Olinda was weeping. Her tears were hard to see through the large sunglasses she wears to shield her blind eyes and facial scars. The Spanish interpreter was trying not to cry as she explained in English what happened to the 19-year-old.
Two years ago Olinda was helping her mother milk one of the family’s cows in the Colombian village of Santa Roca. As she ran to round up stray cattle she tripped and fell. The ground exploded beneath her. ‘I was dead, I was dead. I kept screaming until my mum came. But everything was dark.’
Olinda’s right hand was ripped off her arm, her left hand severed from her wrist, her eyes destroyed and her skin burnt. She had fallen on a crude mine concealed in the soil. Such weapons are known as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs for short.
But Olinda is a victim of a war that begins much closer to home, in the toilets of city bars or across the dinner tables of Britain’s ‘hip’ middle-class. Eighty per cent of cocaine snorted up British noses comes from Colombia. The powder may be cheaper now then ever before, but, as Olinda can testify, hundreds of thousands of innocent Colombians pay a high price for the lines of ‘Charlie’ increasingly deemed socially respectable. Cocaine feeds a brutal conflict here, fuelling some of the most barbaric violations of human rights on the planet.
This month Britain’s top policeman, Sir Ian Blair, referred to the ‘trail of blood’ that leads from a line of cocaine to the 40-year-old conflict in Colombia. He was not exaggerating. More than 23,000 people were murdered in Colombia last year as a direct result of the drug trade. That was a good year. In 2002 more than 28,000 died – almost 70 a day. Most are not traffickers or smugglers but farmers or peasants caught up in the fighting between Marxist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and the Colombian armed forces. It is a conflict that has seen teachers, trade unionists and human rights activists slaughtered in their hundreds.
Last August in Aurauca three unarmed trade unionists were pulled from their beds and shot in the head by the Colombian military. It was thought – wrongly – they had been giving arms to the guerrillas. In Colombia anybody suspected of siding with one group is a target for the other. Trade union leaders in Bogota drive with armed escorts in armoured cars. As Blair said last week: ‘People think the price of a wrap is 50 quid, but someone has died to bring it to the dinner table.’
In some ways Olinda is lucky. She is alive. Many have been massacred in local atrocities, tortured or kidnapped, never to be seen again. Olinda does not know who planted the device that blew away her vision but it was probably one of the Marxist groups that use drug profits to finance their fight against right-wing paramilitaries – who themselves use the cocaine trade to fund their arsenals. When the Medellin and Cali cocaine cartels disbanded in the Nineties it was these two groups that stepped in to control the lucrative trade.
IEDs are used by guerrillas not only to protect their military bases but to secure their cocaine laboratories hidden in the jungle. This is where the coca leaves grown by farmers are turned into paste then mixed with alcohol and acid to create the white powder. When the guerrillas move on, they shut their labs but leave IEDs in the ground. To date, 4,400 people have been victims. Yet this is just a fraction of the human cost of cocaine.
The river Atrato that runs through the Choco province on the northern coast of Colombia is a key supply route for both guerrillas and paramilitaries. Whichever side controls the river controls the lucrative trade in drugs and arms. It is close to Panama and the oceans that offer easy routes to smuggle narcotics to Europe or the US. All along this river are villages whose inhabitants have been decimated by the coke-fuelled conflict. Millions of peasants have been forced to flee their homes. Many who have seen family members murdered end up in slums on the edges of cities like Bogota or Cartagena on the Caribbean coast. They have no work, no money and no hope.
Nelson and his family used to live near the village of Rio Sucio. He drove a boat delivering food and petrol. Four years ago paramilitaries suspected two of his brothers of helping feed the guerrillas and executed them. Scared he would be next, Nelson fled with his family. Worse was to come. In May 2003 his relatives were caught up in fighting between guerrillas and paramilitaries in the dense jungle around the town of Bojaya. As the fighting moved into the town, the mayor gathered the people into the church. There the guerrillas set off a bomb that left 119 dead, including four of Nelson’s uncles.
Over the years, brutalities pile on brutalities in a never-ending war to control the cocaine trade. As coke flows in London, so blood flows in Colombia. Last April five peasants were murdered by soldiers. One was a six-month-old baby, three were teenagers. When the bodies were found the head of the mother and child were smashed in. The army had allegedly mistaken them for guerrillas.
On News Year’s Eve, when parties in Britain were in full swing and the cocaine in full flow, guerrillas burst into a party outside Tame near the Venezuelan border and opened fire, killing 17 peasants. They claimed villagers had been co-operating with paramilitaries.
In this proud nation that has the longest history of democracy in South America, cocaine is destroying hope. When the war began 40 years ago it was based on Cold War politics. On one side were the left-wing guerrilla groups, principally the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or fellow rebels the National Liberation Army. The other side was led by right-wing paramilitaries, known as the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia. Both sides now have more than 15,000 soldiers armed to the teeth with weaponry paid for by cocaine.
The Colombian military, which is supposed to be in the middle, is often accused of collusion with the paramilitaries and involvement in massacres. It is no wonder the UN classifies Colombia as a country suffering a humanitarian crisis. The President, Oxford-educated Alvaro Uribe, is waging an all-out war on the guerrillas and trying to rein in rogue elements of the army. The US government is spending $700 million a year (£395m) in its controversial Plan Colombia, aimed at eradicating the trade by aerial spraying and military support.
Yet experts believe Uribe’s efforts will prove futile unless the West’s demand for cocaine is diminished. That is why an increasing number of high-profile people are focusing on the ethical costs of cocaine. As Blair asked: how can those who insist on organic food and fair-trade coffee have no qualms about taking cocaine.
Foreign Minister Bill Rammell shares that view. For him it should be as socially taboo as was drinking a bottle of South African wine during apartheid. Rammell was in Colombia last week to offer the British government’s backing to Uribe’s fight. The UK now provides more than £1m a year in military aid to the Colombian armed forces, mostly in training.
He said: ‘I find it hard to believe that anybody who has a conscience could feel at ease taking cocaine. People should be shamed into stopping.’ He is considering getting this message across with groups such as Oxfam and Christian Aid.
At his base in Cartagena he proudly points out the dozens of vessels his men have stopped. These include two fibreglass submarines put together in jungle factories. Guerrillas loaded them up with cocaine and two crew who spent a week underwater trying to reach Jamaica. Alfonso points to a bullet hole in the windscreen of one boat. ‘We aim for the engines, but sometimes we miss,’ he smiles.
Last year his team intercepted 20 tonnes of cocaine, but he admits that this is probably one-fifth of what gets past him. Colombia produces 650 tonnes each year – enough to supply the UK cocaine market 13 times over.
Alfonso’s boat speeds off, leaving a white trail. Five thousand miles away, someone in Britain is snorting cocaine. And someone in Colombia is being murdered.