Keeping Silent to Stay Alive: Living Along the Mataje River
Located in one of the regions that have the world’s highest number of coca fields, the Mataje River between Ecuador and Colombia is one of the main routes used for drug transportation to the north. On this natural axis, surrounded by luxurious plants and greenery, are hidden drug-processing laboratories and stockpiles of weapons. Abandoned by the Colombian and Ecuadorian governments, the population that lives here is trapped in the dynamics of drug-trafficking. A single code controls their life: silence.
Raised to keep silent
Mataje Nuevo is a small town that lives in silence. It is the beginning of August. There is nobody on the streets. Despite the suffocating heat, the doors and windows of the houses remain closed. The restaurant La Fronterita – the only restaurant on the asphalt road – is empty, just like the sports center. Only the screams and laughter of the children running in the playground of the school “My Homeland” interrupts the lethargy of this community living along the Mataje River, the natural border that separates Ecuador and Colombia for 28 kilometers. This river is one of the main routes for the transport of narcotics from South America to Central and North America.
It was in this small village in the morning hours of the 26th of March 2018 that we lost track of three members of the daily El Comercio forever. They were kidnapped and murdered by a group of guerillas that split from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), led by Walther Arizala, alias “Guacho”.
Since then, whoever wants to go to Mataje – a journalist, a doctor, a professor, even a public employee – must be accompanied by a military guard. These visits are uncomfortable for the villagers, and it is noticed when this silent town begins to make noise.
On the 1st of August, for the first time in more than 4 months, a team of four journalists managed to enter Mataje, but not all by themselves. They were accompanied by a caravan of five trucks and a jeep, preceded by a HOWO truck and 20 soldiers armed with HK assault rifles. A group of agents in civilian clothes wearing bullet-proof vests filmed the entire visit.
During the visit which lasted 20 minutes, the agents also used a drone to fly over the area to avoid any bad surprises. The vehicles were parked near a local health center. Here, police and military personnel are escorting the medical staff in charge of taking care of patients in the bordering villages.
Colonel Milton Rodriguez from the Joint Task Force of the Ecuadorian Armed Forces led the tour. The group left the Naval Base of San Lorenzo to travel to Mataje Nuevo, the newest part of the town, inaugurated in 2006, made up of housing facilities donated by the Ecuadorian government. It was exactly in this same place that Paul Rivas, Efraín Segarra and Javier Ortega were kidnapped.
Earlier, on the 20th of March, four soldiers had been killed in an attack here. After the tragedy, the health center was shut down for more than two months. When it re-opened at the beginning of July, a doctor, Eliana Horta, treated a man who was suffering from bullet wounds, but nobody spoke about the circumstances of the attack. During the journalists’ visit in August, Colonel Rodriguez allowed the group only a short walk on the road next to the health center. The tour ended on the dirt road that led to Mataje Viejo, where a military patrol was preparing to spend eight days in the jungle.
“Why are you recording me? Don’t film me!” a woman shouted, covering her face as soon as she saw the cameras. A young man carrying a baby in his arms ignored Colonel Rodriguez when he greeted him, and preferred to cross to the other side of the street. Two men who were wearing boots and working on the athletic field also ignored the officer. “Can we stop?” asked a cameraman as the group passed by the only concrete structure in the village. “No!” Rodriguez responded.
This two-story house, with tinted windows and a metal door, is in deep contrast with the modest homes in the area. It belongs to the mother of Guacho, leader of the Oliver Sinisterra Front, that kidnapped and murdered the El Comercio team, as well as Oscar Villacis and Katty Velsco, a couple abducted in the same area. Today, nobody knows where Guacho is, even though the Colombian government announced that he was injured during an armed confrontation. Days after this statement was issued, the Colombian defense ministry admitted that it could not confirm this.
When agents raided this house – which has metal staircases and tile floors – on the 16th of March 2018, they confiscated two computers that contained letters exchanged between Guacho and Gentil Duarte, leader of the FARC’s first front. In one of these letters, Duarte tells Guacho that he must “continue to forge the authentic revolutionary army of the FARC-EP, because today it is more valid than ever.” Also found in the house was a metal plaque with the name of Arizala Vernaza Juan Gabriel, one of Guacho’s brothers captured in Colombia, as well as a Hikvision video surveillance camera. Another object they found was a book whose cover shows a boy in army fatigues holding a weapon: the book’s title is I didn’t have toys but I had a rifle: from a guerilla boy to a military instructor, by Carlos Castaño. The book, found with some page corners folded, is the story of a boy who joined the FARC at the age of 12 and ended up as the leader of 5000 para-military troops.
That day in early August, on the side of the road in Mataje, some women were doing their laundry in a stream. None of them responded to greetings. The only sound that was heard was the noise of the wet clothes being beaten against the wooden boards. Apparently, everyone here knows that if there are journalists around, the army cannot be not too far.
In Mataje Nuevo, the few passers-by flee the soldiers and the cameras. When the truck turned the corner and took the next street behind the concrete house, a woman sitting on a wooden bench made a gesture with her arm as if to say “go away!”. The tour also passed by a house with its doors open, but there was nobody, only a dog walking around. A little further down, another woman, said something indecipherable without looking at the truck, but her tone was grumpy. A man sweeping in front of his house turned his back.
Although there are no coca plantations on the Ecuadorian side, the illegal business affects both sides of the border. The southwest of Colombia – mainly the departments of Nariño and Putumayo – is one of the areas with the largest number of coca crops in the country. In Tumaco, on the Colombian side of Mataje, coca is grown on 19,517 hectares of land: that’s 11% of the entire country, an area bigger than the entire city of Barranquilla. Seen from the sky and on satellite maps, you can check the size of the stain left by cutting down entire forests in order to grow coca. On both sides of the border, the logic is the same: observe and shut up if you want to survive.
A few minutes after the team of journalists arrived, reggaetón songs could be heard in full blast, the sound coming from one of the houses. “This is how they warn the other side that we are here” a soldier explained, adding that they sometimes turn on electric chainsaws as a warning. The screams and laughter of the children were no longer the only sound around. The soldiers that accompanied the group were in a hurry to finish the tour.
The caravan left quickly via the same street it entered the village, and then stopped for a moment on the bi-national bridge that, on the Colombian side, only led to the jungle. Colombia has yet to build the part of the road that is in its territory. On the bridge which “leads nowhere”, even the soldiers took photos of themselves. Waving his gun, Colonel Rodriguez ordered everyone to get going.
The Lost Border
700 meters from Mataje Nuevo is Mataje Viejo, or old Mataje, where the older villagers live. To arrive here, you must take a dirt road hidden behind the bushes. On the 20th of March 2018, on this same route, a military patrol was attacked with a home-made bomb that was activated by electric cables. Soldiers Luis Alfredo Mosquera Borja, Jairon Estiven Sandoval Bajaña and Sergio Jordán Elaje Cedeño were killed. Two weeks later, soldier Wilmer Alvares Pimentel also succumbed to his injuries. Since then, access to Mataje has been restricted. Only the residents can go in.
During a first visit on the 12th of June 2018, our press team found two checkpoints on the road: the first, controlled by police and the army, the second by soldiers in uniform who took turns to control the vehicles from a rudimentary structure made of wooden poles and a plastic roof.
Next to it, near a small hill, was the Naval Base that civilians were forbidden access to. So, the men on the lookout, approving or refusing access. Traffic was interrupted with yellow tape, a reflective cone, and a stop sign. When the press team demanded permission to take photos, a soldier asked for authorization via radio, although his work consisted only of writing down the names of those who entered.
On the 15th of August, the team made another trip to the area. This time, without being escorted, since the military authorities had guaranteed there was no longer any danger. However, as they arrived at the road block to the Navy base, the three soldiers stationed there turned pale when they realized these were not local residents. “You are putting yourselves in danger!” one soldier shouted to a journalist.
When the press team came across other controls on the road, the soldiers asked them for a pass, and explained that the danger in the region was real, because of the large number of small paths near the road that led to remote villages. “You should have military and police protection!” they insisted. It was the day Rito Jayro R, alias the “Lanchero”, in charge of Guacho’s movements on the Mataje river, was captured.
This was not the first time that access to Mataje was so restricted. Chronicles from fourteen years ago describe how at this same checkpoint steel chains prevented entry. Although the old dirt road is now made of asphalt, this small Ecuadorian village has been living along a border of fear for several years now.
February 2001. Another tragic month in Mataje. The political leader of the region, Milton Guerrero Segua, was murdered with his two sons, three brothers, a cousin, and two friends. Their bodies were found in the Mataje river and in the surrounding areas, with mutilated fingers, open thoraxes, and bullet marks.
According to the police, it was a settling of accounts among drug traffickers. Shortly before that, Guerrero Segura had ordered a drug seizure, and according to the press, he had kept part of it. Authors of the murders operated on the banks of the Mataje River. The authorities pointed to Colombian drug traffickers without clarifying precisely which group they belonged to. The murderers sent a message through a person who witnessed the kidnapping: “It’s a lesson for you to learn that nobody can touch us.” Bodies of the victims were recovered by their families in a territory where law does not enter.
For decades, the area around the river has been a conflict zone. Most of the testimonies come from the Ecuadorian side because there are more people living on that side of the border. In 2010, the population of Mataje was 1,475. On the banks of the river, there are nine communities. The biggest one is Mataje Nuevo. Jairo Arizola, secretary of the Cantonal Council for the Protection of Rights in San Lorenzo, explains that the population increased due to the migration of Colombians after Plan Colombia took effect (particularly in 2004 and 2006), and the region plunged into violence. In 2001, San Lorenzo had 28,180 inhabitants, in 2010, the figure had increased to 42,486. In archives, there is news of the massacre of 45 Ecuadorian and Colombian villagers in 2003.
Historically, in the region of Mataje, the presence of paramilitaries and dissident groups is on record, such as the Rastrojos and Aguilas Negras, and members of the FARC. The Oliver Sinisterra Front, one of the dissident groups that was created recently is a split from the “column” of the Daniel Aldana Front, which operated in this border region with Ecuador. “Columns” were groups of fighters who moved in a pre-defined territory and had tactical and operational autonomy – they did not respond directly to a line of command within the FARC. Many members of this structure never joined the peace accord signed in November 2016.
The Oliver Sinisterra Front is one of the groups that has settled in Tumaco, close to the border with Ecuador. This front, along with the United Guerillas of the Pacific and the National Liberation Army, are all fighting over the control of drug trafficking, according a report by the Foundation of Ideas for Peace in Colombia published in August 2018. The report says, also present in the area are the Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia and criminal gangs such as Gaula NP and Las Lagrimas.
These groups have links to the Mexican big drug cartels, like the Sinaloa cartel, Kalisco Nueva Generación and the Golfo cartel, says Fernado Carrión, an expert on security issues, who describes these illegal international organizations as “holdings”. They hire local groups for growing, producing, and transporting drugs, the Ecuadorian researcher explains. After the signing of the peace accord, when the FARC left the territories, the state did not take their place. So, the armed groups started to fight each other for control of the territory, he adds.
Tumaco lives in fear on a daily basis. Most of the people interviewed by another group of journalists from the international alliance did not allow the interviews to be recorded, not even an audio recording, out of fear of possible reprisals. Several sources said that the residents avoid reporting crimes to the Prosecutor’s Office because some people who dared to do that were threatened, murdered, or forced to leave. They said that the institution’s employees share information with the armed groups, and they watch and keep track of who enters the head offices of the prosecutor.
“No, I cannot talk” is the phrase commonly used by the inhabitants of the Colombian municipality, to protect themselves, explains Anny Castillo, who runs the organism in charge of making sure human rights are respected in Tumaco. “In numerous areas of Tumaco, where the situation is critical, the leaders move to other cities and the local communities are left behind like orphans” she adds.
José Silvio Cortés, coordinator of the Awá indigenous guard in the Alto Pianulpí area, part of the Resguardo Piguambí Palangala organization, describes life on the border with one phrase: “We spend the day in fear, we sleep at night in fear.”
The communities living on the border are victims of the battle over the control of drugs. Between January 2017 and the 21st of August 2018, these groups were involved in 88 operations, that’s about three per week. Among these actions were confrontations, harassment of law enforcement forces, attacks with anti-personnel mines and other explosives, and forced displacements. 15 of these operations took place on the Ecuadorian side of the border, according to a publication by the Foundation of Ideas for Peace in Colombia. The Oliver Sinisterra Front has been pointed out as the main group responsible for these attacks.
Investigation into these facts reveal the life of the people living along the river and show the presence of the Oliver Sinisterra Front. A demobilized member of this group told the Colombian Prosecutor’s Office that the Mataje and Mira rivers are used for the transportation of cocaine, ammunition, and food for the group members. In motorboats, narco-traffickers transport around 600 kilos of cocaine four times a week, in other words, more than 115 tons per year. At the mouth of the river, the drugs are transferred to other boats that travel across the sea.
The villages on both sides of the river are part of a drug trafficking chain. In Ecuador, particularly in Mataje Nuevo, drug traffickers stockpile arms in coves, a witness explains. The “kitchens” or labs where coca leaves are processed are in Campanita, approximately 8 kilometers from Mataje, upstream. Contract killers roam the more urbanized villages like San Lorenzo. This part of the border serves to supply fuel and substances necessary for cocaine production, according to a judicial official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In Colombia, in addition to growing coca, narco-traffickers gather together, particularly in La Balsa, situated a little over 2 kilometers from Mataje. In this village and in Puerto Rico, which is across from Mataje, they also stockpile weapons, another demobilized person explains. In Montañita and Tumaco are the camps where Guacho stays most of the time, even though the chief of the Oliver Sinisterra Front and other leaders of the group have been spotted throughout this border region.
Colonel Milton Rodriguez assures that there are no criminal groups in Ecuadorian territories. During a brief visit to Mataje Nuevo on the 1st of August, the military chief pointed his finger to Colombia several times. “Over there, at the border, a hundred meters away, are armed criminal groups,” he affirmed. Off camera, another police chief contradicted him: “In the Mataje river, there is no control.”
In January 2018, Ecuadorian police and army went to Mataje Nuevo to arrest drug traffickers and search the houses of people suspected of having links to the Oliver Sinisterra Front. Dévora Ruiz and her daughter Sully Quiñónez were accused of arms trafficking. During their trial, the name of Milton Guerrero Segura, the former political leader of the region who was murdered 17 years ago, reappeared. To defend herself, Ruiz mentioned that he was her uncle. As a consequence, she explained, nobody in her family wants to be linked to armed groups. Her daughter – who was cleared of charges – stated: “In the village, we are raised to keep our mouths shut, about what we see, and what we hear.”