Colombian authorities are combating the lowest echelons of the international drug trade, cocaine production. Nariño is one of the long-neglected areas where this is rife.
Like the presidential palace in Bogota, the province is called after Antonio Nariño (1765 – 1825), one of the aristocrats that successfully led Colombia’s attempt to oust Spain.
Nariño is located in Colombia’s southwest, bordering the Pacific Ocean in the west and the Ecuadorean border in the south.
Narco rule instead of rule of law
With the exception of the area close to the Pan-american Highway, the province has long been neglected and in some rural areas even abandoned by the State.
This has made it prime territory for both guerrilla groups and drug traffickers who have been vying for control in the region for decades.
Before the FARC’s demobilization and a ceasefire with the ELN earlier this year, the two groups would regularly clash with each other over control over the coca-rich area and its many drug trafficking routes.
Active illegal armed groups in Nariño
- Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC)
- Guerrillas Unidas del Pacifico (ex-FARC)
- Gente del Orden (ex-FARC)
There has been violence between two dissident FARC groups active in Tumaco, one of the few port towns on Colombia’s Pacific coast.
With 43,000 hectares of coca, Nariño’s Pacific region produces almost 30% of Colombia’s coca. More than half of this coca comes from the coastal municipality of Tumaco.
The area first came in the picture at the very beginning of “Plan Colombia,” an aggressive US-led counter-narcotics strategy that was countered by the Norte del Valle Cartel.
The Cali-based drug cartel moved coca growing operations from the neighboring Peru to the lawless area around Tumaco.
The follow-up strategy of Plan Colombia, “Plan Patriota,” failed to show result as the government failed to assume state authority in the long-neglected region protected by guerrillas.
Coca cultivation has since reached levels unprecedented in the history of drug trafficking.
Fighting crime where there is no law
Nariño, and Tumaco in particular, have been a priority region in the peace process that came into effect in 2016 after a peace deal with the FARC, the former guerrilla group that used to control much of Nariño.
After an economic crisis spurred by dropping commodity prices and ahead of the deal, many farmers increased their coca production, possibly in the hope they could take part in a crop substitution program.
Many claim the farmers have no choice but to grow coca as a lack of basic infrastructure makes participating in Colombia’s legal economy impossible.
Coca cultivation in Nariño
Tumaco homicide rate
The crop substitution program, which includes rural investment and government subsidies, is opposed by the illegal armed groups and hardly coordinated with the security forces.
This has led to clashes in largely Afro-Colombian communities where the military forcibly eradicated crops after civilian authorities vowed crop substitution.
The demobilization of the FARC and the formation of two rival dissident factions, has made the locals’ situation even more precarious.
The recent return of violence has collapsed the local economy, according to the local Chamber of Commerce, which reported a 33% drop in Tumaco’s GDP in the first three quarters of the year compared to 2016.
Tumaco is a very remote area not only of from center of the country but from all economic investment the national government makes. You could see this situation coming, because the coca, the drug trafficking and all the evils that assault the region have an impact on the entire community, especially in a region where tourism is a strong driver.
Tumaco Chamber of Commerce director Jaime Bedoya
Until the locals find a way to take part in Colombia’s legal economy, the Nariño farmers will continue to find themselves in between the drug traffickers and the authorities.