The following article is one of four reports based on Vanda Felbab-Brown’s fieldwork in different parts of Colombia in January 2011. Here she reviews security in Nariño. Read also about her walk in the comunas of Medellín and her trip to the Colombia-Venezuela border, where smuggling is rampant; and her overview of the Santos government’s national security strategy.

Compared to the early 2000s, the overall security situation in Colombia has improved dramatically. The leftist guerrilla movement – the FARC – has been substantially weakened to about 9000 fighters. Pushed away from major roads, population centers, and its former strongholds, it no longer poses the strategic threat it did a decade ago. The paramilitary groups of the 1990s, that carried out massacres and displaced hundreds of thousands of Colombians from their land, were demobilized. Murders, massacres, and kidnappings have declined.

But these national achievements do not reflect the reality everywhere in Colombia. Descendents of the paramilitary groups whom the government of Colombia calls bandas criminales have emerged, regrouped, and, now numbering close to 10,000 combatants, menace many communities, continually engaging in murders and intimidation. Moreover, despite many important hits against the FARC leadership, the guerrilla movement is far from finished off.

In the southern province of Nariño bordering Ecuador, the security situation today is far worse than it had been three years ago. Bombs have been exploding in its capital Pasto, and its border with the Putumayo province has seen much violent activity by the FARC. To relieve pressure on its current leader Alfonso Cano, the FARC has been pulling its various fronts into Nariño to conduct major combat operations there. The relocation of coca to Nariño has also attracted the bandas criminales. Intense aerial spraying in the early 2000s in the neighboring Putumayo greatly reduced coca cultivation there, but pushed it to new areas of Colombia, like Nariño. Several of the bandas, including Aguilas Negras, Organización Nueva Generación, and Los Rastrojos, fight each other and the FARC for control of Nariño coca fields and the cocaine trade that leaves from its shores.

When I recently took a drive from Pasto to Nariño’s southern port of Tumaco – repeating research trip I did three years ago – many of my local contacts tried to warn me off, emphasizing that the dangers were far worse than in 2008. And when we ended up being on the road late into the night, my driver was none too comfortable. Tumaco is not only a major drug hub with an intense murder rate, terrified Afro-Colombian community representatives subject to intimidation and massacres on continuing basis, and representatives of Mexican drug trafficking organizations there arranging for purchasing of cocaine from Colombian suppliers, but also a place with a strong penetration by the bandas criminales that control various illegal and informal economies, down to the street retail of cell phone charge cards.

The municipality of Tumaco is also one of the most intense coca cultivation sites in Colombia today. Although subject to continuing and intense aerial spraying and frequent violence from both the leftist guerrillas and the bandas criminales, Nariño’s cocaleros are too poor and isolated in the jungles of the Pacific coast to have other alternatives. Unemployment in Nariño runs around twenty percent, and many of its cocaleros migrated to the department from other areas which were subject to coca eradication by the government and forced displacement by the armed and criminal groups earlier in the decade.

Moreover, the so-called zero-coca policy of the Colombian government in Bogota hampers an effective counternarcotics response that would facilitate weaning the farmers off their dependence on coca. A carryover from the years of President Álvaro Uribe, the zero-coca policy conditions any government and frequently USAID development assistance on a community eradicating all of its coca first, before qualifying for any assistance. The problems with this policy are manifold, frequently making it not only ineffective, but also counterproductive. Most significantly, eradication, including self-eradication of coca, destroys the coca plants overnight, but the development of legal economic production often takes many years. A host of structural drivers of illicit crop cultivation need to be overcome before legal production can take off: roads over very difficult terrain, other infrastructure, and processing facilities need to be built and assured value-added chains need to be developed. Yet these structural drivers are rarely fully addressed. Frequently, economic assistance trickles in slowly, in a scattered way, and with deeply inadequate resources. Under some of its programs– whether linked to reducing coca or not – the government checks its accomplished box of having provided assistance and linked a community to the government after simply disbursing the one item the community wants most – be it a power generator, a school, or a clinic. But although such a handout may improve the life in the community, it does not change its economic and social patterns and relieve marginalization, poverty, and coca cultivation or other patterns of illegality and insecurity.

Meanwhile, as a result of having to eradicate all coca prior to receiving any assistance, income in many of the former coca communities often plummets 80% from their already poverty-level income. In the lowlands of Tumaco where fishing provides protein – assuming that the bandas criminales don’t steal the fishermen’s catch, as they have recently taken to doing without much interest from local police who find chasing drug traffickers far more likely to secure rewards — the drop in income does not necessarily threaten food security. But in Nariño’s Andes and elsewhere in Colombia, the (self-)eradication of coca frequently severely restricts meat intake to as infrequently as once a month. The government’s food security program – handing out a few chickens and teaching farmers to grow plantains and rice – is often deeply inadequate. Consequently, the community sours on the project and the whole idea of alternative development. In Putumayo, for example, the major battleground of eradication and counternarcotics efforts in the 1990s and early 2000s, a generational shift has taken place. The older cocaleros organized to oppose eradication and demand alternative development. But many of the younger ones have seen how legal livelihoods did not materialize on the heels of eradication: they know only coca and how to evade and adapt to eradication drives. They show far less interest in alternative development and connection with the state.

For those cocaleros who have not experienced the failed promises of legal livelihoods frequently enough to give up on the state and lose interest in alternative development, the zero-coca policy is a major obstacle to breaking out of the bond of illegality and insecurity. When even one member of a community returns to coca cultivation, the entire community becomes disqualified from receiving government assistance. This is the case even if the cocaleros were forced to grow coca by the armed groups against which the government has been unable to protect them. Sometimes, the outcome of eradication without meaningful economic assistance is tacit support by the cocaleros for the armed groups, like the FARC. They are brutal and their ideology no longer resonates, but they fight against eradication and preserve the cocaleros’ livelihoods.

Colombian government officials in Bogotá frequently dismiss questions about the cocaleros’ livelihoods by arguing that with enough pressure, “the cocaleros will move and shift to something else, like working in their uncle’s auto shop.” The problem is of course the lack of uncles with autoshops and employment opportunities. Many of the cocaleros do move, but they take coca with them. At least to some extent, the government in Bogotá is aware of the dangers of eradication without immediate, effective, and sufficient economic assistance for those dependent on coca cultivation for basic livelihoods. In Macarena– the showcase of Colombia’s counterinsurgency centered on a multifaceted state presence and linking the population to the state, where foreign visitors are frequently taken on tours- the zero-coca does not apply.

Nor do the belligerent groups and bandas criminales go bankrupt as a result of eradication when spraying or manual eradication wipes out local coca fields. They just switch to extorting the community for profits from other local enterprises, be it extorting legal businesses or stealing the fishermen’s catch.

The government of the department of Nariño tries to do it best under the zero-coca national policy to carry out at least some alternative livelihoods projects for its many cocaleros. Its project in the highlands has finally seen the disbursement of economic aid from the European Union. In the Tumaco’s coca areas, it runs another project for about 2000 Afro-Colombian families, patching money for coffee plantation rehabilitation and a road from USAID, receiving some money from the Colombian government, and asking the private sector for money for electrification. But although its officials have some ideas about how to bring about value-added chains and perhaps establish a fruit processing plant, they lack the funds. They also have had to turn down several other communities that volunteered to eradicate to qualify for alternative livelihoods because the Nariño government does not have the money. Meanwhile, after almost two years of being part of the project and eradicating close to 900 hectares of coca, the former, but still very poor cocaleros in Tumaco are growing impatient and anxious. Just when will the legal jobs come in and their incomes pick up at least a little bit again?  Even the hard-working officials dread that some of the cocaleros will go back to growing illicit crops and violate the zero coca policy;  and Bogotá will cut them off from all money and their pain-staking effort will fall apart.

The government of President Santos has preserved the effective policies of his predecessor, but also brought new ideas. It is time that it abandons the counterproductive zero-coca policy and puts action behind its words of social and economic development. After all, the most effective alternative livelihoods effort, the only one that succeeded in eliminating illicit crop cultivation on a country-wide level – in Thailand – experimented with and rejected a policy similar to zero-coca. Instead, it implemented gradual eradication of poppy as economic development was taking place and legal livelihoods were becoming available in a community. A community may well have eradicated some of its poppy at the beginning to demonstrate commitment, but eradication to zero was not demanded because it was clear that legal income could not be generated that fast. As more income, jobs, and rural development efforts were coming in to a community, more illicit crops were eradicated in the area. Colombia is increasingly offering itself to the world as a model for counternarcotics, counterinsurgency, anti-urban crime policy, and demobilization efforts. Perhaps it could also learn from its own history and from Thailand how to improve and consolidate its accomplishments.