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Colombia: Not Yet There

Spring 2009 In Situ

Colombia: Not Yet There

colombiaA violent underbelly belies significant improvements in Colombian stability. Ran Goel reports from Uribia, Colombia

A pile of unhappy goats lies at the entrance to Uribia. Bound at the limbs, stacked atop each other, their resigned bleats compete with the shrieks of their brethren being slaughtered a little further down the dusty road. Uribia is the largest settlement in upper Guajira, an arid peninsula that lunges into the Caribbean from Colombia to form the northernmost reaches of the green continent. With the Atlantic Ocean to its north, the

Venezuelan border to its east and sparse central government presence, the region is a smuggler’s fantasy. The indigenous Wayúu clan, with their intimate knowledge of the inhospitable terrain and dual Colombian-Venezuelan citizenship, have held a monopoly on the movement of goods in Guajira since colonial times, when they fought off the Spanish with smuggled European horses and arms. But their grip on these lucrative transit routes is now being threatened, and along with them an ancestral way of life.

Nothing appears amiss in Uribia at first glance. The dry heat enforces a laid-back atmosphere. A chatty tourism officer patrols the main square, the site of an annual Wayúu culture festival. Kiosks selling cellular phone minutes run a brisk trade. The tip of the smuggling iceberg only begins to emerge at one of the town’s makeshift gas stations comprised of shacks encircled by blue drums. The cheap gasoline – water is far more valuable here – nods at the Venezuelan border just beyond the mirages in the distance. The battle over the trade in such gasoline, other consumer goods and illicit drugs is now increasingly spilling over into the lives of innocents.

In January, several dozen Wayúu from the Uribia area were forced to flee across the border to Venezuela. Their homes had been burned down and their leaders threatened with assassination after they had attempted to resist “Pablo,” the region’s reigning smuggling kingpin. “Pablo” appears to be consolidating his control over smuggling in the area. Late last year, a trafficker based out of Cabo de la Vela – a hammock-strewn, picturesque village on the coast several hours by four-wheel drive from Uribia – was gunned down. A bloody vendetta has been launched against his allies throughout Guajira. There has been a spate of disappearances and targeted killings, and legitimate businesses are being subject to extortion. The threat of violence has displaced an estimated 50,000 Guajirans from their traditional lands.

This unfolding tragedy underscores the fragility of the remarkable security improvements in Colombia over the last few years. On the one hand, the government has buttressed its military presence in Guajira. Along the road to Uribia from the regional capital, Riohacha, fresh-faced conscripts wielding Israeli Galil assault rifles brave the heat to inspect passing vehicles at the myriad military checkpoints every few kilometres. This army presence has drastically undercut guerrilla activity in the area. The twisted wreckage of a coal train visible from the road, the handiwork of a FARC operation, is a testament to different times. But the guerrillas are only part of the problem. The Colombian conflict has long been fuelled less by ideology than by narcotrafficking, kidnapping and extortion.

The armed gangs tormenting Guajira are mostly comprised of former paramilitaries who were ostensibly disarmed from 2005 through President Uribe’s controversial demobilization process. The paramilitary groups had been formed by citizens in the 1980s to defend against guerrillas in rural Colombia. Before very long, many of the groups became complicit in extensive narco-trafficking, assassinations of journalists and union leaders, mass displacement and massacres. While many paramilitaries reintegrated into civilian life through the demobilization process, some splinter groups refused to disarm, while others have entered organized crime networks. With a slowing economy and cocaine production at peak levels, the allure of crime shines bright. Perhaps to an even greater extent than the guerrillas and paramilitaries that preceded them, these new armed groups have devastated the lives of ordinary Guajirans. Their emergence suggests that this almost half-century long conflict goes not like a goat to the slaughter.

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Ran Goel is an attorney at an international law firm in New York City. He has published on energy issues, the Middle East and sustainable investment, and has worked and travelled extensively in Colombia.

(Photograph: Ran Goel)
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