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The Battle for Putumayo

The Colombian department of Putumayo, located along the Ecuadoran and Peruvian borders, is at the heart of Colombia’s and the United States’ war on drugs. Some 50,000 to 60,000 acres of coca are grown in the province, nearly half of the total under cultivation in the entire country, making it the primary focus of Colombia’s counter-drug strategy, known as Plan Colombia, and its U.S. counterpart, the Andean Regional Initiative. The high concentrations of coca and the province’s international borders make it a strategic area of control for the various armed actors in Colombia. The battle for Putumayo has resulted in high rates of violence, human rights abuses, economic decline, environmental devastation, and recruitment by both guerrillas and paramilitaries.

Growth of Violence

A number of armed actors operate in Colombia, including the Colombian military, paramilitaries or United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), and two guerrilla groups--the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN)--of which the former is the most significant. These groups vie with one another for control of territory within southern Colombia and for the allegiance of the various villages throughout the country. Indigenous communities are caught in a vicious three-way competition for loyalty. As Luisa*, an indigenous community leader from Putumayo, describes the current situation: "There is persecution from the military, the guerrillas, and the paramilitaries. The situation is difficult. One day the army passes through, the next day it’s the guerrillas, and the following day it’s the paramilitaries."[1]

Murders, massacres, kidnappings, and the forced recruitment of child soldiers are all commonplace, as is the displacement of entire communities. In Colombia as a whole, the number of deaths attributed annually to the war’s political violence is between 3,500 and 5,000. The Colombian ministry of defense estimated that in 2001 the guerrillas and the paramilitaries had each murdered and massacred more than 1,000 civilians.[2] More than 16,000 people have been kidnapped in Colombia in the past five years, 1,734 within the first six months of 2002. Relatively few of these have occurred in Putumayo, however, because poor Indians do not make good targets for ransom demands.[3] Nevertheless, events like the unexplained paramilitary kidnapping of three Cofán Indians from Putumayo in August 2002 reveal the random and arbitrary nature of the violence. As another facet of the violence, many indigenous communities find themselves forced to work for the insurgents against their will. Human rights organization reports indicate that the FARC has ordered a number of communities to build strategic roadways and clear the jungle to make way for coca fields.[4] In addition to being subject to forced labor, children are often coerced into fighting for the insurgents, drawing condemnation of the FARC from the international community.[5]

The presence of multinational corporations in Putumayo seems to add to the confusion, as companies bring in their own security forces to defend their commercial interests. Even in the midst of the maelstrom, oil exploration continues in towns like Orito and Mocoa, and a new hydroelectric project is underway on the river Caqueta. The private security personnel associated with these projects are often indistinguishable from the other armed actors operating in the region. As Alberto*, another local indigenous community leader, describes the recurring scene: "Every time there is oil exploration, the Colombian army is present. What we don’t know is whether they come representing the state or the oil company. They appear the same. We don’t know where they come from, but each oil exploration group brings its own security forces."[6]

Killing to Make a Living

According to Putumayo indigenous leaders, 6,000 indigenous youth have joined the guerillas, and more have reportedly linked with paramilitaries. Why do they leave their communities to join insurgency movements that are increasingly labeled as terrorists for their indiscriminate killing of civilians, kidnapping, and participation in international drug trafficking? The answer from local leaders is unanimous: The guerrillas and their paramilitary adversaries offer economic opportunity in one of the poorest areas in South America. The paramilitaries offer 800,000 pesos (US $400) a month for those willing to carry a rifle. The alternatives are scarce, with few jobs or prospects for a viable economic future. The need to provide for one’s family is often the reason that indigenous youth become involved in the conflict. Luisa describes the thought process of a local youth, who is responsible for providing for his family: "How can I work, how can I live, how can I take care of their food? Okay, I’ll join this side, the army, because they are paying and this allows me to send money back home, to my brothers and to my grandmother."

Indigenous cultures appear to be fracturing under the heavy strain of the violence and poverty rampant throughout southern Colombia. "Culturally speaking, communities are beginning to break up," Luisa said."They can not maintain their integrity in the face of individuals who bring disorder."[7] Alberto points out that "there are individuals, without respect for their own authorities, who leave [to join the guerrillas]. There are villages that have already decided to expel those that go voluntarily."[8]

Culture is important for indigenous communities affected by a war that is not their own. Alejandro*, a resident of Putumayo, says the strength of education and culture can overcome the lure of the purse. "I have three young boys and two girls, and once the guerillas came and talked to them and said that they would pay them and support our family completely," Alejandro said. "Fortunately, I raised them well; they understand things and are educated, so they didn’t accept it."[9]

‘All Our Plants Were Dying’  

The violence and recruitment efforts of the armed groups represent only part of the daily nightmare faced by Putumayans. Unfortunately, the problems in Putumayo have only gotten worse with the start of the aerial herbicide spraying associated with Plan Colombia. The few economic opportunities that existed prior to the fumigation effort are being wiped out by the coca eradication campaign. Whatever its impact on the drug trade and insurgents, Putumayans see fumigation as a cause of severe economic, environmental, and health-related problems. They are not only concerned about the consequences of fumigation, but also about its intentions. Alberto contends: "The fumigations are done over small coca fields. The large, industrial-size fields that exist in Putumayo are not fumigated."

According to Alejandro, the economic damage has not been limited to the area where the spraying efforts have taken place. "The spraying has affected the entire area of upper Putumayo," he said. "Our tomatoes, beans, and our banana plants died, and our traditional medicine sources ran out completely. At first we didn’t know why all our plants were dying, but then we learned that this was a result of the fumigations in lower Putumayo, and that the effects were spreading to us. This is why all of our plants died."

José Soria, president of the Organization of Colombian Amazonian Indigenous Peoples (OPIAC), argued that the aerial herbicide spraying campaign has compounded local problems in two ways. "First, the misconception is that the herbicides are eradicating the illicit crops. That isn’t true," Soria said. "Instead of getting rid of the crops, the amount of crops is actually increasing. Because once certain areas have been eradicated, the planting is moved to other places. This causes an additional problem for us. Every time the crops get relocated, rainforest gets cleared and trees are cut down so that a new coca crop can be grown. [Secondly], our rivers are becoming contaminated, our trees are dying as a result of the herbicides and entire fields of legal crops, grown for consumption within the community, are dying."[10]

Running from the Nightmare

The combination of recruitment and violence, along with environmental damage, health consequences, and economic impacts of the war, the drug trade, and Plan Colombia have all contributed to one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. Over the past 40 years, between 1 million and 2 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes in Colombia. In the first three months of 2002, some 90,000 people were displaced throughout Colombia, roughly 1,000 every day.11 Over the past five years nearly 150,000 people have been displaced to and within the sparsely populated Colombian Amazon, not only from Putumayo, but also from Cauca, Caldas, and Chipto. Within Putumayo, the majority of displaced persons were from several southern communities including Puerto Asís, Puerto Caicedo, Villa Garzón, Orito, and the Guamuéz valley. Most of these people headed north to the Sibundoy Valley and Mocoa, to the neighboring provinces of Cauca and Huila, and to the capitol, Bogotá.

"People are being displaced because the insurgents are fighting for territorial space in our indigenous territories,"Alberto said. "Today, we have the presence of armed actors and the only escape that we as indigenous communities have is to move from the territory or else become victims." The need to escape stems from various insurgent groups’ threats toward communities that they believe sympathize with another side. The insurgents’ intention is to cleanse large swaths of territory and ensure that the remaining inhabitants are loyal to them.

Nevertheless, violence is not the only factor contributing to the refugee problem. "We think that this increase is due to Plan Colombia," Soria said. The fact that local residents blame Plan Colombia rather than guerrillas or paramilitaries indicates that the aerial spraying effort and the Colombia military’s attempt to retake Putumayo are contributing to the internal refugee crisis. "If Plan Colombia would have included a policy or strategy which addressed development for peasant and indigenous communities, it would not have resulted in such huge waves of displaced people," Soria said.

The forced displacement of thousands of people puts increased pressure on areas that are barely able to attend to their own needs. Alejandro described the plight of his community: "We are experiencing terrible problems in the Valley of Sibundoy, because many displaced indigenous families come to our community, and we have no way at all of helping them."

Looking for Another Way

The basic indigenous criticism of the drug control and war strategies used by the Colombia government and the United States is that they fail to address the clear link between poverty, drugs, and growth of the insurgents. Instead of improving the lives of local inhabitants so they are less inclined to join the insurgents, Plan Colombia has tried to cut off the insurgents’ source of income and ability to offer salaries to potential recruits. Soria said this tactic does not respond to root causes of indigenous people’s willingness to accept recruitment. "The money from Plan Colombia does not create any employment opportunities for our people," he argued. "Instead it is used to invest in the military to combat drug trafficking and the guerillas. There is no social investment whatsoever which would help to improve the situation and quality of life of the indigenous communities.

"We have been working on something with the government called manual eradication, because we have told them that we do not want forced eradication. The reason that we would prefer this is that, first of all, our community members would prefer a method that allows for a gradual removal of illicit crops. Secondly, we feel that there needs to be some type of counterpart to the eradication, a social investment so that people can continue to live. Otherwise, we are going to have serious problems. The problem with forced eradication of coca crops is that this is taking away from one day to the next a source of income for many families, These people are fieldworkers who live in far-off regions where they have no access to education or health services. This is their only means of survival."

A number of agreements have been reached between the Colombia government and various Putumayo communities in regard to manual eradication. "One of the biggest agreements is the program Raíz por Raíz (Root by Root), a mutual project for the preservation of the indigenous people in Putumayo," Alberto said. "This accord has indirectly benefited 36,000 indigenous people including 6,700 families from the middle and lower parts of Putumayo because the negotiation was conducted directly with the indigenous communities that had illicit crops in their territories. We want to comply with this process of converting the indigenous economy of Putumayo."

Agreements such as Raíz por Raíz represent one alternative to the status quo. Additional solutions are needed to offset the devastation the Colombian conflict has brought to indigenous communities, many of which were previously isolated from the world. As Soria warned, "I believe that a huge number of Amazonian cultures, if they are not prepared, will simply disappear." Soria’s prediction may indeed be true, but the indigenous people of Putumayo are not prepared to die without a fight. As Alberto warns, "We will continue fighting for our right to live in the Amazon because in reality we have no where else to go."

*Name has been changed.

1. Interview with "Luisa" conducted on June 28, 2002, at a conference in Quito, Ecuador. Name has been changed to protect the identity of the person interviewed.

2. Scott Wilson, "Fewer Massacres in Colombia But More Deaths," Washington Post, June 24, 2002, P A15

3. Fundación Pais Libre, 2002.

4. Asociacion Latinoamericana para los Derechos Humanos, August 2002. 5. Diario Hoy, "FARC son investigades por recultar a menores," April 6, 2001, P 12A.

6. Interview with "Alberto" conducted on June 28, 2002 at Foro Internacional; Impactos de las Fumigaciones Sobre los Cultivos Tipificados como "Ilícitos" y el Conflicto Armado: Respuestas de los Pueblos Indígenas Amazónicos, en Áreas de Frontera. Name has been changed to protect the identity of the person interviewed

7. Statement given during a presentation at Quito conference, June 27, 2002, Quito, Ecuador.

8. Ibid.

9. Interview with "Alejandro" conducted on June 28, 2002, at Quito conference. Name has been changed to protect the identity of the person interviewed

10. Interview with José Soria conducted on June 27, 2002, at a Quito conference.


Kyle Richardson, a former Fulbright Scholar in Ecuador, is currently studying international relations and international economics at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

References and further reading

Asociacion Latinoamericana para los Derechos Humanos (ALDHU). (2002, Aug). La Atrocidad de la Guerra Afecta a Pueblos Indígenas Amazonicos.

Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento (CODHES). (2002, May 9). Codees Informa, Boletín 41: Mas de 90,000 desplazados en el primer trimestre de 2002. El destierro no se detiene, Bogotá: CODHES.ttp://

Fundación Pais Libre. (2002). Total Secuestros en Colombia 1997-2002.


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