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Tensions mount on Colombian border
Luis Ángel Saavedra*
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Fumigations have ceased, but Colombian military incursions have put its neighbor on high alert.

The border separating Ecuador and Colombia has become the center of a political and military dispute, marking a severe tension that threatens to derail diplomatic relations between the neighboring Andean countries.

In the last four months there have been three reports of Colombian air raids, the most recent of which was Jan. 28, when a war plane and two Black Hawk helicopters opened fire on the Ecuadorian town of La Bermeja.

According to Ecuadorian Defense Minister Oswaldo Jarrín, this most recent incursion "was a scheduled, planned and coordinated attack," confirming allegations that Colombia has changed its military strategy along the border trying to one in which both countries are involved.

This border first received public attention in 2000 with the implementation of Plan Colombia, the Colombian government’s offensive on drug trafficking and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Colombia’s military activities provoked a shift in the military strategy of Ecuador’s armed forces, which now maintains some 14,000 troops along the border.

Toxic fumigations

But the situation worsened in July 2003, when the Colombian government began spraying areas along the border with herbicides in an effort to kill coca cultivations, a measure that affected the health and environment of numerous Ecuadorian communities in the province of Sucumbios.

Members of the Federation of Campesino Organizations from the Ecuadorian Border Zone of Sucumbios (FORCCOFES) sued the Ecuadorian government for failing to protect its citizens.

On March 30, 2004 the District Administrative Court of Quito ordered the government to provide sufficient protection for the border population, and for it to demand that Colombia cease all fumigations on Ecuadorian territory within 10 kilometers (6 miles) of the border.

But then-President Lucio Gutiérrez (2003-2005), aligned with the Colombian military agenda backed by the United States, rejected the ruling. Nevertheless, on March 15, 2005, weeks before Gutiérrez’s ouster, the Constitutional Court upheld the Quito court’s ruling.

The government of current President Alfredo Palacio ordered the country’s foreign minister to present claims detailing the damages the fumigations caused on Ecuadorian towns as a means to prevent Colombia from fumigating within 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the border.

Colombian government’s promises

Pressure from social organizations and the Ecuadorian government led Colombia to announce in January that they would cease fumigations in the area.

"There will be no more fumigation along the border. This week, while the police and drug eradication agents will make their way to the Serrania de la Macarena, another group will go to the border with Ecuador to remove the drugs manually," said Colombian President Álvaro Uribe Jan. 16.

The announcement was well-received by the Ecuadorian government but social organizations were skeptical.

"The end of fumigations on the border is a victory for the Ecuadorian organizations, but one must consider that Colombia’s announcement is that [there will be] only a temporary suspension; they could resume at any moment," said Lina Cahuasqui, of the Inter-Institutional Committee against Fumigations (CIF).

It seems that the fact that the Colombian government has engaged in only a temporary suspension responds to a strategy change in their fight against FARC guerillas, as there would have been at least two changes in the military scenario in Putumayo, along the border with Ecuador.

Coca cultivation removal

The first change would be the transfer of the coca cultivations to the Colombian departments of Amazonas and Nariño.

"If the war is with the FARC, they have to pursue the FARC’s cultivations, and these cultivations have been moved," said CIF member Adolfo Maldonado, who investigated the genetic damage on women caused by the fumigations along the border.

A second change would be the concept of Colombia’s war against FARC, as the border-zone fumigations did little to weaken this armed group.

"The war against FARC is direct now; it is carried about with air incursions and bombings," said Alexis Ponce of the Plan Colombia Monitoring Group.

The 10-kilometer (6-mile) strip where fumigations have ceased is now the site of continuous bombings on alleged guerrilla strongholds that on many occasions impact the civilian population.

When carrying out these activities, the Colombian armed forces do not respect the border and continue to act into Ecuadorian territory.

"Colombia’s armed incursions try to force Ecuador to become involved in the Colombian conflict, and to once again, become an ally of Plan Colombia," said Ponce.

Ecuador has put itself on high alert along the border, and has mobilized a fleet of A-37 planes to defend the area. The activation of ground-to-air missiles, radar monitoring and military patrols in the entire border zone are predicted.

Colombia’s Foreign Ministry sent a diplomatic note to Ecuador Feb. 2, explaining that the incursion was not scheduled. Ecuadorian authorities, however, were unconvinced, and have resolved to stay on high alert along the border.

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