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Sex, drink, and the coca boomtown blues

The drugs trade brings the violence of the old wild west to Colombia's towns

Toby Muse in Llorente
The Guardian
This article as it first appeared online.

Five years ago Llorente was a quiet farming community of fewer than 4,000 people dealing mainly in cattle, African palm and fruits; an impoverished place indistinguishable from hundreds of others scattered across the Andes. But a surge in the production of coca, the raw material used in the manufacture of cocaine, in the surrounding countryside has turned the town into one of Colombia's most notorious marketplaces for farmers to sell to drug traffickers. Gone is the rural tranquillity. In its place is a loud, violent settlement awash with money where gold chains, cocaine, guns, and alcohol are abundant.

When Llorente became an outlaw town it gave up the protection of the law. In the absence of any authority, it is ruled by drug traffickers and the gun, giving the town a constant feeling of wild west chaos.

Locals whisper of the Marxist guerrilla militia members who keep watch here. Violence is endemic. Shots ring out throughout one Saturday night, and Sunday morning brings two dead bodies left alongside the road. The police mainly stay in their bunker-like station, leaving the job of patrolling to the army, who occasionally pass through in tanks.

But it is the hundreds of prostitutes, some of whom chartered buses to make it down here, who are the most visible sign of the town's new wealth.

Adriana Suarez, an amiable 23-year-old, has, like the rest of this town tucked away in south-western Colombia's flatlands, tied her fortunes to the cocaine industry, the largest in the world. She sits easily at the bar, fanning herself under the spinning, tatty disco ball. Nearby five prostitutes sit chatting, bored in the humid heat.

"I came here a month ago because a friend told me I could make a lot of money here with the coca farmers," says Ms Suarez, who is saving money to support her six-year-old daughter who lives with her parents back home in western Colombia. "It's hard to be away from my daughter, but I was never going to bring her somewhere so violent," she says.

Natives of Llorente are amazed by the town's growth. "This town used to be so quiet, then people starting making money here and soon so many people were turning up," says Lucia in her bakery. She asked that her second name not be used for fear of reprisals. "Of course it's good that there's more money but people don't know how to spend it, it all goes on prostitutes and alcohol."

One result of the farmers switching to coca, she adds, is that prices for food have been driven up. Llorente shows the central role coca plays in Colombia's rural economy but also serves as a warning of the limits of the government's drug eradication programme.

As Plan Colombia, the multibillion-dollar US-Colombian anti-drug plan, has heavily fumigated coca crops in south and central Colombia, coca production has dispersed, in particular to the south-west. In 1999 Colombia's south-west province of Nariño, which contains Llorente, accounted for less than 3% of coca crops. By last year Nariño was the second largest producer, providing nearly 20% of total output.

With its ample crops, hundreds of cocaine laboratories and Pacific Ocean port, the province has become, according to the UN, the "most important illicit drug production centre in Colombia".

While government figures show this shift in production, what has been less documented is the migration of thousands of people leaving zones where coca has been eradicated for the new boomtowns. Llorente locals talk of an influx of agricultural consultants, of the increase in salesmen and doctors.

One such person is Luis Burbano. He moved here to open an electrical goods store. While in other farming communities across Colombia his wares are an expensive rarity, Mr Burbano is selling out of stereos, DVD players and huge television sets. "It's common here for people to live in shacks, but inside you'll find the latest electrical goods," he says.

"This town has been forgotten by the government, it should be helped," Mr Burbano adds. "The government must help these farmers to change to other crops instead of just destroying the coca crops because when the coca goes this town will simply die."

One of Llorente's doctors, Freddy Mejia, has to attend to the town's new problems. "There's a lot of sexually transmitted diseases here which came with the prostitutes, and alcoholism is pretty common," says Dr Mejia, who himself moved from another coca zone to work in Llorente. "Every weekend when everyone gets drunk I have to deal with machete attacks and shootings," he says, but adds. "It's not much better for the rest of the week, now I think of it."

Unfortunately for Ms Suarez, the action tonight is not in the brothel but at the cockfight. In a wooden barn, cages hold the chickens waiting to fight. Men in baseball caps and gold jewellery casually bet £500 a fight. During the evening one man will laughingly pull up his T-shirt to show a 9mm pistol tucked into his belt. Another enters with a girlfriend and is greeted by all with handshakes and hugs as "little godfather".

Even as the money continues to swirl around, Llorente's future is already set. Colombia is littered with virtual ghost towns that once were boomtowns but withered away when the government began eradicating their coca.

The government has noticed the shift in coca production to this province and has fumigated more coca here than anywhere else. Locals in Llorente say that since coca became its number one industry there have always been ups and downs. But now the slow patches are longer and more frequent.

Ms Suarez is getting out. "People get killed here all the time, and you just have to learn to not ask why they were killed because they'll kill you too," she says. "I don't want to live in a place where I can get killed for nothing."

She's leaving for the capital. As she walks off down the street the drinking continues and farmers stagger back and forth, grasping their bottles of rum.

Remote Colombian isle is a shark haven

Hammerheads by the hundreds cruise the sea around protected Malpelo Island, where 60 bird species live.

Toby Muse, Associated Press Writer
Los Angeles Times
This article as it first appeared online.

MALPELO ISLAND, Colombia — With lethargic grace, the hammerhead shark slices through the blue gloom. It flicks its T-shaped head this way and that, surveying its underwater domain with the surety of knowing that the food chain comes to an abrupt end in its mouth.

The shark cruises 20 feet beneath me as I snorkel through the turbulent waters surrounding the Pacific islet of Malpelo, a Colombian wildlife sanctuary and gem for scuba divers.

"Widely recognized as one of the top diving sites in the world, due to the presence of steep walls and caves of outstanding natural beauty," the United Nations said in declaring Malpelo a World Heritage site this year in an effort to safeguard its thriving ecosystem.

The rocky islet lies 320 miles across empty ocean from Colombia's Pacific coast. Rising vertically out of the water, it reaches a height of 1,230 feet, while underwater it plunges more than two miles to the ocean bottom.

In truth, the term "island" may be too generous for a rock of less than a square mile. With powerful waves smashing the shore and the barren face picked clean of vegetation by legions of crabs, it's not surprising that some unknown sailor nicknamed it "Malveolus," Latin for inhospitable.

The first recorded reference to the island came from the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Cieza de Leon, who noted in 1542 that sailors called the rock Malpelo. In search of gold and colonies, Cieza de Leon saw little reason to visit the forbidding island.

These days, ornithologists delight in the island, which is home to 60 species of birds, including permanent residents and those who rest on it during continent-hopping migrations.

The 25,000-strong colony of Nazca boobies is the prize for bird-watchers. With black faces and black-tipped wings offsetting their snow-white bodies, the seagull-size birds virtually blanket the island, fearless of the few humans allowed to traipse through their home.

But Malpelo's star attraction is offshore -- the more than 600 hammerhead sharks and thousands of silky sharks that circle the rock.

As I sat on the side of a small launch preparing to plunge in with snorkel for a quick dip with the sharks, I tried to focus on the experts' vigorous rejection of the popular mythology that places the hammerhead in the fearsome category of man-eating sharks.

The scalloped hammerhead that owns the waters of Malpelo, and can grow 14 feet long, prefers to snack on small fish.

"It's a very timid shark, it can easily be scared of divers," said Sandra Bessudo, who runs the private Malpelo Foundation and has been diving around the island for 17 years.

The chances of a shark attack, let alone a fatal one, are tiny, I was reminded by George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File, based at the University of Florida.

Over the past 46 years you were twice as likely to be struck by lightning than be the victim of a shark attack, according to Burgess' group. That's little comfort to someone like me, for whom the man-eating mythology chews reason to pieces.

With a final whispered, "This is the stupidest thing I've ever done," I gingerly slid into waters where hundreds of multicolored fish swam. Manta rays and dolphins passed regularly.

Within seconds I spotted my first shark 20 feet below. It cruised along the island's underwater rock face where small fish hover and sea urchins wave in the currents.

Although tourists are not permitted on the island itself, people can enjoy the waters just offshore. About 600 visited last year, the Malpelo Foundation says.

Last year, Colombia's government expanded the zone around the island where fishing is outlawed to a 25-mile radius, seeking to protect the flourishing sea life. As much as the shark is king of these waters, it is still losing elsewhere against man.

On the 30-hour voyage back to the mainland port of Buenaventura, the crew of the Colombian navy frigate that had taken us to Malpelo spotted a rickety fishing boat and drew alongside -- drug traffickers frequently hide their drugs in fishing boats.

Sailors from the warship found a number of shark fins on the 20-foot boat. The fins are sold for about $11 a pound -- and exported to Asia to be used in shark fin soup.

The Malpelo Foundation's Bessudo has been campaigning for a moratorium on shark fishing, worried that it is driving the creatures to extinction. But she said a moratorium was unlikely, given the fishing industry's strong opposition.

She showed a collection of photographs and video of live sharks being tossed overboard after their fins were cut from their bodies. The sharks desperately struggled to swim as they sank, blood streaming from their open wounds.

Jackson Murillo, one of those on the small boat, said he and his colleagues weren't fishing for sharks, but the fish got caught in the boat's nets.

"We're poor and if a shark is there, then we'll take it," Murillo said. "With all the commercial fishing boats that fish here, with their huge boats, every year it's harder to find fish."

Lame Dogs of War

Dispatches From Colombia's Paramilitary Stronghold

Toby Muse
Slate Magazine
This article as it first appeared online.

Oil and cocaine may be Colombia's biggest industries, but its largest expendable resource is young men ready to die. While drugs, extortion, and voluntary contributions finance the four-decade civil war, the young men who pick up weapons and head off to war are its fuel.

Near Colombia's Caribbean coast is the small village of Santa Fe de Ralito. Deep in the heart of the country's extreme-right-wing paramilitary territory, it is set to be the center of negotiations between the government and the paramilitaries some time later this month.

Among large fields where cowboys tend grazing cattle under a Caribbean sun, Santa Fe de Ralito has for years served as one of the largest recuperation centers for paramilitaries injured in the conflict that pits them and the Colombian state against Marxist guerrillas.

This is where maimed warriors, now useless for fighting, are put out to pasture. The horrors inflicted by this civil war now live on as the bitter memories of these young men. Almost all the paramilitaries here are living with an incapacitating injury, ranging from amputees struggling along dirt roads on crutches to those who use wheelchairs after run-ins with landmines. Colombia ranks fourth in the world in the number of landmines sown.

This center is a snapshot of the men on all sides—army, guerrillas, and paramilitaries—who fight in this brutal conflict: young and poor, from small rural communities long forgotten by Colombia's central government, and usually lacking anything but the basics of education. Most come from zones that have been viciously fought over by the Marxist guerrillas and the right-wing paramilitaries.

There is little to do in this village of 200. The two bars blast out vallenato songs, an accordion-based * music that usually deals with the male singer's inability to remain faithful to his woman or her failure to stay true to him. Cowboys pass along the dirt tracks directing their herds of cows. Most of the homes here are one-room wooden huts, lacking running water or telephone lines. The nearest city is two hours' drive away.

One of the high points of a visit to Santa Fe de Ralito is Pecoso, the leopard kitten owned by Commander 08. The 8-month-old cub mostly wanders free and is still young enough to be played with without too much injury, although many residents show off nicks and punctures from when Pecoso got a little too excited. The morning I arrived, the commander was paying off one of the local peasants for the slaughter of a dozen chickens the previous night. It's affectionately noted by all that Pecoso didn't eat any of birds, instead contenting himself with torturing them to death.

Much of the day is spent avoiding the intense Caribbean sun, playing board games or watching television. On a recent Saturday, with a number of prosthetic legs strewn around the room, around 25 of this company of the mutilated watched Universal Soldier 2, a film about invincible cyborg warriors.

Colombia's conflict is the embodiment of the oft-used phrase "circle of violence." Paramilitaries or Colombian army soldiers commit atrocities, propelling their victims to the ranks of the insurgency. Atrocities are then committed by the guerrillas, leading to more volunteers for the paramilitaries. A fighter who calls himself Cornelio is cutting the hair of these fighters in the paramilitary style: cropped at the sides with a tuft of hair on the crown. Cornelio is here after a landmine explosion took off nearly half his face, leaving him savagely scarred along one side of his body. "Everyone here has a cause; mostly they're here for some revenge for what the guerrillas did to us," he said as he trimmed.

He says he has eight or nine outstanding arrest warrants, including at least one for murder. When asked how many people he killed in his time in the paramilitaries, he points up to the sky and says, "That's something only me and God know."

However, the paramilitaries have a recruiting tool the guerrillas don't offer: money. With a mix of funds from the cocaine trade and contributions from wealthy farmers and some businesses, the paramilitaries may be the wealthiest illegal group operating in Colombia. A 27-year-old paramilitary who gave the name of José Joaquin said he joined three years ago for the wage the paramilitary paid. The sum that tempted him to join this ruthless conflict? $150 a month. As low as it seems, it's nearly three times that earned by more than 60 percent of Colombia's population.

For $150 per month, José got a guerrilla sniper's bullet in his head. Luckily for him, the bullet entered and exited the back of his head, but it has left him unable to bend his left leg or arm. When I tell him I'm from London, he asks, "Being a paramilitary, do you think England would let me move there?" It seems inappropriate to tell him that the group that he sees as saving the country from rebels and for which he was prepared to die is viewed by most governments as a drug-trafficking terrorist organization.

Correction, June 11: Vallenato music is accordion-based, not harmonica-based as the article originally stated.

Fearing Peace

Dispatches From Colombia's Paramilitary Stronghold

Toby Muse
Slate Magazine
This article as it first appeared online.

In one short visit to this country, one may be the victim of "miracle fishing" (Marxist guerrilla roadblocks set up randomly in the hope of finding someone wealthy enough to kidnap), take a "millionaire ride" (be driven at gunpoint around the city withdrawing money from every ATM until your cash card is maxed out), or have someone "fall in love with you" (be murdered).

Colombia's extreme right-wing paramilitaries, originally founded by wealthy farmers as a vigilante group to guard against Marxist guerrillas, have been given numerous monikers, as if Colombians never tire of rolling the word "paramilitares" around their mouths only to spit out a new variation. The most common term is the simple abbreviation "para." Others call them "paracos," and an indigenous tribe in the north of Colombia inexplicably refers to them as "paraguayos" (Paraguayans).

The paramilitaries themselves prefer their official name: the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known by the Spanish acronym AUC. In some parts of the country, they're referred to as the "head-cutters," a nickname earned in the course of their merciless war against rebels and their sympathizers. The U.S. government calls AUC a "foreign terrorist organization" and lists them alongside al-Qaida.

In the Caribbean coastal department of Cordoba, the most commonly heard term is "protector." These hot lush plains, the center of Colombia's cattle industry, are the birthplace—and remain the heart—of the paramilitary movement.

Amid stories of paramilitary massacres, assassinations, extortion, U.S. extradition warrants, and human rights reports detailing the use of torture, it's easy to forget that there's a sizable minority in this country that approves and finances AUC. For many, especially the wealthy landowners who started the group, these fighters are saving the country from being overrun by guerrillas. "More than anything, we want the government to fulfill their responsibility to protect this region,'' says Alfredo Garcia, president of Ganacor, an association of Cordoba's cattle ranchers. "But, if we have to choose, we'd prefer to live under the paramilitaries than the guerrillas, because we've had experience of both."

Locals say that when guerrillas operated in Cordoba in the 1980s, farm owners lived in fear of assassination, kidnapping, and extortion. Since the paramilitaries took over, the wealthy feel much safer, and now crime has dropped dramatically until it is one of the safer places in the country. It's a foolhardy criminal who strikes in an area under paramilitary control, with the prospect of immediate—and severe—justice.

Now AUC is about to embark on a peace process that could see its 15,000 fighters demobilized. The leaders of the group say that since the Colombian government has intensified its war against the guerrillas, putting the rebels on the defensive, there is no reason for the paramilitaries to exist. Cordoba's paramilitaries were started by a pair of brothers, Fidel and Carlos Castaño, after their father was kidnapped and killed by guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, more than 20 years ago. From the home base in Cordoba, with the help of some parts of the armed forces, AUC launched a ferocious national counteroffensive against the guerrillas and suspected sympathizers, slaughtering thousands. As AUC expanded, smaller regional blocs were created in almost all of Colombia.

Over the last five years, the paramilitaries have grown quicker than any other armed group in the country and are now Colombia's country's second-largest illegal force after FARC. Fidel Castaño was killed in a firefight with guerrillas in 1994. Carlos vanished in April of this year, with some claiming he was murdered by other AUC commanders and others alleging that he had escaped Colombia, possibly to Israel or the United States.

Surrounded by herds of cows and huge farms, the tiny village of Santa Fe de Ralito near the Caribbean coast will soon be the site of official peace talks between the government and AUC. The village will be the center of a 145-square-mile "zone of concentration," where at least 400 paramilitary fighters will gather for the discussions. While in this zone, the fighters will be immune from arrest. (Many paramilitaries have dozens of arrest warrants out for them, and several of the bosses are wanted for extradition to the United States to face drugs-trafficking charges.) Those fighters inside the zone will be observed by the Organization of American States to ensure that they are maintaining a cease-fire, a necessary condition for the talks.

Colombia is the birthplace of the world's most famous practitioner of magical realism, Gabriel García Márquez, and nothing can be taken for granted here. Rather than expressing joy that one of Colombia's most violent groups is laying down its weapons, residents of the region are fearful at the prospect of peace.

Many doubt the government's ability to control the country, which is twice the size of France. Since Colombia's inception, the central government has found it difficult to exert total control over the nation's thick jungles and ragged mountain ranges. The Colombian state has historically been weak, and many villages still lack any police presence.

"People here are worried that if the paras give up their weapons, the guerrillas will return, and we know that they think we're all paracos,'' said a motorcycle taxi-driver who gave his name simply as Raul.

This is not unfounded hysteria, but rather an acknowledgement of Colombia's recent history. On a 2001 visit to "Farclandia," the Switzerland-sized zone the government gave over to the Marxist guerrillas as the basis for peace talks, I heard residents talk about their fear of the paramilitaries should the leftists give up control of the zone. "The government has to keep this [guerrilla-controlled] zone alive, because otherwise we'll be hunted by the paramilitaries as collaborators," Lelo Celis, a taxi driver, told me.

Murdered later that year, allegedly by a hit squad of paramilitaries, Celis was a victim of his own prophecy. Amnesty International documented what they called a surge of paramilitary killings following the collapse of the peace talks and the end of the demilitarized zone in February 2002. One of the most vocal critics of the peace process has been the former military chief of AUC, Fidel Castaño's right-hand man Commandante Rodrigo, also known as Double 0. A couple of years ago, he broke with AUC, criticizing the group's substantial links to drug-trafficking. AUC responded by destroying his renegade bloc of paramilitaries and forcing Rodrigo into hiding.

In an e-mail interview, Rodrigo argued that the peace process was nothing but a sham: As the paramilitaries "give up their mercenaries piecemeal, they earn time and keep abandoning their zones that logic dictates the guerrillas will retake.'' In the end, "they'll say that they cannot fully hand themselves over because the government has not fulfilled its obligations of containing the guerrillas." According to Rodrigo, the paramilitaries hope this peace process will whitewash their histories of drug-trafficking, legitimize the millions they've made, and remove the threat of extradition. It would prove to be one of his last interviews. At the end of May, as Rodrigo walked along the street in the coastal town of Santa Marta, assassins fired five shots into his head.

The government is also worried about AUC's commitment. Luis Restrepo, Colombia's peace commissioner, who heads the negotiations with AUC, has criticized the group for not complying fully with the cease-fire. While acknowledging an overall reduction in killings and kidnappings, Restrepo said, "The tendency is that criminal acts by the AUC are growing month by month, especially homicides."

War weary Colombia and its Conservative Party consider ending the drug war.

Toby Muse
Reason.com
This article as it first appeared online.

Everyone remembers the small plane that buzzed around the clear sky over this beautiful section of western Colombia toward the end of 2003, tossing out hundreds of pamphlets. Promising a "black Christmas," the pamphlets said "the good children will go to bed early. The bad children we'll put to bed ourselves." Colombia's worst drug war in more than a decade was about to get worse.

Set amid rich farmland in the shadows of mountains, the towns of El Dovio, Zarzal, and Roldanillo are snapshots of rustic Colombia's beauty. Middle-aged women, overweight in that way peculiar to a rich rural diet, can be seen driving the latest SUVs. Behind this rural gentility, these towns have long served as the headquarters of Colombia's largest remaining cocaine trafficking organization, the Northern Valley cartel. The cartel is at war with itself, a firestorm of violence targeting anyone linked to the organization in the past or present, no matter how tenuously.

In this tiny corner of Colombia, with a population of 260,000, more than 1,000 people have been murdered during the last 20 months. The war is between former partners within the cartel, one of whom, Diego Montoya, sits alongside Osama bin Laden on the FBI's top-10 wanted list. According to police, the war began when each capo began worrying that the others might be planning to negotiate with the Colombian and U.S. authorities at the expense of their associates.

The war has followed the cartel's trail across Colombia, with a series of grisly killings in the country's principal cities: Bogota, Cali, and Medellin. The war's cruelty has shocked a country that thought it was desensitized to violence. Victims have been asphyxiated with plastic bags, killed by nails hammered into their heads, and in some cases dismembered while still alive.

The authorities are struggling to cope with the underage assassins carrying out many of these killings. Since the most popular form of assassination involves a shooter sitting on the back of a high-powered motorbike, some Colombian cities made it illegal for two men to travel on the same motorbike. The assassins responded by putting wigs on the shooters to make them look like women.

"This drug war has moved beyond a question of crime," says Apolinar Salcedo, the mayor of Cali, Colombia's second largest city and the scene of much of the killing. "This is now a question of national security."

This hurricane of violence has led a growing number of Colombians, including leading members of the venerable Conservative Party, to question the drug policies that have helped make their country one of the world's most dangerous. "We Colombians have had enough," says Ferney Lozano, director of the Legalization Now movement, which was founded in 1999 and claims more than 100 elected officials across the country as members. "We're sick of paying the consequences of this war against drugs with thousands killed each year. People are seeing that if anything things are getting worse, with more people becoming addicts, and they are now questioning whether the costs of this drug war are worth it."

Legalization Now says the money spent waging the War on Drugs should instead be spent on rehabilitation for drug addicts and aid to coca farmers to help them switch crops. The changes advocated by Colombia's reformers range from decriminalization, which would lift all penalties on drug possession, to the worldwide repeal of prohibition, which would eliminate the drug trade's artificially inflated profits and put the traffickers out of business. By itself Colombia can do only so much, since both the demand for cocaine and the demand to eliminate its production come from abroad. But criticism of the War on Drugs from members of the country's political establishment shows that President Alvaro Uribe's gung-ho support for U.S. anti-drug efforts is not the only respectable position. "To be honest," says Lozano, "I think before 10 years it's highly unlikely that we'll see a change in the drugs policy, but we've made huge advances in the five years we've been working."

DRUG WARRIORS

Cocaine violence, combined with endemic poverty, has given Colombia one of the world's highest murder rates. The violence does not stop with the cartels: The illicit drug trade is the main source of funding for the country's four-decade civil war, which pits Marxist guerrillas against extreme right-wing paramilitaries and the state.

The right-wing United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known by their Spanish acronym AUC, have grown to become the most important illegal armed group in the country, eclipsing even the guerrillas as they've consolidated power in different regions, taking over local governments and reaching as high as the Colombian Congress. The rapid growth was funded both by contributions from legal businesses and by drug profits; according to a former head of the AUC, 70 percent of the group's income comes from drugs.

In 2003 a rogue AUC commander known as Double Zero attempted to lead a rebellion within the paramilitaries against the drug traffickers. "The paramilitaries lost their way," he told me in early 2004. "Instead of concentrating on defeating the guerrillas, they've become dedicated to nothing more than drug trafficking." In a match between ideals and drug money, ideals were crushed. Double Zero's bloc was annihilated and he himself assassinated. The drug trafficking wing of the paramilitaries was supreme. In a reflection of how high the traffickers reach in the movement, six of the 14 commanders in peace talks with the government have extradition warrants out for them, including the current leader, Salvatore Mancuso. They all deny dealing drugs.

Cocaine also funds their enemies, the Marxist guerrillas. The U.S. and Colombian governments claim the 20,000-strong Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by its Spanish acronym, FARC) earns hundreds of millions of dollars a year from the drug trade. A number of FARC guerrillas face extradition warrants, and the highest-ranking leader ever captured was sent to the U.S. over Christmas to stand trial on drug trafficking charges.

FARC denies any participation in the drug trade, insisting it only taxes coca farmers. FARC's other main source of income is kidnapping, helping propel Colombia to the top spot on the world's kidnapping index.

FARC's actions suggest a growing interest in drug trafficking to finance the revolution. FARC has targeted paramilitary coca fields, killing peasants working there. It's no coincidence that the civil war is most heavily contested where coca is grown and along the borders, where control of territory allows the export of drugs and import of arms.

WHO PROFITS?

While bearing the brunt of prohibition-related violence, most Colombians have not benefited much from black market profits. The U.N. estimates that the drug trade may account for as little as 1 percent of the country's GDP, placing it below oil. The product itself is cheap until it arrives in the U.S.; most of the profits are made outside of Colombia.

Francisco Thoumi, an economics professor at Bogota's Rosario University who has published a number of books on the cocaine industry, says Colombia's economy has suffered as a result of the drug trade. "In the 1980s," he says, "the rate of homicides skyrocketed, and that made investments too risky for many companies." The attitudes encouraged by the drug trade also have hurt the economy. "It becomes impossible to do business because everyone distrusts everyone else," says Thoumi, "so everyone is playing defensive and not willing to take any sort of risk."

Colombians have an ambivalent attitude toward the drug industry. In the old cocaine centers of Cali and Medellin, billions of inflowing dollars funded a boom that lined everyone's pockets during the 1980s and '90s. Tellingly, when the Cali drug lords were arrested the city's construction industry virtually ground to a halt. In Medellin during the '80s, a popular way for otherwise law-abiding people to make almost guaranteed profits was to buy a stake in a shipment of cocaine from drug lords seeking to spread the risk of seizure.

Even today, drug money and drug traffickers hang at the edges of legitimate society. Although members of the upper classes are not above profiting from the cocaine trade, they look down on the narcos in the same way that wealthy people the world over disdain the nouveau riche. The narcos' propensity for gold-plated toilets, bejeweled prostitutes, and loud parties has not endeared them to their neighbors in the fashionable districts.

Among many of Colombia's poor, by contrast, drugs are seen as a way to earn money in an economy where more than 60 percent of the population lives on or below the poverty line. The Medellin cartel's Pablo Escobar, after all, started out stealing gravestones before entering the cocaine trade and becoming one of the world's richest men. Admiration for the industry is reflected in a genre of music popular in Colombia's poorer neighborhoods that features songs with titles like "I Prefer a Tomb in Colombia (to a Jail in the U.S.)" and "The Cartels Are Still Alive."

Surveys indicate that public support for legalization has grown since Legalization Now was founded five years ago, when it hovered around 7 percent. A poll taken in July 2003 by Invamer-Gallup showed 22 percent national support for "the legalization of production and consumption of drugs." What was more interesting was how the figures broke down. In the capital, 27 percent of people were in favor, while in the historic centers of the cocaine cartels, Medellin and Cali, the numbers were 16 percent and 13 percent, respectively. Responses also varied by class, with nearly 40 percent of Colombia's upper classes supporting legalization, compared to 16 percent of Colombia's lowest social strata.

"We have found that it's an educational difference," says Legalization Now's Lozano. "Poorer neighborhoods often are more against this because they believe that as soon as we legalize everyone will immediately become addicts. We've got to educate these people that the current approach is not working and if you really want to protect your children, you must help legalize drugs."

Colombia has changed from a producing country where drug use was frowned upon and drugs were a gringo problem, to a producing and consuming country. Authorities say that in recent years the cartels noticed the virgin market at home and started a drive for greater sales in Colombia. Studies show that Colombian children are starting drugs younger, and a trip to any of the country's city centers finds homeless children passed out midday with a bag of bazuco, a cheap drug made from the remnants of cocaine production. Legalization Now estimates that of Colombia's 45 million inhabitants, some 5 million are regular drug users.

UNEXPECTED REFORMERS

Proponents of drug legalization are often accused of being in the pay of the drug lords, a testament to the power the narcos wielded in the past, especially in Colombia's Congress. (One former president became synonymous with corruption after it was found that the Cali cartel helped bankroll his campaign.) President Uribe recently ripped open the debate again, accusing M-19, a now defunct guerrilla group, of working with the drug traffickers. In the scandal that erupted, prominent congressmen who had belonged to M-19 and had in the past spoken favorably of legalization said they would no longer talk about the issue for fear of further being associated with the drug traffickers.

"I've been calling for legalization for 20 years, and I can't remember the [number] of times I've been called in the pockets of the drug lords," says Antonio Caballero, one of Colombia's most famous columnists, who writes for the country's largest news magazine, Semana. "Of course, it doesn't make any sense, because it's the drug lords who will be out of business if there is legalization, but it does help shut down the discussion."

When Gustavo de Grieff, then Colombia's prosecutor general, started criticizing the War on Drugs in the 1990s, he likewise was tarred as a tool of the traffickers, even though he had led the successful effort to shut down Escobar's murderous Medellin cartel. In 1994 Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) wrote a Washington Post op-ed piece in which he said De Grieff's "positions are nearly identical with those of the [Cali] cartel itself. As such, they demonstrate the degree to which the Cali cartel has already gained influence in the very offices of Colombian law enforcement that are supposed to protect society against the cartel."

But as the suffering of Colombia continues in this brutal War on Drugs, an irreproachable group is stepping forward to call for a review of the country's drug policies. Colombia's Conservative Party is very conservative indeed. Founded in 1849, it earned a reputation for ferocious religious violence during Colombia's various civil wars between the conservatives and liberals. A poster in party headquarters listing its goals and policies ends with the highlighted words "a party that believes in God and seeks to insert him into life." More than half of Colombia's presidents have come from the Conservative Party, which in many eyes is associated with landowners, the church, and the oligarchy. Yet this bastion of conservatism is now mulling the decriminalization of drugs.

Enrique Gomez Hurtado comes from an illustrious political dynasty. His brother was assassinated while running for president on a right-wing ticket. In his congres-sional office sits a bust of his father, a president in the middle of the last century. Gomez Hurtado belongs to a class of Colombians who resemble English gentlemen of the Victorian era. On the wall of his office hangs a copy of the Ten Commandments. He is proposing the decriminalization of drugs as a way of dealing with Colombia's problems as both a drug-producing and a drug-consuming nation.

"We know that the industry is profitable only because it is illegal, and the day that tobacco becomes outlawed, that will take cocaine's place as the largest mafia business," Gomez Hurtado says, sitting at a desk on which a stack of pamphlets outlining his case for decriminalization is neatly piled. "To produce a gram of salt or sugar is more expensive than [producing] a gram of cocaine. The difference in final price only comes because cocaine is illegal."

Gomez Hurtado is asking his party to agree on a platform that includes decriminalization of drugs in Colombia, rather than outright legalization, and a shift of government resources from aggressive anti-drug policies to rehabilitation. "Legalization would show indifference in front of this illness of drug addiction," he says. "It would be like legalizing tuberculosis or AIDS. You can't legalize a disease." He recognizes that Colombia alone cannot eliminate the black market in cocaine. "We need greater help in reviewing international policies towards drugs," he says, "because this is economics; the supply comes from the demand."

LEGALIZING ALONE?

Conservative support for the decriminalization or legalization of drugs is based largely on the belief that Colombia fights alone on the front line of the War on Drugs and that as a result the entire country has become a battlefield. All this for a war demanded by other countries, most conspicuously the United States. Drugs are so profitable because they are illegal and in great demand among those who can afford them. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cocaine is consumed in North America and Western Europe.

"I share Colombians' frustration," says Sandro Calvani, director of the United Nations International Drug Control Program in Bogota. "They pay with all the violence of the war, yet the consuming countries don't share the burden. Some European countries don't even help Colombia with one peso."

But Calvani is hesitant about extrapolating from the experience of other countries that have experimented with more tolerant drug policies. "Where they've done this, such as Holland and Switzerland, there has been a history of liberal thinking and high levels of education among the population," he says. About one in 10 Colombians is illiterate, and that rate rises sharply in the countryside, where children are often taken out of school to work.

Colombian supporters of drug policy reform are concerned about the international reaction to their proposals. "We cannot become a pariah state, and that is what would happen if we legalized alone," says Sen. Carlos Holguin, leader of the Conservative Party, who is spoken of as a possible presidential candidate. "It would make no sense, because it's not so much the problem here, but the problem is that they're illegal outside. It should be a policy of the Colombian government to pressure the international community to force them to review their drug policies. We must look at this as a health issue."

Many opponents of the drug war think its environmental cost is reason enough to abandon it. The cornerstone of Colombia's U.S.-funded anti-drug effort is aerial fumigation. The U.S. and Colombian governments have been celebrating the success of the fumigation program. The U.N. reported that in 2003 the number of hectares devoted to coca cultivation fell 16 percent, to 86,000, the lowest level since 1997. President Uribe recently estimated that the country would have less than 65,000 hectares of coca by the end of this year. "Sixty-five thousand hectares is immense, and the political aim has to be zero land devoted to drug crops in Colombia," he said.

Fumigation missions will cost some $100 million this year. As coca production has spread to encompass much of Colombian territory—satellites even pick up images of coca fields near the capital—so have fumigations. Residents and environmentalists protested the fumigation of Colombia's national parks, including the Sierra Nevada, the world's highest coastal range. Indigenous tribes who live there complain that the fumigations are polluting the rivers and killing legal crops. The U.S. and Colombian governments insist the fumigations, which use the herbicide glyphosate, are safe. Farmers living in fumigated areas complain of myriad sicknesses, including skin problems and birth defects.

Pedro Arenas is head of the leftist Communal and Communitarian Movement and congressman for the Department of Guaviare, one of the biggest coca-producing regions. Not coincidentally, it is also the site of the government's largest-ever offensive against the FARC rebels. "We're seeing in this drug war the militarization of our communities, and peasants becoming enemies of the state," Arenas says. Although the official numbers show a decline in coca production, he says, the coca farmers in his department have told him they think it is rising. Farmers are shielding coca from satellites by planting more trees. Any potential decline in land given over to coca production is offset by the increasing use of a coca strain that can be harvested more often and produces more cocaine per plant. Critics of the eradication program also point to a "balloon effect": As production is pushed down in one area, it pops up elsewhere. Peru's anti-drug agency estimated that the country produced 160 tons of cocaine in 2004, one-fifth more than in 2003, and another increase is expected this year.

Drug traffickers normally outsource the production of coca to the farmers, who grow the coca and take the initial steps in processing it into blocks of coca paste, which are then purchased by the traffickers and turned into cocaine. "These fumigations are going after the lowest people on the chain," says Arenas. "These farmers need to live, and they see no alternative but coca." He estimates the coca farmers, known as cocaleros, have a monthly profit of 400,000 pesos, just over $150. "These fumigations are destroying our environment," he says, "because every time they fumigate fields, the peasants plant again on new land, and they're moving deeper into the jungles."

Many Colombians and foreign observers feel fumigations treat the symptom rather than the underlying illness. While the poverty that propels farmers to plant coca remains, any attempt to stop them from doing so will in all likelihood be futile. "At the moment, we're spending around $5,000 per hectare fumigated," says the U.N.'s Sergio Calvani. "If that money could be distributed among the peasants, then Colombia would be like Switzerland."

IT'S ALL UPHILL FROM HERE

The government of Alvaro Uribe, a member of the Liberal Party and Washington's closest ally in South America, has avoided any discussion of decriminalizing drugs. In fact, the president backed an unsuccessful referendum that would have overturned the current laws that allow possession of drugs for personal use. His supporters in Washington say Uribe is the president Colombia has long needed, praising his offensive against the Marxist rebels and the drug industry. Uribe has boosted the army and the police and struck at the FARC's traditional stronghold in the south.

The relationship between Uribe and President Bush "could not be closer," says Kimberly Stanton, deputy director of the Washington Office on Latin America, an organization that opposes fumigation and argues that the war on drugs is counterproductive. Bush paid Uribe a compliment by visiting Colombia on his first trip abroad following his re-election.

In any case, says Stanton, "There is no way the U.S. will allow the Colombian Congress to adopt legalization. It will do everything in its power to stop this, I assure you." The U.S. is the largest donor of aid to Colombia, takes about half of Colombia's exports, and has tremendous influence on multilateral institutions that lend vital money to the cash-strapped central government. Colombia has become increasingly dependent on U.S. aid for its war against the Marxist guerrillas, the right-wing paramilitaries, and of course the drug industry. The country has received nearly $4 billion from the U.S. since the launch of the huge anti-drug initiative Plan Colombia in 2000.

"Way too many Colombian leaders think that unless they do everything the U.S. wants they'll lose everything," says Stanton, adding that Colombia should propose a review of global anti-drug policies. As the drug violence continues and the deaths mount, Colombia's population may just force their leaders to stand up and demand from the world a change in global drug policies.

Amazon town bans tourists

Nazareth in Colombia says travellers don't spend much and show little respect to indigenous people

Toby Muse - Nazareth
The Guardian
This article as it first appeared online.

The small Amazonian town of Nazareth is a traveller's dream. Wildlife prowls the surrounding jungles and indigenous inhabitants practise ceremonies that long predate the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores.

But it may be advisable for tourists to give the place a wide berth. Locals have declared their town off-limits to travellers, even though this stretch of the Amazon river is playing host to more visitors than ever. Their main complaint: tourists' behaviour, and that only a fraction of the money they spend trickles down to the indigenous. "What we earn here is very little. Tourists come here, they buy a few things, a few artisan goods, and they go. It is the travel agencies that make the good money," said Juvencio Pereira, an Indigenous Guard, Nazareth's unofficial volunteer police force.

The town of 800 people, a 20-minute boat ride from the tourist hub of Leticia, takes its ban seriously. At the entrance, Pereira and other guards stand armed with their traditional sticks to deter unwelcome visitors. Nazareth resident Grimaldo Ramos feels that some tourists can't distinguish between the wildlife and the Amazon's residents, snapping photos of indigenous families as if they were another animal. "Tourists come and shove a camera in our faces," he said. "Imagine if you were sitting in your home and strangers came in and started taking photos of you. You wouldn't like it."

Nazareth's actions reveal a split among the indigenous communities that live along the river about what role tourism should play in the region's development.

With the rise of eco-tourism, this part of the Amazon, which joins Colombia, Peru and Brazil, has seen a flood of travellers arriving to experience the world's most biologically diverse region. Tourists swim with the Amazon's pink dolphins, fish for piranhas, hike through the rainforests and take in the sunsets over the mighty river. According to the tourism office for the Colombian province of Amazonas, the 35,000 people who trekked to the region in 2010 represent a fivefold surge in numbers over the past eight years. But as Nazareth complains, the indigenous people have so far seen little of the benefits, mostly just the sharp end of tourism.

A common concern among indigenous leaders is that local children are adopting the outsiders' ways, with many children more comfortable in "western" dress and listening to the imported music of reggaeton and Colombia's vallenato. There are misunderstandings of two cultures interacting. What a tourist may consider polite curiosity about indigenous culture can seem to some here intrusive and even an attempt to gain sacred tribal wisdom. "We don't like it when they ask members of the community about our traditional knowledge and the medicines we possess," said Pereira.

Other communities, however, take the view that the number of visitors to the region is going to rise, so they might as well profit from it. A couple of hours downriver lies Puerto Narino, whose mayor, Nelson Ruiz, understands Nazareth's worries, but says that if tourism is well-regulated it can help lift communities out of the poverty that troubles much of this zone.

He added that visitors are expected to abide by certain rules, such as no drug-taking and no sexual tourism.

FARC Forever?

Toby Muse
The New York Times
This article as it first appeared online.

BOGOTÁ — On Nov. 4, after years of military raids and a number of near-misses, Colombian troops killed the 63-year-old Guillermo León Sáenz, a k a Alfonso Cano, the commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia called this “the biggest blow” to the Marxist group in its 47-year history.

Perhaps, but it isn’t the knockout blow. Within days of Santos’s urging the rebels to lay down their weapons — or else — FARC issued a statement saying that it was open to dialogue but that in the meantime it would continue to fight.

Once again, the Colombian government may be underestimating the strength of the ideology that has sustained one of the longest-running insurgencies in the world.

In light of FARC’s activities and tactics — the rebels are increasingly involved in the cocaine trade and keep hostages chained like animals — conventional wisdom has it that its fighters have lost their beliefs. But after reporting on the group for 10 years, I’ve found that it doesn’t lack for ideology.

Even though they have been kicked out from parts of the country and are weakened overall, the rebels remain dedicated to revolution. They are committed to the idea of violently achieving what they say will be a fairer, socialist society thanks to land redistribution and state control over industrial sectors.

Last year in July, I met fighters from the Sixth Front, one of FARC’s most active outfits, in the province of Cauca in southwestern Colombia, a hotbed of this war set high among mountains so tall and steep you look down on clouds. It was during a month of sustained fighting, with FARC launching attacks every day on the military outposts that crown the mountaintops.

During one lull in the fighting, I talked with John (the only name he would give) and two other FARC guerrillas. One look at the dirt floor and the ragged mattress in John’s concrete hut and it was obvious he hadn’t been fighting for the past decade for the money. (FARC offers clothing and food, though, which in the impoverished countryside can be incentive enough for a teenager to join.)

John took pride in the group’s asceticism: “A guerrilla fighter has no use for alcohol or drugs” and “he can sleep for four hours, quick-march all day and then fight the enemy.” And he took pride in the cause: “We want to create a society that will be run for the majority of Colombia: the poor.”

I asked John about the several thousands of rebels who have deserted FARC over the past eight years, since the Colombian government began the offensive that continues today. (The military estimates that FARC has a remaining 10,000 fighters under its command.)

“They did us a favor,” he said. “We got rid of those who weren’t committed to the revolution. Now we’re stronger.” The other two, younger guerrillas — one white, thin and gangly; the other a short indigenous man — looked on as if absorbing a lecture.

All three seemed inspired by President Hugo Chávez. “If this were Venezuela, then I wouldn’t have to fight,” John said.

“If this were Venezuela, I would be studying,” the gangly guerrilla said half to himself.

Most Colombians want the conflict with FARC, which has killed tens of thousands of people over the years, to be resolved through negotiations. For that to happen, though, the FARC leadership will insist on something in return beyond just amnesty — something it can present to committed fighters like John, such as land reform or some other fundamental change in Colombian society. And while the government rides high on the death of Cano, it is unlikely to concede much.

And then Tuesday, as if to confirm the dim prospects for peace, FARC named the hard-line commander known as Timochenko to be Cano’s successor. It closed the announcement by stating: “The continuance of the strategic plan to take power for the people is guaranteed.”

Real life in the faculty of death

Decades of paramilitary conflict are taking their toll on Colombian higher education.

Toby Muse
This article as it first appeared online.

Jose Luna, a 54-year-old agriculture professor, taught for seven years at the Córdoba University, in northern Colombia. After his election as a union official in the university, he began receiving death threats. In February, Luna and his family fled to the capital, Bogotá, after receiving an unsigned letter that said: "What's going to happen to the Luna family?"

While some members of his family have moved to different parts of Colombia, he and his son remain in Bogotá but live apart. "If I've been threatened with death, to live with him would be to expose him to the same dangers," Luna says.

According to government figures, Colombia has made huge advances in making higher education more accessible over the past decade. In 1990, some 12 per cent of people between the ages of 18 and 23 went to university, while today the figure is closer to 22 per cent. The government has a target of 27 per cent.

And this growing sector has drawn the attention of Colombia's armed militias.

Colombia's civil war, which pits Marxist guerrillas against rightwing paramilitaries and the state, kills thousands each year. The country has the worst human-rights record in the hemisphere, the highest murder rate on earth, and the majority of the world's kidnappings.

Conflict is now creeping onto university campuses across the country and turning them into a battleground.

Colombian authorities are particularly worried about Córdoba , which has suffered a particularly volatile history. The university, founded in 1964 and serving 7,000 students, was created to focus on those areas of particular importance to the local industry of Córdoba: cattle and agriculture.

Córdoba is the heartland of the country's extreme rightwing paramilitary movement, the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia, originally founded in the 1980s by wealthy farmers as a vigilante group to guard against guerrilla attacks in the absence of the authorities. The paramilitaries quickly grew in number and from Córdoba launched a ferocious national counteroffensive against the guerrillas and their supporters, setting up new paramilitary blocs across the country.

About seven years ago, the paramilitaries set their sights on Córdoba.

Since 1985, five professors and five students have been murdered. Most of the killings have not been attributed to any particular group, but the paramilitaries are the only armed group operating in the area. Since the paramilitaries established their control over the university, professors have noticed a change in the atmosphere. "There is no room for free debate here. Everyone feels they're being watched, so many keep quiet," said a member of the professors' union.

Even in the union's offices on the university campus, he spoke in whispers, asking to not be named for fear of retaliation. "Look at other universities, covered in graffiti. Here it's eerily clean. Not even graffiti from a boyfriend to his girlfriend telling her he loves her.

Everyone here is scared of making the paramilitaries even slightly unhappy."

Professors say they are spied on when they lecture, and they assume that what is being taught is reported back. "We hear from many professors that young men sit in their class and when they ask them who they are, they say they're students, but then they're never seen again," he says. The professors' union says that the paramilitaries are attempting to take over those universities that are in their zones of influence, including in some cases installing allies in the universities' administrations.

"The paramilitaries are looking to take over some universities and threatening or killing those professors who won't cooperate," says Pedro Hernandez, the president of the professors' union, in an interview in his offices inside the Bogot - based National University campus.

Union activists say that by taking over universities, the paramilitaries can gain access to the university budgets, stock up on valuable supplies, especially medicines to treat the hundreds wounded in the conflict each year, and control what is being taught.

"In particular, we've seen that the paramilitaries have dissuaded people from studying social problems related to this civil war, including displaced people and the cocaine industry,'' Hernandez says.

Those who ignore the threats do so at their peril. Since 1985, 29 professors and 28 students have been killed, according to the union. Some 14 professors have fled their jobs after receiving death threats. And as the rightwing paramilitaries concentrate on university faculties, Marxist guerrillas are concentrating on recruiting students.

"When the student goes to university, he or she is very open to new ideas, and the groups take advantage of this, they try to lead someone from an ideological debate to being part of an armed group," says Javier Botero, Colombia's vice-minister for higher education.

Colombia's Marxist groups have a long history of recruiting young, impressionable students. The former Marxist rebel group M-19, which staged some of the most spectacular attacks on the Colombian state, including the takeover of the Palace of Justice in 1985, had a strong student component.

But after a peace deal with the government in 1989, the rebels demobilised.

Another burst of student activity came when the country's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), started a political party in 1984, but it ran out of steam in 1987 after a campaign by sections of the armed forces and the paramilitaries to exterminate the party, which killed thousands.

University students have often been attracted by revolutionary groups in Colombia, Latin America's third most populous country, where politics is widely regarded as endemically corrupt among a population riven by huge social divisions. While a minority lives a life of luxury, more than 60 per cent of the country survives on $2 or less a day.

The Bogotá- based National University, with more than 25,000 students, the country's largest, seems to have been of particular interest to Farc. Last year there were two incidents related to the National University, famous in Colombia for its leftwing politics. In March 2003, two students, allegedly members of Farc, were arrested after leaving explosive devices on Bogot 's public transport system. In October, a medical student from the National University was killed as she attempted to assassinate the head of Colombia's largest business association. According to the authorities, the student had undergone intensive training by Farc.

University authorities hope that growing apathy among students will lead to a reduction in the numbers joining the guerrillas. "The students we see today are much more apathetic than they previously were," says Marco Palacios, rector of the National University. "For many of the students beginning their studies, the guerrillas have lost a lot of credibility."

The education ministry says that it is not really equipped to do anything to prevent the recruitment of students, leaving it in the hands of Colombia's military intelligence. Mean-while, those who work in academic war zones are demanding that these groups leave their campuses.

"Universities should be free of influence from any armed group,'' says one professor at Córdoba. "At the moment, it looks like they're not really listening to us."

New drug gang wars blow Colombian city's revival apart

World news - The Guardian

Toby Muse in Medellin
Tuesday 10th April 2012
This article as it first appeared online.

A team of bodyguards fans out through the three-storey building in central Medellín, calling out "clear" after each room is checked. One gunman remains stationed on each floor; another three guard the building's entrance.

With the area secured, a young man in a designer T-shirt and baseball cap emerges on to the roof terrace, followed by his lieutenant. Javier is a trafficker with Colombia's longest-surviving drug cartel, the Envigado Office, but he describes his work in matter-of-fact terms.

"The Office controls the illegal businesses in Medellín. Its main businesses are extortion, hired killings, the traffic in arms and drugs," he says.

The heavy security is soon explained: Javier fears his cartel – and his home city – may be on the brink of another drug war.

Colombia was supposed to have overcome its bloody history. Over the last decade, the government has pushed leftist rebels back into jungles, overseen the demobilisation of tens of thousands of illegal far-right militia fighters and taken down various drug capos.

Washington foreign policy mandarins such as Paul Wolfowitz have held up Colombia as a model for other countries struggling with narco-chaos, such as Afghanistan and Mexico.

And Medellín, Colombia's industrial heartland, was promoted as the embodiment of the country's renaissance: the murder rate plummeted by about 80% over five years, reaching a decade low of 34 deaths per 100,000 in 2007. Once called the "city of death", Medellín was now open for business.

But the root cause of Colombia's violence – the country's status as the world's biggest cocaine producer – has not disappeared. And Medellín's apparent peace lasted only as long as its underworld was run by one man, through the Envigado Office.

Named after a neighbourhood of Medellin, the Office was originally a group of hitmen acting for Pablo Escobar's cartel. After Escobar's death in 1993, the Office was taken over by a former ally turned bitter rival of Escobar, Diego Murillo, known as Don Berna, who cemented control over Medellín and moved the organisation deeper into drug-trafficking.

The Office will collect on anyone's debt, as long as the creditor is willing to give over 50% of what is recovered. It has its own motto: "Debts get paid – with money or with life."

"Many people know that the government won't act as it should, it won't help the people in what they need. Many people come to us to collect money, debts on cars, debts for drugs, basically anything," says Javier.

In his book The Multinational of Crime: the Terrifying Office of Envigado, journalist Alfredo Serrano writes: "Whenever anyone died, people would say that 'they had got on the wrong side of the Office' – as if this criminal organisation held the power of life itself."

Murillo handed himself in to the authorities in 2005 as part of a peace process with the far-right paramilitary groups, but was accused of continuing to run the Office from behind bars, which eventually led to his extradition to the United States. He was convicted of exporting tonnes of cocaine and sentenced to 31 years in an American prison.

After his conviction, the then head of the US Drug Enforcement Administration said: "American and Colombian communities are safer with the removal of this notorious drug kingpin."

But it would not prove so for Medellín. With Murillo out of the way, a vicious power struggle erupted between his successors. Medellín's homicide rate doubled in 2009, leaving about 3,000 people dead.

"Around 15 close friends were killed in the war. We couldn't go out to clubs, we just had to stay home and not get killed," says Javier.

The factional fighting within the Office came to an end last year with the capture of one of the rival leaders, and since then most of the group has reunited under a new boss, just in time to confront a new threat: one of Colombia's emerging narco-militias, the Urabeños.

The Urabeños sprang up after the peace deal with the far-right paramilitaries. While the main militia leaders were jailed alongside Don Berna, most of the mid-range commanders – those who had been running the day-to-day cocaine operations – were free. Many of these commanders reorganised their old outfits, recruited other demobilised fighters, and returned to drug‑running.

The Urabeños are now a force across much of northern Colombia, bringing a military discipline to organised crime.

"They don't think like average narcos," said Jeremy McDermott, founder of Insight Crime, a thinktank that tracks organised crime in Latin America. "They are extraordinarily political, mixed with deep criminal experience."

The group's power was felt earlier this year when it forced dozens of towns to close all businesses after authorities killed a Urabeño leader. And now they are eyeing Medellín.

The looming battle between the Office and the Urabeños is for control of Medellin's underworld, the vast local market and for positioning to be able to negotiate with the Mexican mafias that ship cocaine to the US.

"Many Colombians are moving over to Mexico to firm up relations," says Javier. "We get our guns from there and they get the drugs from us."

Earlier this month, a city-wide police sweep targeted gangs including the Office, arresting 49 people, including seven due for extradition. Last month, the brother of the current leader of the Office was arrested.

But observers say cracking down on the Office will not be enough to keep the peace in Medellín. Jesús Sánchez, who heads the human rights office for the city's ombudsman, says the local government must offer legal alternatives to the legions of hitmen who would fight any drug war.

"The state must do more than just attack the crime; the state needs a greater presence in the poor neighbourhoods," he said.

Infrastructure in the slums has improved, but Sánchez says the city still owes its young men a historical debt: two generations have grown up in a culture of violence and the easy money of trafficking. "When a young man doesn't find work, he's got the chance immediately to join a gang and get all the money he needs."

Javier doesn't see Medellín emerging from its problems soon. "If this is going to change, people must really want to change. But people always want money and power."

 

A Bloody Stalemate

In war-torn Aleppo, Syrian rebels are fighting the regime block by block.

Toby Muse in Syria
Posted: Wednesday September 12th 2012
This article as it first appeared online.

In a first-floor living room Syrian rebels huddled together and shouted “Allahu akbar” as mortars rained down on the surrounding buildings, each blast shaking the earth. Armed with Kalashnikovs and a few rocket-propelled grenades, this group of 20 rebels had spent the past several days fighting the Syrian army’s sharpshooters, tanks, helicopters, and mortar teams. But now under intense shelling they were pulling back a block. Here, the fighting is house by house.

Saif al-DawlaThis is Saif al-Dawla, a corner of the city of Aleppo that is now part of Syria’s front lines. Even the blasted-out buildings and abandoned homes can’t hide that this was once one of the city’s nicer neighborhoods before it became a battlefield.

Aleppo is at the center of Syria’s civil war. The Free Syrian Army claims to control about 70 percent of the city. In their territory, the FSA roam freely, with command centers and checkpoints. But the final 30 percent is proving hard to capture. “We need more weapons,’’ says the commander known as Abu Nastro, explaining what the rebels need to break the bloody stalemate. “Why won’t the world help us?”

While the fighting is more intense in neighborhoods like Saif al-Dawla, in reality the entire city is a war zone.

For the past six weeks, government forces have been pounding Aleppo with airplanes, heavy artillery, and bombs dropped from helicopters. Shelling, much of which appears to be indiscriminate, is all day and all night. At night, one hears the shelling smashing one part of the city, listening as the explosions edge closer. The government’s message is clear: Nowhere is safe in Aleppo.

Rebels guess that they can take the whole city in two months, thereby consolidating their control over much of northern Syria. (They already control at least two border posts with Turkey.) For that, they say they need far better surface-to-air missiles to combat Russian MiG jet fighters and attack helicopters. The government’s domination of the air over Aleppo and the rebels’ control of the ground means the city will likely remain locked in fighting.

In the meantime, families keep loading all they can carry on to buses to get out. Most will end up in the refugee camps like those inside Syria, Turkey, and Jordan, joining the 200,000 other Syrians who have fled the violence.

But as miserable as the camps can be, it can be better than staying. On a recent afternoon, witnesses reported seeing a helicopter drop a 250-kilogram bomb on a neighborhood. Seven people were killed, including two children. Lacking a working fire department, neighbors set up a ladder next to the burning building and threw pots of water at the flames. “There’s a Free Syrian Army base seven blocks from here—the army knows about it. But they only target civilian bases,’’ said Abu Kuram, an FSA commander taking a break from trying to put the fire out.

A nearby hospital is one of those civilian buildings that has been repeatedly hit—twice by airplanes and seven times if you count the mortars landing so close that shrapnel has ripped through the building.

Parents brought in their 4-year-old girl. Hair neatly combed, her eyes closed, she looked asleep in her mother’s arms. The mother’s face, enveloped in a black scarf, was contorted with grief—wild eyes and a silent mouth. The people in the hospital immediately pronounced the girl a "child martyr." “Eighty percent of the patients we get here are civilians,” said a doctor who identified himself as Osram. Back at Saif al-Dawla, the rebels take advantage of a slowdown in the mortaring. In single file, they exit the building and trot along the block.

Reaching the corner, they sprint across the open intersection one by one, dodging the regime’s snipers dotted in the blasted-out buildings. The last one makes it across and is hugged by his fellow fighters. A mortar explodes 20 meters away in the middle of the street. For a second, everyone in the group is dazed, ears ringing. They take cover farther down the street. They’ve lost another block.

In Aleppo, death comes from above and there's no knowing where it will fall

Toby Muse reports on the horrors caused by the constant shelling he experienced in the Syrian city of Aleppo..

Toby Muse in Syria
Published: Friday September 14th 2012
This article as it first appeared online.

After a two-hour drive, the car came in to Aleppo. Grabbing my bags and getting out of the car, a mortar exploded some two blocks away.

And then another. Every inner voice screamed to get in the car and race back to the safety of the border.

What caused me a moment's terror has been daily life for Aleppo's millions of inhabitants over the last six weeks.

Aleppo can be overwhelming. It's unlike combat I've ever covered before; much of it isn't even combat. Day and night, it's non-stop bombing and shelling of a city of millions by the Syrian government using airplanes, helicopters and heavy artillery. In an instant, death comes from above and there's no telling where it will fall.

Government MiG jet fighters perform elaborate military maneuvers against civilian neighborhoods, diving down to drop bombs across the city.

It's in the emergency wards where one sees the daily mutilation of the city. Heavy shelling rocked the neighborhood around the hospital all afternoon, causing deep rumblings that upend the stomach. Without fail, five minutes after a shelling a car would screech to the hospital's front doors and one or two injured civilians would be carried in.

One man who looked to be about 55 was brought in half unconscious, his head lolling back. The left leg below the knee had been blown off in the shelling.

With the hospital already attending to dozens of other patients, the only space left was on the floor by the door, just feet from the pavement. Doctors in blood stained white coats quickly stubbed out their cigarettes and did what they can.

The doctors applied the tourniquet as a bright red puddle spread out underneath him.

Tens were killed yesterday here in Aleppo and tens more will die today.

When Syrians learn I'm English, they ask why England or America or the world doesn't do anything to stop the maiming, end the killing. But there's also a resignation that the world will not help.

One commander told me: "The world knows what it should do. We are not interested in begging for help."

Daily sights are the bread lines, where dozens queue for the staple that accompanies every meal in Syria. Human Rights Watch has documented multiple cases where heavy artillery has fired on these lines, dismembering women and children.

I've rarely been so self-conscious of the limits of my job trying to describe Aleppo. Obviously, I'm only reporting one half of this story; I can't speak to soldiers fighting those rebels or civilians who support President Assad (journalists working in Aleppo take it for granted that if they're caught by the army they'll be indefinitely detained or killed).

As I prepared to leave Aleppo I was frustrated that I can't convey the sheer scale of what is happening to this city. No report prepared me for what I would see in Aleppo and I know I'm equally incapable of explaining to the outside world.

As I left Aleppo, it wasn't the sight of the dead girl that remained with me, it wasn't the group of Syrian fighters who stood in the middle of a main avenue thrusting their Kalashnikovs in to the air defying the MiG jet screaming overhead. It wasn't the brigade commander sitting in the flickering light focused on the chessboard as heavy artillery landed all around outside his command center.

It was a suitcase. One of my final nights, I slept on the frontline.

All civilians had fled the neighborhood, leaving the rebels and the army to fight over the deserted homes and blasted out buildings.

Even Aleppo's ubiquitous stray cats had fled the government's constant mortar attacks.

Four fighters, two brothers and two cousins, had taken over an apartment. The spacious home had obviously once belonged to a well-off family. In the living room, the fighters would relax at night watching clips from around Syria showing combat with the army or the latest civilian bloodshed on a huge flat screen TV.

With the customary hospitality, they put me in what they said was the safest room, what was once the children's room.

Two small beds lay side by side, each made up with matching sheets showing a smiling sun.

A stuffed elephant sat on the shelves.

On one bed was an open suitcase. It was almost fully packed, with t-shirts and shorts adorned with drawings of animals and Minnie Mouse.

I can see a young girl, maybe ten years old selecting her favourite clothes, neatly folding them in to the suitcase.

I can imagine her and her family frantically fleeing their home as survival becomes countable in seconds. Not even time to grab that bag she had taken her time to thoughtfully pack.

I imagine this girl now with her family, a few more faces among the 200,000 Syrians living in misery in the refugee camps in Turkey and Jordan.

Or perhaps she never took that bag because one day, her and family were killed in shelling.

Toby Muse is a journalist and documentary film-maker who has just returned from Aleppo, Syria.

Extremist fighters are only a fraction of the rebels fighting in Syria

Extremist fighters arriving from other parts of the Middle East and Europe

Toby Muse in Syria
The New Statesman
This article as it first appeared online.

Recent media coverage of Syria’s uprising has fixated on the role of extremist fighters arriving from other parts of the Middle East and Europe.

After long ignoring the role of foreign fighters in Syria’s rebel ranks, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme – now the rebels are depicted as solely made up of zealots.

It made me think of a recent episode.

The car sped along a lonely highway in northern Syria. Government jets were daily strafing and bombing cars. Our driver, and the few other vehicles on the road, was flooring it.

Out the window, it was an unchanging landscape of desert and dirt. The only break to this scenery was the occasional impoverished hamlet we raced through.

We arrived to a rebel checkpoint. The driver explained we were journalists to a lone young fighter, who boredly played with his Kalashnikov. Uninterested, he waved us along.

Some meters behind the fighter appeared another older man, dressed in camouflage with a big beard. He was moving quickly to our car as we drove off.

Through the rear windscreen I saw the big man angrily gesturing at our car and shouting at the younger fighter.

A lucky escape, I thought. Extremist fighters - known for their flowing beards – are not always welcoming to cars full of western journalists. The most radical of fighters, many of whom are from outside of Syria, view westerners as spies and enemies of Islam.

Settling in for the rest of the journey, suddenly there was a blaring horn.

Behind the car was the large bearded man on the back of a motorbike. The bike pulled up alongside us, then cut us off in less than 10 seconds. With his machine gun, he pointed to the side of the road and the driver came to stop.

The man got off the motorbike and gestured for the car to reverse further off the highway in to the shade.

Up and down that highway, it was empty of anything and anyone.

The driver got out to talk to the fighter. He started to call a local commander who could vouch for us. Approaching the car, the rebel impatiently waved to hang up the phone. The driver did so. The man came closer to the car.

I prepared for the interrogation: what were we doing, where were we from, for which spy agency did we work to destroy Islam.

The man slung his gun over his shoulder and explained that a plane was bombing the highway a short distance ahead of us. He had been angry with the younger rebel for not telling us this, potentially sending us in to the crosshairs of a fighter jet.

He had moved the car to the shade in case the airplane appeared.

The man stood by the car, checking in on his walkie-talkie every minute until he received word the jet had gone.

He told us it was now safe to continue and wished us well.

Everyone who’s visited a frontline has met foreign fighters who mostly view the west with contempt. One fighter said that the west was “the enemy of Islam” and that all western foreigners in Syria were spies. He became increasingly agitated by my presence, more focused on me than the army mortars coming down. It was only the intervention of a group of Syrian fighters that stopped the situation spiraling out of control.

But these extremist fighters are a fraction of the people who are involved in the uprising. Most of the Syrians I’ve met working to bring down the government are as devout as the average American churchgoer: praying daily, but with zero interest in a theocracy.

Most of the Syrians disqualify themselves from being too religious simply by the breath-taking number of cigarettes they smoke, which is best counted in terms of cartons rather than packs. Late in to the night, they show each other pictures of their girlfriends on their mobile phones.

One activist said: “The world doesn’t help us, and then tells us we are all jihadis because some extremists come to help us. We would do a deal with the devil now to fight this government.”

The foreign extremists are a minority and their influence is limited - for the time being. But the longer this conflict rages, the deeper the despair of hospitals filled with dead children, the more the Syrians might just listen to the extremists.

Aleppo’s Hospitals Under Siege

Civilians and rebels say Assad’s forces are targeting medical facilities—even ambulances.

Toby Muse in Syria
This article as it first appeared online.

As Syria’s Bloody Civil War Rages, Aleppo’s Hospitals Are Under Siege

In a hospital located in Aleppo’s crowded Tariq al Bab neighborhood, there’s a gruesome routine. First comes the sound of an explosion of heavy artillery landing nearby, followed five minutes later by the screech of an ambulance arriving with the blast’s victims.

Friends and doctors lift a young man out of the back of the ambulance. Another mortar crashes a few blocks away and the ambulance races off. The young man, who has a gaping hole in his inner thigh, is carried in to the hospital. This is what a constant bombardment of a city of millions looks like and sometimes the only sounds to be heard are screams and sirens.

“The most common injury is from airplane bombing and mortars,” said a hospital doctor who gave only the name Osram. Most medical staff wouldn’t give their names for fear of reprisals by the military or the pro-government militias, known as the shabiha. All requested that the hospital’s name not be given to avoid further attacks on the building.

Fighter planes and helicopters carrying what the rebel Free Syrian Army call “barrel bombs” fly over the city daily. These 500-kilo munitions can destroy half of a city block. As the rebels lack the weapons to systematically take down aircraft, the helicopters seem unconcerned patrolling the skies, taking their time to find their next target.

Aleppo is the center of Syria’s whirlwind of violence. What started 18 months ago with peaceful marches demanding a change in government has turned into suicide bombers massacring dozens in pro-government zones and government jet fighters bombing civilian neighborhoods.

Hundreds of thousands have fled the fighting, whole families living in miserable refugee camps inside and out of Syria. Around 30,000 have beenkilled and the bloodshed is increasing—a record 4,000 were killed in August alone. Activists expect September to surpass even that.

It’s in hospitals like this one where the extent of the carnage is seen—as is how civilians are bearing the brunt of the violence.

In opposition parts of Aleppo, doctors say the majority of the people they treat are civilians.

“Eighty percent of the people are civilians. Twenty percent are Free Syrian Army,” said Osram.

The hospital is so full that most days the building’s lobby serves as the emergency ward. One old man seemed to come in and out of consciousness as he lay on the floor surrounded by doctors. His left leg below the knee had been blown off. A nurse swatted away flies that settled on his arm.

Pools of blood, pieces of clothing ripped off mangled limbs and trash sat on the floor.

In rare breaks in between bombings, doctors chain-smoked. The hospital is itself deliberately being targeted by the Syrian military, says Osram.

“The hospital has been hit three times. Mortars have exploded close, so shrapnel has hit the building,” the doctor said.

The hospital now no longer uses its top floors, fearing an airstrike or a direct hit. A couple of blocks away, a corner building has almost completely collapsed and many buildings show signs of having been hit by mortars.

Ambulance drivers use towels to cover their vehicles’ flashing lights—one said that helicopters were targeting ambulances.

Rebel commanders say that the heavy civilian toll is not a mistake.

When the FSA brigades took control of certain neighborhoods, they installed themselves in solid, sturdy buildings and waited for the military’s counterattack. Yet it didn’t come. Instead, civilian neighborhoods took the heaviest bombing.

Ambulance drivers use towels to cover their vehicles’ flashing lights—one said that helicopters were targeting ambulances.

“The government deliberately targets civilians. It wants to scare the people of Aleppo into not supporting the FSA,’’ said Omar, one of the activists who’s been filming government attacks and posting them to YouTube for the Free Syrian Army.

As the war for Aleppo has dragged on, as rebels have pushed forward and then seen many advances lost, a change seems to have come over the opposition neighborhoods. In the first days of the rebels’ assault, YouTube videos show civilians happily smiling, giving peace signs to the camera. Now, it’s the rare civilian that allows themselves to be photographed or interviewed. Civilians now fear retribution from a government that once must have looked like it had just weeks left.

Back at the hospital, an orderly took advantage of a brief break to spray the floor and mop up blood. Outside, there’s a heavy crash of another nearby mortar. The doctors put out their cigarettes. In minutes, three of the injured arrive. They share a stunned look. A man sat in his underwear, his hair and body covered in gray dust, blinking as he looked around at the doctors and other patients.

The ambulance driver says that they were taken from an apartment that received a direct hit—they only survived because they were in the backroom.

On Syria’s Frontlines, Sniper Hunts Sniper

Aleppo’s streets have been transformed into a deadly sharpshooters' alley as rebels and government fighters battle for control.

Toby Muse in Syria
This article as it first appeared online.

Like millions of other Syrians, Ali Belkesh’s world has been turned upside down by the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, which has transformed him from a country boy into a frontline sniper. “I used to sell farming tools before the revolution,” he says.

On this day, Ali is crouched behind a wall, holding a mirror around a corner. He’s searching in vain for an enemy sharpshooter further down the burnt-out street.

In a few moments, the enemy sharpshooter will have Ali in his crosshairs and take his shot.

In Aleppo, people tread carefully. Signs hang off walls saying: “Beware—snipers!” People shout conversations across deserted streets. Throughout much of the city’s old quarter, at every small intersection and across every open space, people sprint. Like a deadly pinball arcade, snipers’ bullets ricochet through the narrow streets, bouncing off the walls and ground. Neighborhoods are made up of “sniper alleys.”

Since practically the beginning of the conflict, snipers have been one of the defining characteristics of the Syrian uprising. The opposition says the government first used them against peaceful anti-regime demonstrators in the uprising’s initial stages. But as the civil conflict has sharpened, both sides are employing the renegade sharpshooters. Maya Nasser, a correspondent for Iran’s Press TV, is thought to have been killed by a rebel sniper in Damascus.

It’s impossible to get a reliable count of the number of snipers in Aleppo, but all sides agree that there are more shooters than ever operating in the city. The opposition claims that the increase is due to an influx of foreign snipers fighting in support of the government troops.

“We think they are not Syrian. We have found enemy bodies that don’t look Syrian,” said Barry Abdul Latif, an opposition activist who travels almost daily to frontlines across Aleppo to document the fighting. Echoing widespread suspicions, he says, “We think they are Iranian. But we don’t have proof.”

Times of violence birth macabre customs. Exactly why army snipers are killing Aleppo’s stray cats in not clear—some say it’s a way for the snipers to remain sharp and pass the time. Others say it’s a sign of the sniper’s nerves, taking shots at anything that moves.

After awhile, one stops trying to make sense, and accepts that it might be bloodletting to just spill some blood.

Soft-spoken and humble, Ali Belkesh, the 28-year-old farmboy-turned-sniper, has been in the uprising since its beginning in 2011. When his countrymen took up arms, his good eyesight made him a natural choice for a sniper.

Since then, he guesses he’s killed 15 Syrian soldiers.

Always in shorts and a baseball cap, Ali looks like a Syrian skateboarder. When he’s not fighting, he plays videogames late into the night, favoring airplane simulators as government aircraft fly in the skies above.

He has a wide smile, especially when he talks of his two-year-old daughter, whose picture he carries on his cell phone.

In Aleppo, people tread carefully. Signs hang off walls saying: “Beware—snipers!”

Today, Ali’s rebel brigade is bogged down by a sniper in the neighborhood of Saif al-Dawla, one of Aleppo’s frontlines. Carrying his Steyr Daimler rifle, Ali creeps through the dark corridors of an abandoned house. He motions to be quiet as he climbs up to an open window. Cocking his head, he points to the window—in the next house, Syrian soldiers can be heard talking.

He returns to the front of the house, where 10 or so rebel fighters wait with Kalashnikovs in their laps. They can’t move forward until Ali has located and taken out an army sniper further down the street.

He edges along a brick wall out on to the street. At the wall’s end, he pokes a mirror around the corner, looking at the reflection for any sign of the sniper. A burnt-out bus sits in the middle of the street. In front, a building smolders, half of its façade blasted off. But no sign of the sniper. After 30 seconds, Ali gives up, walking back to his fellow fighters with a shrug.

A crack rings out and Ali drops to the floor with a yell. The enemy sniper has struck. The other fighters quickly pull him back in to the house before the sniper can get a second shot. Gently patting him all over, the fighters look for the bullet hole. Pulling up his T-shirt, they see that the bullet only grazed him over his left shoulder.

Even though it’s a minor cut, Ali is helped out of the frontline to see a doctor. Just before reaching a car, the fighters sprint across a big intersection to avoid another sniper.

“He can kill as many of us as he can. But we will never surrender. We will fight until victory,” says Ali.

The next day, Ali returns to the same street, back to looking for that sniper.

Amazon's Olympic athletes aim for faster, stronger, deadlier

Indigenous tribes come together to put traditional jungle survival skills to the sporting test

Toby Muse in Puerto Narino
The Guardian
This article as it first appeared online.
Illustration from another part of the Guardian website.

Poised on the starting blocks at the Olympics, the 15 swimmers had good reason to feel apprehensive. But the cause of their nervousness was not the race itself – it was the piranhas, anacondas and crocodiles lurking in the turbid waters below.

This is the Amazon Olympics, an annual sporting event for indigenous tribes in this isolated region along the borders of Colombia, Brazil and Peru. Instead of track and field events, however, the competition tests skills and disciplines essential for survival in the jungle: 500 men and women compete in a range of disciplines including, tree-felling, canoe-racing, archery and blowpipe-shooting.

It is a far cry from London 2012's multimillion-pound arenas: the canoes are hand-carved from tree trunks, the bows fashioned from branches, In one event, men and women wield two-metre blowpipes to fire wooden darts at a target. In another event, contestants with axes raced to reduce tree trunks to kindling.

The swimming events all take place in the murky waters of the Loretoyaco river, a tributary of the Amazon. Waiting for her 100m freestyle race, Lina Castro, a 20-year-old member of the Tikun indigenous community, gazed into the water and considered the hazards. "When the race is about to start I need to be calm and not think about all the things that live in the river," she said.

Teams from two dozen villages and towns fight for a cash prize of £1,000, but tribal elders say the main purpose of the games is to help safeguard ancient traditions. "These games are a way of preserving our culture," said Olga Bastos, an indigenous leader, who also competed in the bow and arrow and blowpipe events.

Hanging over the event is the fear that these communities are losing their identities. Even in the tiny town of Puerto Narino – only accessible by river – indigenous teenagers dress in skinny jeans and listen to American dance music and reggaeton. Most can't speak the indigenous languages, only Spanish.

"The youngsters are taking outside influences, the way they dress, how they comb their hair and the music they listen to,'' said Puerto Narino resident William Fernandez. He fears that by losing the skills of hunting, the younger generation is losing something much larger – a connection to the surrounding rainforests.

"The jungle is our natural home. It's our mother, providing everything we need to eat and our whole way of life."