An ominous new massacre in Colombia

Isabel Peñaranda and Gerald Bermudez report on the police shooting of protesting coca growers, which exposes the government's weak commitment to lasting peace.

Tending to the wounded victims of state violence in TumacoTending to the wounded victims of state violence in Tumaco

A MASSACRE of unarmed civilians in southern Colombia last week is jeopardizing the implementation of a peace process to end the country's long civil war--and raising questions about whether that's what some government officials in Colombia and the U.S. really want.

In one of the worst state-perpetrated massacres in recent years, anti-narcotics police killed at least six civilians and wounded approximately 50 more in the southern state of Nariño on October 5. The killing has put into question the government's vision of "post-conflict" almost a year after it signed the Havana Peace agreements with the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC).

In the municipality of Tumaco, near the border with Ecuador, coca growers had gathered to create a "humanitarian barrier" to protect their coca crops from forceful eradication by the anti-narcotics police and the army.

Videos show dozens of unarmed civilians standing in a forested area, demanding the implementation of the National Program for Integral Substitution of Illicit Crops--part of the fourth point of the Havana Peace Agreements--when rapid gunfire broke out. Other videos show civilians attempting to reach the wounded--photographs reveal they were shot.

The National Police and army stated in a press release that they were responding to five cylinder bombs thrown by a dissident branch of the FARC at the crowd, which was followed by indiscriminate fire against the protesters and armed forces alike.

However, a preliminary report by the Ombudsman's Office attributed responsibility to the anti-narcotics police, saying there was no evidence of the presence of guerilla forces. Furthermore, evidence has since emerged that the police attempted to alter the scene of the massacre, and even shot at a verification mission that included government agents and members of the United Nations and different NGOs.

Even dissident guerrillas who oppose the agreement with the government and operate in the region released a video stating they were not in the area where the massacre took place.

Amidst mounting evidence against the police, four officers were "temporarily suspended." Even the Vice President and former commander of the National Police, Óscar Naranjo, affirmed that the events called for a transformation of the police force.

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AS MORE information emerges, it has become clear that the government's first response--as well as the mainstream media's--was highly inaccurate and unethical.

The day after the massacre, President Juan Manuel Santos claimed that the armed forces "do not fire against civilians" and repeated the Defense Ministry's version of events by talking of the rise in criminal bands, dissidents and narco-traffickers in the region. Santos concluded by declaring, "We will not allow any criminal organization to frustrate a policy which must be successful."

The mainstream media anticipated his speech with headlines that blamed dissident rebels for what they call an armed confrontation.

Less than a month prior to this massacre, William Brownfield, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, suggested in a hearing at the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control that the rules of military engagement with civilians were too lax. Brownfield said that "in 2016, 675 attempted eradication operations were canceled in the field due to restrictive rules of engagement that prevented security forces from engaging protesters."

These statements implicate both governments in the Tumaco massacre and expose a continuation of the war mentality that is undermining attempts to transition away from the armed conflict.

The recent history of Tumaco exposes some of the fundamental problems with the government's approach towards the implementation of the peace agreements.

A historically Afro-Colombian region with strong Indigenous presence, Tumaco also constitutes an important port on the Pacific coast. However, little of the wealth has remained in the region, breeding poverty, corruption and violence. Tumaco has been torn by paramilitary, FARC and narco-trafficking cartel violence and has one of the highest homicide rates in the country.

Starting in 2002, when aerial glyphosate fumigations in the southern Amazon region radically reduced crops in the historic states for coca production, Nariño reported a sudden rise. By 2005, it was the department with the most hectares in coca, facilitated by its Pacific coastline which the state has historically had trouble controlling, and which allows export of cocaine by sea.

For many of the growers, coca was one of the few economically viable products in a region with deep structural poverty and a historic lack of state presence, other than in the form of military intervention.

After a series of strikes in March and April, the government signed collective voluntary substitution agreements with two communities, and individual agreements with 1,800 families. Despite this, the government and Ministry of Defense continue to follow an intensive militarized strategy of forceful eradication, excluding other families in the same region.

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ACCORDING TO the Association of Communal Action Boards of the Rivers Mira, Nulpe and Mataje (Asominuma), which represents the almost 8,000 families of the area, the "humanitarian barrier" protest was intended to demand access to the substitution program and demand its implementation.

In other words, coca growers in Nariño were demanding that the Colombian government, whose presence in the region has long been limited to repression from the army and police, allow people in the region to participate in a state program that was being implemented elsewhere, and to which they had a right.

Instead, the government responded with a war mentality, looking at the protesters as enemies to be murdered and then criminalized. The problem is not limited to Tumaco alone. Between January and June of this year, there have been over 107 confrontations over forceful eradication, many of which have resulted in the deaths and wounding of civilians.

According to Pedro Arenas, director of the Observatory for Crops and Cultivators Declared Illicit (OCCDI GLOBAL), "We see with preoccupation cases of judicialization of community leaders...whose only crime is to be the head of community boards where there are confrontations, direct threats to peasant leaders, and the homicide of organization leaders involved in crop substitution."

Even the section of the FARC participating in the Commission for the Monitoring of the Implementation of the Agreements (Csivi), a joint body which also includes high government officials, declared on Tuesday that the government has "systematically failed to implement the different components of the National Plan for Integral Substitution."

This situation establishes a dangerous precedent for the implementation of the agreements between the government and the FARC.

As the government continues to create a state of exception in certain territories where war continues, it undermines the entire illicit crop substitution strategy, deepens the historic mistrust that marginalized communities have of the state and gives credence to the FARC dissidents' strategy of continuing their armed control of these regions.

As often happens in the U.S., the temporary suspension of the policemen involved in the massacre will be used to frame the incident as a mistake of a few "rotten apples." However, there is little doubt about the complicity of the Colombian and U.S. government in this massacre, and in the continuation of the armed conflict in violation of the peace agreements.