has to start the infrastructure works needed by these forgotten provinces," argued Maximo Abad, the mayor of Nueva Loja, which is the capital of Sucumbíos.
Last week some 500 Native people from Ecuadorean communities along the border fled their land after they were threatened by an armed commando of the paramilitary umbrella grouping, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).
The displaced families said the armed men gave them 24 hours to leave their homes and their land if they did not want to "die in fire and flames."
A few days later, another group of Native peasant families left their homes in the same area, bringing the number of displaced to over 750. They complained that it was impossible to continue living there, because the Ecuadorean army failed to provide protection.
The presence of paramilitaries and drug-traffickers in Sucumbios was already reported last October by the Group Monitoring the Impact of the Plan Colombia in Ecuador, which links human rights and environmental organizations.
At that time, the group opposed to the Plan Colombia said the right-wing AUC and drug traffickers had begun to buy up land in Ecuador's Amazon jungle region to plant coca, due to the increasing difficulties in growing the crop in Colombia.
The activists urged the government, the military and the National Institute of Statistics and Censuses to carry out an investigation of property registers along the border, which they said would confirm their allegation. Their request was not taken up, however.
circulating in the border area held that the AUC wanted to set up shop in Sucumbios in order to cut off the rebels' supply lines, as well as their escape route in case of a guerrilla retreat.
But local authorities only acknowledged the presence of paramilitaries after two cocaine processing laboratories were discovered and local communities began to be displaced.
The defense minister initially stated that the armed group that forced the indigenous families off their land was apparently the National Liberation Army (ELN), the second largest rebel force in Colombia. The insurgent group, however, is not active in that area.
Unda later admitted that authorities had not yet determined whether the armed commando belonged to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest insurgent group, or to the paramilitary AUC, both of which are active in that border region.
But the displaced families had no doubts that the threat came from the paramilitaries. "Now they want to kill us, because they think we informed against them. But we didn't even know about the laboratory," said one peasant farmer.
Another displaced man said "it is the paramilitaries who issue threats that they are going to kill Indians, whether or not there are women and children present. The guerrillas so far haven't done that. They get mad when we fish with dynamite, and tell us not to pollute the river, but they don't kill."
The AUC incursion caused a commotion along the border, and drew outraged reactions from local authorities, who say the incident was part of the impact on Ecuador of the Plan Colombia, which went into effect this year across the border.
The Ecuadorean government has set up a security commission to deal with the situation generated by incursions by armed groups from Colombia, and to provide assistance to the displaced.
Government spokespersons say the first $8 million of the $30 million pledged by the United States to help Ecuador tackle the effects of the Plan Colombia were invested in stepping up security along the border, while the rest are to go towards infrastructure works in the provinces of Sucumbíos and Orellana.
However, air force commander Oswaldo Domínguez said the armed forces had not received any funds.
Civic groups, the mayors of a number of towns, provincial governors, indigenous communities, church leaders and others concerned about the impact of the Plan Colombia in Sucumbíos and Orellana declared an indefinite freeze of activities today.
The governor of Sucumbios, Luis Bermeo, demanded that the border area be declared neutral territory, and that the government assume its commitments "to the provinces which produce the country's oil, while the local population lives in poverty."
"Civil society in the Amazon jungle border area is very concerned, because the effects of the Plan Colombia were denounced months ago, and the government has done nothing. We can't wait any longer," said the governor.
Shopkeepers in the border region say that although guerrillas and paramilitaries have crossed over from Colombia to buy food and clothing over the past 20 years, the effects of Colombia's decades-old civil war have never been felt like today.
"They have always come over, dressed as civilians, to rest from the fighting in Colombia and stock up on provisions and fuel," said a shopkeeper in the border town of General Farfan, who preferred not to be named.
But, he added, with the implementation of the Plan Colombia, the violence in the Colombian region of Putumayo has risen, and has begun to spill over the border.
"Along with the spraying (of illegal crops in Colombia), the activity of the AUC, which was previously minimal, has increased, and now we are seeing people killed in attacks on the oil pipeline and indigenous communities displaced from their land," he said.
February 26, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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