In the wake of a FARC attack on the Pacific island of Gorgona, Colombian officials and tourism operators have rung the alarm over the presence of guerrilla and drug trafficking groups in natural parks across the country.
According to reports, various Colombian natural parks throughout the country have been the shelter for a range of organized criminal groups, which use preserves’ favorable geographical conditions to their advantage.
This view was reinforced by the recent attack of FARC militants on the island of Gorgona, one of the world’s best preserved natural parks and one of the most often visited such sanctuaries in Colombia.
According to the government, fighters from the 29th front of the FARC approached by boat in the early hours of Saturday morning and crossed the island before attacking the police station with machine guns and “tatuco” home-made projectiles. One officer was fatally wounded and six others were hospitalized.
Relatively small in size and of no strategic importance, the Gorgona natural park is unlikely to serve as refuge for criminal groups. However, larger and less easily accessible preserves in different areas of the country have experienced constant presence of FARC and ELN guerrillas, as well as that of drug-traffickers and other criminal gangs.
In fact, one of such parks served as a point of departure for the FARC fighters headed towards the island. As reported by admiral Pablo Romero, the guerrillas led by alias “Cristian” left the mainland through the mouth of the Sanquianga river in the natural park of the same name. Romero explained that the extensive and isolated nature reserves around the Pacific coast serve armed groups as ideal hideaways and transportation ports for drug-trafficking.
Natural parks affected
A source close to the military intelligence told El Pais newspaper that in the Sanquianga Natural Park station three different FARC fronts (number 60, 29 and 8) which have been increasing their presence due to cocaine cultivation and illegal mining opportunities.
Drug trafficking organizations such as “Urabeños” and “Rastrojos” also have their posts inside preserves in the states of Norte de Santander, Bolivar and La Guajira. According to the director of the National Parks Administration, Julia Miranda, the organization faces serious public order crisis in various parks across the country.
“In Paramillo we have an increased guerrilla presence and lots of minefields; Los Farallones de Cali has a very serious problem with illegal mining and illegal armed forces. Las Hermosas, Nukak, La Macarena, Tinigua, Picachos, La Paya and Catatumbo are all parks where it is extremely hard for us to do our job.” said Miranda.
According to the Bogota-based Los Andes University, “conservation areas and especially national parks have always been part of the landscape of the armed conflict in Colombia.”
“It’s in various nature preserves that a great share of the kidnapped were detained, including the famous case of Ingrid Betancourt held in Caño Cristales (La Macarena). In Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta, ELN held in custody for a hundred days eight foreign tourists in 2003. Similar events have taken place in various indigenous territories, contested between paramilitaries and guerrillas,” reads a university study published earlier this year.
“Natural parks have played a role in social aspects of the armed conflict. Inside nature preserves, there happen illegal extraction of coltan and cultivation of illicit crops. Moreover, military camps of various guerrilla groups can be found,” insists the study.
An army official interviewed by El Pais emphasized the importance of natural parks in the Colombian war such as the Las Hermosas sanctuary where chief commander of FARC Alfonso Cano had been in hiding for decades. Similarly, La Macarena park in the Meta state was the stomping ground of another high-ranking FARC member “Mono Jojoy”, while serving as guerrilla’s prison where kidnapped members of the military and the police were detained. La Macarena and el Paramillo are also the two natural parks laden with anti-personnel mines set up by FARC.
According to the annual UN report on illicit crops, in 2013, 17 of 58 natural parks in Colombia were home to coca plantations. The area of coca cultivation inside the nature preserves is estimated as 3.791 hectares, which represents 8% of the total land used for coca plantations in the country. The parks affected the most by coca growing are those located in the states of Meta and Guaviare.
The report indicated that coca cultivation on territories denominated as national parks has risen by up to 12% over the past couple of years.
Julia Miranda explained that the attack by FARC on the police station in Gorgona will inevitably result in decreased tourist activity on the island. She bemoaned that years of work that helped establishing the Gorgona Natural Park as a site of scientific research and as a tourist hotspot for both foreigners and Colombians are now lost.
“Who will want to come and spend time at the island knowing that their life can be put in danger. We need heightened presence of security forces in order to avoid similar situations in the future” said Miranda.
It was announced earlier this week that the country’s biggest tourism operator Aviatur is terminating its concession to promote tourism on the island, leaving the national park without an operator at the start of the holiday season.
- Los parques naturales de Colombia están a merced de los grupos violentos (El Pais)
- Escenarios naturales del conflicto armado en Colombia (Universidad de los Andes)