Militarization of the border, an ineffective measure

On both sides of the border between Ecuador and Colombia, a battle is underway against criminal organizations linked to drug trafficking. The increase in military personnel decreed by the two governments is the largest of any border area in South America, and significantly affects the daily lives of rural communities on both sides.

Military checkpoint at the entrance of Mataje. The entry and exit to this town is controlled by the Ecuadorian army after the death of four soldiers on March 20, 2018. Photo: Periodistas Sin Cadenas


Here police and soldiers seem to be sprouting from the ground” jokes a senior Colombian army officer deployed in Tumaco, a port on Colombia’s South Pacific coast which has become the epicenter of a massive military operation against drug trafficking in the recent months. The border with Ecuador is less than 40 kilometers away, where the response to the boom in cocaine trade has been similar: covering the territory with thousands of soldiers.

In this bi-national region as vast as Wales, covered with jungle and mangroves, more than 13,000 police officers, soldiers, special forces, the navy and the air force are fighting against eight different armed groups in conflict with each other over the control, production and export of cocaine. However, communities on the two sides of the border are caught in a cross-fire; they are suffering from the militarization of their land, which is used as an operational base, and putting their lives at risk.


Photographic essay in El Tandil, Tumaco, a week after the assassination of the farmers. Photos by Manu Brabo.


In Colombia, two weeks after eight coca growers were murdered in a rural area of the municipality of Tumaco in October 2017, the Colombian government mobilized around 9,000 law enforcement officers. According to the then Minister of Defense, Luis Carlos Villegas, the Atlas military campaign aimed to “fight head-on” against coca production, money laundering, and “illegal activity” along the region’s rivers, as well as “combating organized crime” and protecting the oil and electricity infrastructures.

As Colombia’s troop deployment got underway, in Ecuador, border cities began to feel the ravages of a war that was overflowing into their country. On the 27th of January, at dawn, a car bomb exploded near a police station in San Lorenzo, a small town in the coastal province of Esmeraldas. The attack – attributed to the Oliver Sinisterra Front (FOS) – wounded 28 people and caused serious damage to the building concerned as well as to at least 37 houses within a radius of 50 meters.


Police operation with an armoured tank in San Lorenzo, in a zone near the Police Headquarters. A car bomb exploded outside of the barracks on January 27, 2018. Photo: Edu León / Periodistas Sin Cadenas


The bomb attack led Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno to declare a 60-day state of emergency in the cities of San Lorenzo and Eloy Alfaro. This gave special powers to the security forces and suspended four of the citizens’ fundamental rights: inviolability of the home, freedom of communication, freedom of movement, and freedom of assembly and association.

These exceptional measures, combined with a significant strengthening of the security apparatus, did not, however, put an end to the actions of the FOS, led by Walther Arizala, alias Guacho, a former guerrilla with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Between the 17th of February and the 4th April 2018, he was responsible for several attacks against the military forces and against the electricity infrastructure in Ecuador. According to the Ecuadorian authorities, this offensive was in response to the increase in anti-drug operations in the region, which began in October 2017.

But the action that triggered a shockwave of anger throughout Ecuador was the kidnapping of a team of journalists from the daily El Comercio in Quito. Reporter Javier Ortega, photographer Paúl Rivas and driver Efraín Segarra were kidnapped on the 26th of March in the border town of Mataje. The FOS was supposedly seeking to exchange them for three of their men incarcerated in Ecuadorian prisons.

One day after the announcement of the kidnapping, President Moreno announced the creation of the National Border Security Committee, extended the state of emergency, and reiterated that he would do everything in his power to obtain the release of journalists.


Ecuadorian military patrols answering the first group of journalists’ request to enter Mataje after the kidnapping and murder of the journalists. Photo: Edu León / Periodistas Sin Cadenas


Gradually, the border on the Ecuadorian side was invaded by military troops and special police force units. Their mission was not only to find the El Comercio team, but also to contain the Oliver Sinisterra Front, in collaboration with their Colombian counterparts. 3500 soldiers in uniforms arrived in the province of Esmeraldas.

On the Colombian side, units of the Hercules Task Force were alerted to find the kidnappers of the journalists. According to the commander in charge of the Special Police Command of the South Pacific, Colonel Jhon Aroca, Tumaco was “one of the towns that was most densely covered by the security forces”.

The Hercules Task Force is made up of the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force. It has 8,304 men distributed across a rapid deployment force, a stabilization and consolidation operational command, four ground operations battalions, two urban special forces companies, and a comprehensive action and development support battalion, an infantry brigade, two infantry battalions, a river battalion and finally an attack helicopter. Its budget in 2018 exceeds half a million dollars. In addition, 1,300 officers of the Special Command of the South Pacific Police are deployed in Tumaco.


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Rural zone of Barbacoas, Nariño, South of Colombia. 26/09/2017. Operations against illegal mining carried out by the Colombian Police in the southern area of the country. © Juan Manuel Barrero Bueno


General Juan Bautista Yepes, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Colombian Armed Forces, responded to the kidnapping announcement, saying: “A bi-national meeting was held to coordinate and implement a plan to combat common threats at the border” with two components which are “intelligence sharing” and “sustained territorial control operations throughout the border area”.

Unfortunately, these joint decisions had an adverse effect on the employees of the El Comercio newspaper. On the 13th of April, 20 days after the kidnapping, the Oliver Sinisterra Front issued a statement, declaring that the increase in the border security forces and the “military response” had resulted in the “death of the three Ecuadorian journalists”.

In the first months of the operation, Colombian security forces lost five men, and the FOS killed three judicial investigators in July. In the first three months, the task force conducted more than 100 border operations, destroyed 130 laboratories and seized more than 59 tons of cocaine. Finally, in less than ten days, in September, they dealt two major blows to the criminal groups: the death of Victor David Segura, alias David, leader of the United Pacific Guerrillas, and an operation against Guacho.

The paradox of this situation is that, parallel to the increase in military force on the Colombian side, there has been a considerable rise in the number of homicides observed in the region. According to the Nariño government, between July 2017 and 2018, the number of homicides increased by 34%, from 248 to 332. With 147 murders recorded in the first half of 2018, Tumaco is the municipality most affected by this phenomenon, with an increase of 55%.


TUMACO (COLOMBIA) 16/03/2013. Members of the Colombian Army show 3,9 tons of cocaine seized on March 16, 2013, in the municipality of Timbiquí, department of Cauca (Colombia). According to authorities, cocaine belongs to FARC guerrillas. © Juan Manuel Barrero Bueno


In Ecuador, by the 15th of August, the Esmeraldas Joint Task Force had carried out 1613 military operations, including 995 surveillance missions and 558 arms control operations. The army seized 4000 gallons of gasoline and 710 cans of acetone, both used in cocaine production laboratories, and confiscated 3,000 rounds of rifle cartridges. Since January, the Air Force has conducted 1,378 hours of patrols at the border.

So far this year, police have reported the seizure of 5,1 tons of cocaine, 19 tons of chemical precursors, 141 firearms, and 797 explosives. They also claim to have dismantled 48 criminal groups and arrested 1064 people in 13 crackdowns.


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Esmeraldas has the highest homicide rate in Ecuador. Official information shows that in 2010, the year of the latest data available, the rate was 61,6 crimes per 100 000 inhabitants. The average for the country in that year was 18,6 homicides. Photo: Edu León / Periodistas Sin Cadenas


Although the rates of violence in the Esmeraldas province are lower than in Nariño, the number of homicides has also increased despite the rising presence of security forces. While between January and August 2017, 44 murders were recorded, there were 58 murders over the same period in 2018, an increase of 31%. With a rate of 10,8 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, Esmeraldas has the highest homicide rate in Ecuador, almost three times higher than the national average.

As a result, civilians are caught between the security forces and illegal groups. Since the two countries decided to declare total war on drug trafficking, public institutions, community leaders, peasant and ethno-territorial organizations have denounced the fact that, in their determination to impose themselves on the region, police forces have placed the civilian population in serious danger.


Civilians affected in Colombia

The militarization of the area is a nightmare for Tumaco residents living in the rural areas bordering Ecuador. On the 6th of May 2018, the Colombian Ombudsman’s Office reported the situation to the Colombian Interior Ministry, requesting the attention of various national government institutions to protect the local communities. According to the organization, following the kidnapping and murder of the journalists, Colombian and Ecuadorian law enforcement operations intensified in the border area, affecting 22 peasant, indigenous, and Afro-descendant communities.

According to the Ombudsman’s Office, it is difficult to access certain territories in the region; there have been abuses by some soldiers on the population, and the Ecuadorian army has even carried out kidnappings of citizens in Colombia. However, according to the document, the situation was not denounced, for fear of reprisals.

The Awá people are one of the most affected. The Indigenous Guard, in charge of protecting the territory and its identity, is in conflict with various military units that camp on their lands without consulting the community. According to the indigenous peoples, the presence of troops exposes them to danger in a possible armed confrontation.


Photographic essay on the Awa community in Rosario, Nariño, by photographer Juan Manuel Barrero.


A leader of the Indigenous Guard of the Piguambí Palangala community who requested anonymity said that since June 2018, the flow of armed forces into the region has increased. That same month, soldiers set up camps next to two schools in the community. Teachers were forced to suspend classes for fear of armed attacks, until the Guard was able to convince the troops to leave these areas.

“The army causes a lot of damage. I saw them (the soldiers) myself, taking fish from the ponds and taking chickens to cook them. To do this, they watch for the owner of the animals to be absent, especially on Sundays when people leave because these are market days” explains the Indigenous leader.

Another Indigenous Guard also recounts, anonymously, that several members of the community have been victims of false accusations by the security forces, simply for wearing rubber boots or because of the way they dress. He reports that some of his friends working in the fields were told: “Show us your hands, you look like guerillas, and if you are guerrillas, we will shoot you.”

The soldiers would report men of the hunting community as guerrillas: “Now the army stops you and says: ‘This one is a revolutionary,’ because you have a gun. But it is the custom of the indigenous people to carry their 16-caliber gun, their ‘chiminea’, their fork, because we have always lived in the bush, and off hunting.”

Segundo Jaime Cortés, Governor of one of these reserves, called “resguardos” – autonomous indigenous collective territories – says that the situation has worsened because the military ignores the ancestral authorities, even though they are protected by the country’s political constitution: “I have already been told: ‘Who are you? Don’t think we’re not going settle here.’ They don’t understand that I am the guarantor of the law in this territory and that when we talk, we are equal to equal.” According to the governor, soldiers have already put pressure on them to obtain information on illegal armed groups.

Henry Marín, adviser to the Awá Indigenous People’s Unity Organization (Unipa), said that since the murder of the El Comercio team, military operations have increased in nine “resguardos”. According to Marín, in response to the military operations, illegal armed organizations have placed anti-personnel mines in indigenous territory, and threatened traditional authorities, such as the Governor and three other leaders of the Gran Rosario reserve, who have been forced to flee the region for fear of being murdered.

The situation is similar in the lands of the Alto Mira y Frontera Community Council, a territory of communities of African descent, bordering Ecuador. Anny Castillo, the “personera” (person working in the human rights office, half prosecutor, half mediator) of Tumaco, acknowledges that the population has encountered problems with the army and the anti-drug police, particularly in relation to the occupation of civilian property. “The army is requisitioning housing in the communities and refusing to return them. We have also been informed of cases of theft of civilian property by the military” she said.


El Tandil, Llorente, Nariño. 18/10/2017. A girl studies in her house located in the middle of coca crops in the area of El Tandil, near the place where the Colombian anti-narcotics police fired on coca growers, where at least seven farmers died. © Juan Manuel Barrero Bueno


Juan Carlos Angulo, the legal representative of the South Pacific Network of Community Councils (Recompas), reiterates that such practices, among others not reported, put communities at risk: “The community suffers from the stigma imposed on it, either by the military or by the armed groups. Soldiers accuse people of being ‘delinquents’ or ‘guerrillas’, while illegal groups consider them to be ‘pro-government’. Moreover, within the army, the idea seems to be taking hold that any action taken to catch Guacho must be supported by the population without being questioned.” To avoid further harm, Angulo asked the military commanders of Operation Atlas not to present the results of the operations as a product of “collaboration with the community”, because of the increased risks involved.


El Tandil, Llorente, Nariño. 18/10/2017. Daily life in the area of El Tandil near the place where the Colombian anti-narcotics police fired on coca growers, where at least seven farmers died. © Juan Manuel Barrero Bueno


The “colonos” also suffer from the situation of the indigenous communities. The Mira Nulpe and Mataje River Association (Asominuma), composed of members from southern Colombia who settled in the territories of these communities of African descent, publicly denounced cases of abuse perpetrated by the army. In August 2018, the association stated that the soldiers present in Llorente “send out reports, make accusations, and register the leaders”.

According to the complaint, several soldiers went looking for the president of the Vallenato District Community Action Council, Alicia Torres, who they claimed was a member of an armed group. These developments, according to Asominuma, are “extremely serious and increase the danger in which the community leader finds herself”.

The association also denounces the practice of occupying the homes of displaced families, searches and detentions without a warrant, pressure on the board presidents, theft of census and accounting documents, and the systematic positioning of the security forces in the vicinity of populated areas to “protect” themselves from possible attacks.

To remedy the situation and in view of the many complaints from the civilian population, the Ombudsman’s Office and the “personera” in Tumaco are working together on a proposal for a protocol to handle the relationship between the security forces and the communities. Meanwhile, leaders of ethno-territorial organizations, the church and the Public Ministry constantly transmit the denunciations to the Joint Command, with whom they believe solutions have been found, particularly in cases of school occupation. Contacted – in writing and on several occasions in the course of preparing this report – to obtain his version of the facts, Army General Jorge Hoyos, Commander of the Hercules Task Force, never responded to our request.


El Tandil, Llorente, Nariño. Oct 2017. Manu Brabo


Colonel Aroca assures that apart from criminal investigation, the main challenges of the Command are “community acceptance” and the mitigation of the consequences of police operations on the civilian population. According to the senior official, “here (in Tumaco), you must have a strong hand, but it is also necessary to get closer (to the community), as most are not bandits and are also affected by the current procedure. It is a very great challenge to put strength and rapprochement in the same uniform.”


Surveillance operation by the Ecuadorian army on the bridge that connects to Colombia, in Mataje. Photo: Periodistas Sin Cadenas


Displaced Populations in Ecuador

El Pan is a small farming community on the Mataje River on the Ecuadorian side. Ecuador was alarmed when war broke out on the other side of the border and illegal armed groups began to make their way into Ecuador. The first shots were heard on the 17th of February 2018, when military patrols were attacked by armed men, attacks that were repeated two days later.

The civilian population, frightened by these clashes, was forced to leave the area. It is estimated that at the beginning of the clashes, 69 families left. Men and women carried their children in their arms, some taking sick people to San Lorenzo, two hours from El Pan, leaving behind them silent witnesses of this escape: work tools, pets or household appliances.

Families in neighboring towns such as Mataje Alto and Tobar Donoso, frightened by the gunshots, have also been victims of this uprooting. Forced displacements have taken place within Las Delicias as well. A total of 98 families were forced to flee the region. They took refuge in houses, rooms or emergency shelters in the port of San Lorenzo, a city of about 42,000 inhabitants and severely affected by drug trafficking.

In April, 52 families of Mataje Nuevo were forced to leave their lands after a military and police raid of at least 3500 recruits that followed the kidnapping and murder of the El Comercio team. María Reinalda Tenorio, a displaced person from El Pan, bitterly remembers the shoot-out that drove all these families away. She now lives in San Lorenzo, in a two-story house, half built and overcrowded, with her husband, eight of her 13 children and her daughters-in-law, as well as 11 grandchildren.


In San Lorenzo, a girl sleeps in a house under construction that belongs to one of the displaced families. Photo: Periodistas Sin Cadenas


She remembers that she was cooking when she heard the shots. She left her house running, frightened. The soldiers warned them that it was better to leave, without giving more details. “But how do we get out? My husband can’t walk, he’s sick” she replied. No answer. María Reinalda Tenorio and Jesús Caicedo, as well as their children and grandchildren, fled without asking for anything. A dump truck then took them to San Lorenzo. According to her, the shoot-out was the first she had experienced in El Pan in 51 years.

The clashes resulted in three people getting arrested, including Albeiro, one of the sons of the Caicedo-Tenorio couple. He was interrogated for five hours by a group of soldiers and then released. “They arrested me, tied me up and threw me in the bush. They asked me to reveal to them who had fired the shots, but I didn’t know. As I didn’t say anything, they pulled out a knife as if they wanted to cut off my legs to see if I was talking, but I didn’t know anything.”

Several weeks after their escape to San Lorenzo, the Caicedo-Tenorio family managed to return home in search of some properties in El Pan, converted into a restricted area by the army. They found very few of their belongings: forks, knives and animals were stolen. Their household appliances, as well as the two gas bottles that Maria used in her small restaurant, were also gone.

“Life in El Pan was going well”, Maria says, sitting next to the table where she presents her dishes, surrounded by her daughters and her husband. “We lived in peace, everything was quiet. We lived off agriculture and our animals. We were watching the border as a community, but now we have been forced to leave the area.” The desire to return floats into the conversation. She fears that her farm will be reduced to “crumbs”, but despite the military and police measures, the fear of having to flee again, just as in February, prevents them from returning home.


Housing project developed by the Ecuadorian Government to relocate people displaced by conflict in San Lorenzo. The houses have not been delivered yet. Photo: Periodistas Sin Cadenas


Their son, Albeiro, mentioned earlier about his arbitrary detention and interrogation, now works in a palm oil company, and earns no more than $266 a month. This amount of money allows them, they say, to buy enough food for two meals a day, but is not enough to cover all the basic expenses of the household. From the social services, they only received one lunch, which was given to them at the town hall on the day the displaced people arrived from El Pan.

Guadualito, a small Awá village located 45 minutes from San Lorenzo, was also a victim of the ravages of war. In February 2018, 180 Ecuadorian soldiers arrived and camped in the village for more than two months. “Without the consent or authorization of the community, they requisitioned educational centers, the community house, the health clinic and other spaces to settle… they invaded us” Olindo Nastacuaz, leader of the community, told a journalist from the alliance.


Displaced families from El Pan live in a crowded house in San Lorenzo. Photo: Periodistas Sin Cadenas


According to Nastacuaz, the community rejected militarization because they knew that the construction of roadblocks within the inhabited area would put them at risk, “as the group of dissidents on the other side of the border could attack, bomb or initiate some action that would affect everyone’s life and safety.”

The army has also blocked roads, which has an impact on the residents who usually travel to San Lorenzo to buy food and return in the afternoon or evening. It was no longer possible to go there because after 4pm, the army declared that they “did not respond”. “This violates the right to free movement” Nastacuaz says. He adds that when they blamed the soldiers for the invasion, the soldiers constantly replied that they had authorization from “up there”.

Nastacuaz remembers that in April, the soldiers informed them that they had three hours to leave the city and settle temporarily in the San Lorenzo park. “But there was no transport for so many people, and we could not leave at all, so we stayed, nobody moved”.


Control militar a la entrada de Mataje , la entrada y salida a esta población es controlada por el ejército ecuatoriano después de la muerte de los 3 militares el 20 de marzo. Foto /Periodistas Sin Cadenas


Fewer troops, more investment

In both Ecuador and Colombia, the state’s presence is limited to military uniforms. In Tumaco, the poverty rate is 84.5%. The sewerage system is only accessible in 5% of the city, infant mortality rate is 65 per 1,000, and unemployment is almost 70%. In addition, the inhabitants of Tumaco have been hit hard by various waves of violence: more than 99,000 people, or half of the population, are registered as victims of the armed conflict.

In the province of Esmeraldas, Ecuador, 78% of the population has no access to primary needs, 54% of the locals have no access to drinking water, 21% have no electricity, and in villages such as San Lorenzo and Eloy Alfaro, the poverty rate reaches 85% and 95% respectively. The war makes living conditions even more difficult. Doctors, nurses, social workers and civil servants cannot access communities without being escorted by armed patrols. In El Pan, the teacher fled the town following the wave of violence that devastated the area.


The armed groups’ financing sources include the struggle for territory. Illegal mining has become the second source of money for these groups and control also reaches all of the country’s political instances. Photo: Juan Manuel Barrero Bueno


Local officials and social leaders in Tumaco believe that police and military interventions are far from solving security problems, partly due to the pressure of drug trafficking. Castillo explains that this illegal activity has its structural causes in unemployment, lack of opportunities for access to higher education, dissatisfaction of basic needs and lack of public services. It is a municipality that does not create the appropriate social conditions for citizens to find a legal alternative to their existing lives.

“If there is no social investment, it is very unlikely that this war will be won. You can capture Guacho and the commanders of each of the armed groups, but if Tumaco’s problems remain the same, more “Guachos” will emerge” Castillo says.

In the same spirit, the priest Arnulfo Mina, Vicar General of the Diocese of Tumaco, is well aware of the vicissitudes of the communities: “We must create jobs, opportunities for young people, and improve the quality of education in order to reduce conflicts. If there is no (state) support, we will continue to bury people.”

According to Mina, part of the solution would be to reactivate the port and create companies to process local products such as tuna, cocoa, coconut, shrimp, piangua (a local shellfish) or plantain bananas. However, there is a major obstacle: the weakness of local institutions.

In Ecuador, the government assures that the situation is under control and that displaced people from El Pan have been able to return to their lands. But for many families like the Tenorios, the reality is quite different. They still live in an overcrowded environment in San Lorenzo, and they still hear the sound of bullets, the sound of fear.