On the Cocaine Trail in 'Muerto Asis'

By August 2002, the region of Putumayo in southern Colombia had become ground zero for Washington's war on drugs: Plan Colombia was beginning to pick up steam, the cocaine trade was thriving, and illegal armed groups had reached the height of their power. In this excerpt from his new book Beyond Bogotá: Diary of a Drug War Journalist in Colombia, Garry Leech chronicles this toxic cauldron of violence and cocaine in a region that to this day remains one of the bloodiest in the country's armed conflict.

December 1, 2008

In August 2002, I traveled to Putumayo in southern Colombia to investigate the consequences of almost two years of the Plan Colombia counter-narcotics initiative. At the time, Putumayo had emerged as a central battleground in the conflict being waged by the Colombian military, leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries—a battle that continues to this day. The region also lay at the center of the cocaine trade, making it ground zero for Plan Colombia’s military operations.

Beyond Bogotá is available for purchase through the Beacon Press website, or benefit NACLA with a purchase from Amazon.com, or Powell's Books. />

One afternoon, in the town of Puerto Asís, I ran into a photojournalist I knew named Scott Dalton. Scott had worked for the Associated Press in Colombia for several years before becoming a freelance photographer and would later co-produce a documentary film called La Sierra, which looked at the lives of paramilitaries in the barrios of Medellín. He was in Putumayo with a documentary film crew that was doing a report on Colombia’s conflict.

The next morning Scott, the film crew, and I headed out of town to visit a cocaine-processing lab in the jungle. Just past the town of Santa Ana, about thirty minutes outside of Puerto Asís, we turned off the main road onto a bumpy dirt road that could be traversed only by a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Every so often we passed small clearings in the rainforest where the trees had been felled and a small farm established. Finally we pulled off the road and parked in front of a wooden house. Three women were sitting outside on chairs while four small children played nearby. Our driver spoke to one of the women, who then disappeared around the side of the house.

The children eyed the five gringos with suspicion and curiosity. I pulled some colorful pens out of my pocket and asked the women whether I could give them to the children—when working in rural conflict zones, I had found that befriending the children helped the parents to relax and open up. With the women’s consent, the children immediately came over to me to lay claim to their gifts, and the mood of the women and children quickly shifted from wariness to festiveness as we all began to talk and laugh.

The first woman reappeared from behind the house with a man who looked to be in his mid-twenties. He spoke with our driver for a minute, introduced himself to us as Fernando, and beckoned us to follow him as he turned to walk back around the side of the house.

Attached to the rear of the house, surrounded by jungle on three sides, was a small open-sided structure with a slanting wooden roof: the cocaine-processing lab. A large pile of coca leaves sat on the cement floor in one corner. Along the far side of the lab were several fifty-five-gallon drums of chemicals used in the processing. On a platform at the end of the lab sat a two-ring kerosene burner, a small scale, and several plastic buckets and aluminum cooking pots. Fernando did not own the lab, which was located in paramilitary-controlled territory; he was simply an employee who processed coca paste into cocaine base.

The coca paste is dissolved in hydrochloric or sulphuric acid, then potassium permanganate mixed with water is added. (By Garry Leech)

Fernando spent the next two hours showing us, step by step, the process of turning coca paste into cocaine base. We observed his every move, asking questions and taking photographs. There are three principal stages in the processing of coca leaves into cocaine. The first stage involves harvesting and crushing the leaves, then mixing them with sodium bicarbonate, gasoline, and other additives to form a brown coca paste, which is approximately 40 percent pure cocaine. Often the coca growers do this first step of processing themselves before selling the paste to drug labs, where the next stage in the process occurs. However, the processing lab I visited in Putumayo would occasionally buy raw coca leaves and perform both of the first two stages of processing. The second stage involves mixing the brown coca paste with sulfuric acid, potassium permanganate, and other chemicals. The mixture is then drained and heated until it dries into a solid white compound, which is then broken up into small white rocks. The resulting cocaine base is 90 percent pure cocaine. The third and final stage, which usually takes place in large remote jungle labs, involves processing the cocaine base into cocaine hydrochloride, or powder cocaine, which is 99 percent pure cocaine. Traffickers then ship the cocaine hydrochloride to drug dealers in North America and Europe.

At one point during the demonstration, we heard the sound of helicopters in the distance, and Fernando said that they were likely supporting spray planes conducting fumigations in the area. I listened as the sound grew louder, thinking to myself how unfortunate it would be if a counter-narcotics operation being undertaken by the Colombian military were to target this specific lab while we were all present. After all, they might come in with their guns blasting. I walked over to the edge of the lab and looked up through small gaps in the rainforest canopy at the helicopters that by now were almost overhead. A couple of minutes later they passed us by, and the noise began to fade into the distance.

Four kilos of cocaine base with a street value of about $100,000. (By Garry Leech)

When Fernando finished making the cocaine base, he began spooning it into clear plastic bags, which he placed on the scale. He noted down in a book the weight of each of the six bags. The plastic bags were then wrapped in brown packing tape and stacked neatly in a pile. The finished quantity amounted to four kilograms, or kilos, of cocaine base. I was staring at six brick-sized packages of cocaine that, when sold wholesale by the kilo in the United States, would be worth approximately one hundred thousand dollars. The total retail value of that cocaine when sold by the gram in the United States would be about four hundred thousand dollars.

A financial breakdown of the cocaine trade clearly illustrates how Plan Colombia is targeting the weakest and poorest link in the production and trafficking chain. The average coca leaf farmer earns, at most, a thousand dollars a month—that is, if U.S. fumigation missions do not spray his crops. Out of this money he has to purchase pesticides and the chemicals for processing the leaves into paste, pay coca pickers to harvest and process the leaves, and pay taxes to the paramilitaries if they control that particular region—leaving him a couple of hundred dollars, if he is lucky.

The drug cartels purchase a kilo of cocaine base from a farmer for about six hundred dollars, and then sell the processed cocaine to drug-dealing organizations in the United States for twenty-three thousand dollars a kilo. Since U.S. dealers usually sell cocaine by the gram, they can earn a total of one hundred thousand dollars per kilo, and they usually make more since they cut the cocaine with cornstarch, talcum powder, or other similar products in order to increase the number of grams they can sell.

A campesino's house overlooks a coca
field in Putumayo. (By Garry Leech)

The upshot is that while a farmer makes a few hundred dollars on a kilo, Colombian traffickers pocket over ten thousand dollars per kilo and U.S. dealers, who are at the top of the pyramid, earn profits in the tens of thousands of dollars for each kilo. Clearly, the overwhelming majority of the profits go to Colombia’s drug trafficking cartels and U.S. dealers, yet the U.S.-backed war on drugs focuses on destroying the livelihood of impoverished Colombian farmers, particularly those living in regions controlled by guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

It was mid-afternoon when we returned from the cocaine lab to Puerto Asís, where I separated from Scott and the film crew. I caught a taxi to the local port on the Putumayo River, about three miles upstream from the town. Calling it a port might be a bit of an exaggeration, as it amounted to little more than a collection of canoes, small boats, and a few wooden shacks on the muddy banks of the river. Ironically, the dilapidated port was named Hong Kong. My objective in going there was to find someone willing to transport me across the river to FARC-controlled territory to interview the guerrillas about Plan Colombia.

Approaching the clearing in the rainforest that contained the port, my taxi passed through an army patrol of fifteen soldiers walking along either side of the dirt road. The emblems on their uniforms identified them as members of the Colombian army’s counter-narcotics brigade, which was created, trained, and armed by U.S. Army Special Forces. The Plan Colombia aid bill had included a requirement that some of the funding be used to create a counter-narcotics brigade that would function independently from the Colombian army’s counter-insurgency troops. The purpose of creating the new brigade was to appease members of the U.S. Congress concerned with aid going to Colombian army units that routinely collaborated with right-wing paramilitaries in the country’s dirty war.

Following 9/11, however, many of the conditions limiting U.S. military aid to counter-narcotics operations were lifted, allowing the U.S.-trained troops and U.S.-supplied helicopters to be used against the FARC as part of Washington’s global war on terror.

In the port area, several men of varying ages were sitting and talking to each other in front of one of the wooden shacks. I got out of the taxi, walked over to them, and identified myself as a journalist.

“Is there someone who would be able take me to a village on the other side of the river tomorrow morning?” I asked, speaking to no one in particular.
“Why do you want to go over there?” one of the men responded.

“I would like to interview people about the fumigations.”

At that moment, all of the men looked away from me and suddenly fell silent. One of them stood up and began walking to the water’s edge. Again I asked whether anyone would be able to take me across the river. They all remained silent, ignoring me, and I stood there confused. Then one of them subtly nodded his head in the direction behind me. I turned around and saw a white pickup truck pulling to a halt about ten yards away. Four partly uniformed paramilitaries jumped down from the back of the truck and approached the boatman who had just walked down to the river. Two were carrying AK-47 assault rifles, and one had a two-way radio with a long antenna.

I glanced in the direction of the road and saw that the Colombian army patrol I had passed on the way to the port was no more than fifty yards from where I was standing. Not only were the paramilitaries in plain view of the soldiers, but they also had to have passed right through the middle of the patrol to enter the port area.

I stood there watching the soldiers watch the paramilitaries, who were openly wielding their rifles as they arranged transportation down the river. There was no reaction from the troops; they were completely unconcerned with the presence of the paramilitaries. This incident made clear why so many Colombians claim that there is no difference between the army and the paramilitaries and that they work together to combat the guerrillas. I also found it intriguing that the soldiers appeared to be untroubled by the fact that a foreign journalist was openly observing their collusion with the paramilitaries, given that they were members of the Plan Colombia-funded counter-narcotics brigade.

Paramilitaries on patrol in Putumayo. (By Garry Leech)

I watched the four paramilitaries, who completely ignored my presence, climb into a motorized canoe with the boatman and head off downriver in the direction of Puerto Asís. I then decided that it was too risky to try to arrange a trip across the river now that I had become so highly visible to both the army and the paramilitaries. I thanked the boatmen and returned to Puerto Asís.

Two hours later, I was sitting in the hotel restaurant with Scott when a hotel employee told us that there had been a massacre an hour earlier and that the bodies of the victims were at the morgue. Scott, the film crew, and I headed out to investigate the situation.

When we arrived at the morgue, about fifteen women and children were hanging around outside in the conflict-zone-version of rubbernecking at a traffic accident. While we were waiting for the coroner to speak with us, I asked a couple of the women whether they knew what had happened. Both of them told me that paramilitaries had killed three suspected guerrilla sympathizers. I thought back to the paramilitaries I had just seen at the port and wondered whether they could have been the killers. Probably not, as the paramilitaries operating in the town would likely have been dressed in civilian clothes and carrying revolvers rather than assault rifles. Nevertheless, within an hour of the collusion I’d witnessed between the army and paramilitaries, three people were killed in a paramilitary massacre.

The coroner invited us into the morgue and then led us into the room that contained the bodies of the victims, all men who appeared to be in their twenties. Two of them were lying on the white tile floor, one without a shirt. They both had bullet holes in their foreheads. I stared down at the shirtless man, whose eyes were open and staring blankly into space. A pool of blood was forming on the floor underneath his head, leaking from the exit wound in the rear of his skull. The third victim was on a table on the opposite side of the room, his torso cut open, perhaps by a machete, from the base of the neck to below the belly button. The entire scene was disturbing, to say the least.

There was little else to do at the morgue, so we headed back to the hotel. I sat in the restaurant drinking a cold beer and wondered whether U.S. aid to a military closely allied with paramilitary death squads was only further fueling Colombia’s dirty war. With four thousand people killed annually by political violence, more than a quarter of a million forcibly displaced every year, over a thousand kidnapped, and Colombia leading the world in the number of unionists, human rights defenders, teachers, and community leaders assassinated, it was clear that the civilian population was bearing the brunt of the country’s violence.

The prevalence of paramilitary violence in Puerto Asís had led the town to become known locally as Muerto Asís. The nickname replaced the Spanish word “puerto,” which means “port,” with “muerto,” which means “dead.” I decided to visit the town’s cemetery to look at the graves of the victims of the violence.

A large concrete arch dominated the entrance to the cemetery. Emblazoned across the top of it were the words “Aquí todos somos iguales,” which translates as “Here we are all equal.” It is one of the cruel ironies of Colombia’s conflict that only in death can poor people achieve a measure of equality with the country’s rich elites.

As I walked among the newest-looking headstones, I was immediately struck by the ages of those interred there. The majority of those buried over the previous few years had died in their teens and twenties, supporting claims made by locals that violence was the leading cause of death in Puerto Asís. I looked down at one headstone and read the inscription:

Luis Dario Coro
Born March 16, 1973
Died September 17, 1999

To walk past grave after grave of people who had died so young was unsettling.

That graveyard encapsulated the true tragedy of Colombia’s violence. The country’s impoverished youth were the ones who were doing both the killing and the dying. Even more tragically, most of those who had been killed did not die in combat. Most of the victims were neither armed nor engaged in acts of violence when they were killed. It all seemed so senseless.

Reprinted from BEYOND BOGOTÁ: Diary of a Drug War Journalist in Colombia by Garry Leech. Copyright © 2009 by Garry Leech. By permission of Beacon Press, www.beacon.org. For more information about the book visit its website: BeyondBogota.com.

Beyond Bogotá is available for purchase through the Beacon Press website, or purchase using the following links benefits NACLA: Amazon.com or Powell's Books.

Garry Leech is an independent journalist and editor of Colombia Journal. For the past eight years his work has primarily focused on the US war on drugs and Colombia's civil conflict. He is the author of several books including Crude Interventions: The United States, Oil and the New World (Dis)Order (Zed Books, 2006) and Killing Peace: Colombia's Conflict and the Failure of US Intervention (Inota, 2002). He also teaches international politics at Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia, Canada.



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