- Along the Peruvian and Colombian border, armed gangs formerly part of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are seeking control of the Putumayo River – a region inhabited by at least 25 Secoya, Kichwa and Huitoto communities.
- The river is the site of two important drug-trafficking routes: one to Brazil which goes on to Europe and Asia, and the other to Mexico and the United States.
- The armed groups frequently take part in illegal gold mining on the Putumayo to finance their activities, simultaneously contaminating the river, fish and people who live in the border area.
- Some community members, certain by force, engage in illegal businesses by deforesting areas, planting coca (made into cocaine) and transporting prohibited items.
Lucía lives in Peru, in one of more than 50 indigenous communities along the Putumayo, an Amazonian river that marks the border between Peru and Colombia. She has a banana plantation on the Colombian side of the river, which she has not visited in months out of fear of Los Sinaloa, an armed group of former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who blocked her path on her last visit. Given the precarious circumstances, Lucía has decided to not share her real name – using Lucía solely as a pseudonym.
For the residents of these communities and El Estrecho, the largest city along the Peruvian side of the Putumayo River, the presence of armed groups and their informants is now part of the environment.
“They’re everywhere; even people in my family are involved,” reports a local, who also requested that their identity be protected. Most residents prefer not to talk about the situation out of fear.
FARC dissidents drive drug trafficking in the Putumayo area, as security sources in both Peru and Colombia have confirmed. This was outlined in a thesis published this year by researcher Roger Carpio Villafuerte of the Center for Higher National Studies (CAEN). Other criminal groups also operate in the area and are one of the biggest threats to communities. Also on the list is illegal mining, which is putting the health of forests, animals and people at risk in the highly biodiverse Amazonia area.
Mongabay visited this remote area (reachable only by a 40-minute flight or 16-day boat journey) to know what exactly is happening along this border. The reporter traveled along the Putumayo River to visit some of these Indigenous communities that are only accessible by the river. More than 20 testimonies were gathered from locals, including from Indigenous and federation leaders, as well as from police officers, scientists and other experts. Information on illegal mining operations was also gathered.
Getting drugs to Europe, Asia, Mexico and beyond
The Putumayo is a long Amazonian river that begins in Colombia and flows into the Brazilian Amazon. The river forms a natural border that separates Colombia from Ecuador and Peru, and due to its connection to four countries, is a strategic point for drug trafficking.
Before the Colombian peace agreement was signed, FARC’s Southern Bloc controlled the area. According to Colombian police sources, the territory is currently controlled by two groups: the residual organized armed group known as the Carolina Ramírez Front (a FARC dissident group), and the self-styled Border Command, a group comprising former paramilitaries, former FARC members and drug traffickers from different gangs.
One of these gangs includes a criminal group operating in the area known as Los Sinaloa due to its business with the Mexican cartel.
Although the communities and inhabitants of El Estrecho still report Los Sinaloa as controlling the area, researchers from Colombian NGOs – who have requested that their identities be protected – say that in reality it is the recently-formed Border Command that has control.
According to these NGOs, both groups (the Carolina Ramírez Front and Los Sinaloa or the Border Command) are in conflict with each other as they try to gain control of the area. The area connects two drug-trafficking routes: one to Brazil which goes on to Europe and Asia, and other to Mexico and the United States (sometimes passing through Ecuador, but more often via the Pacific Ocean).
It is at this point that Brazilian and Mexican drug cartels are involved. According to publications in El Comercio (a Peruvian newspaper) and El Tiempo (a Colombian newspaper), the Carolina Ramírez Front and the Border Command negotiate the drugs taken to Brazil with the Northern Family, the First Command and the Red Command (criminal organizations), and to Mexico and the United States with the Sinaloa, Jalisco New Generation and Zetas cartels.
The Colombian criminal groups cultivate and process cocaine hydrochloride in Peruvian territory. To tackle this, Peruvian armed forces were deployed in the Colombian, Peruvian and Ecuadorian border area in 2018 and 2019, in what was known as Operation Armageddon.
More than 40 drug laboratories were destroyed during four operations, with more than 50 people arrested. In a 2018 statement, the Peruvian president at the time, Martín Vizcarra, said that Peru would strongly defend its territory with regard to fears that FARC dissidents would establish a presence in the region to control drug production and trafficking. However, three years on, military sources say that the armed groups are not only still in the territory, but have also expanded downriver, creating cultivation areas, recruiting young people to harvest coca plants, capturing informants to maintain control of the area and sowing fear and mistrust among communities.
Threats and tolls to cross the river
José (not the individual’s real name to protect his identity) navigates the Putumayo River, transporting merchandise and people, as well as prohibited items such as weapons, bullets and drugs. According to José, he has no choice but to transport such items for the armed groups, who would cut off his route if he refused.
The river is divided into three parts: upper Putumayo, which borders Peru, Colombia and Ecuador (where Operation Armageddon took place), middle Putumayo and lower Putumayo, which includes the tripartite border with Brazil.
To use the river, Los Sinaloa (the Border Command) force boat owners to pay them a type of toll or “tax.” For a 50-ton boat, for example, a boat owner will pay 10 million Colombian pesos (around $2,000), and for a 25-ton boat around 5 million Colombian pesos (around $1,000). The greatest risk for those navigating the river is upstream of Puerto Alegría (upper Putumayo). In those parts, the river can only be used until 3:00 p.m., after which time, the criminal groups will shoot anyone found navigating it.
The communities living in the upper Putumayo are very restricted and frustrated about their inability to freely move around, work and engage in leisure activities. The criminal groups control everything, and if anyone disobeys their rules, they will be killed. Jorge Pérez, the president of the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Jungle (AIDESEP), confirms this situation and reports that several Secoya and Kichwa leaders are at risk.
“The river can only be navigated until 3:00 p.m. It can’t be used after then because they have a schedule, and if you’re found on the river, they shoot you,” José, tells Mongabay.
The Information System for the Fight Against Drugs (SISCOD) of the National Commission for Development and Life without Drugs (DEVIDA) also indicates that illegal crops being grown in the area are concentrated in the upper Putumayo region. According to Mongabay Latam’s reporting, “Communities in Resistance”, the territories of at least 15 Secoya and Kichwa communities in upper Putumayo have coca plantations following invasions into their land.
However, this problem extends beyond this stretch of the river.
Recruiting community members
One Indigenous community in the middle section of the Putumayo, reachable only by tips given by Putumayo’s inhabitants, and only accessible on foot from the riverbank, see Los Sinaloa members frequently enter their territory. These members travel to the area to connect to the weak internet signal that is sometimes available. Although the group members have not threatened the inhabitants, they are afraid of them as they carry weapons.
According to DEVIDA data, illegal coca crops were found in nine Huitoto communities (another Indigenous group found in the area) in the middle section of the Putumayo in 2020, specifically in Soledad, Puerto Limón, Ere, San Francisco, Santa Lucía, Siete de Mayo, Puerto Elvira, Puerto Aurora and Maridicai.
Per the most recent DEVIDA report, 1,597 hectares (3,946 acres) of illegal crops were reported in Putumayo in 2020, which rose to 2,193 hectares (5,419 acres) in 2021, an increase of 31.4%. However, according to state security sources these data are insufficient, as there are almost 1,000 hectares (2,471 acres) around the Pacora lagoon in upper Putumayo. Leaders and community members from different communities also note the appearance of new crops in lower Putumayo, mainly in the Huapapa community.
According to the executive president of DEVIDA, Ricardo Soberón, FARC’s commercial and economic powers have diminished since FARC members split into dissident groups, which has led to the entry of a very strong Brazilian criminal infrastructure (such as the Red Command and other drug cartels) with a large capacity for action throughout the Putumayo.
Pérez, the president of AIDESEP, adds that drug trafficking is entering the area with great force, with traffickers offering bribes to communities to engage in this illegal business by deforesting areas, planting coca and selling the production exclusively to them. However, many community members do not openly confirm that these bribes – which they are forced to accept – are happening out of fear of being killed.
According to those interviewed for this report, the lack of work opportunities also pushes community members to participate in illegal activities due to the need to look after their families and keep their children in school. One way for the community members to escape the illegal activities they face would be to find and engage in year-round work.
“We become involved in illegal matters due to the need to look after our families, to keep our children in school.” Indigenous leader, lower Putumayo.
Some community members are recruited by Los Sinaloa to harvest or “scrape” coca, such as Lucía’s son, for example, who are paid an unknown sum for the work.
Side money in illegal mining
Planting coca and the creation of new cultivation areas are not the only illegal activities occurring in the Putumayo region. Money is also being made from extracting gold from the river via small gold-mining boats. These are small traditional boats that illegal miners are converting into mining vessels by adding a platform and gold-extraction machinery.
The inhabitants of Putumayo agree that the mining boats are concentrated in upper Putumayo, from San Juan to Tres Fronteras. However, they are also frequently spotted downstream, with one small mining boat in full operation identified on the river less than an hour from El Estrecho, with a second seen parked outside a pool hall in the middle of town for two days.
The mining boats in operation were based nearby a natural channel where they tend to hide, though none of the three crew members spotted seemed to be undeterred by the presence of others on the river. According to prosecutor Alberto Yusen Caraza, authorities are aware that these types of miners also illegally operate on the Napo River, which is located in the Loreto region, not far from the Putumayo River.
The second boat observed was not in operation, but parked outside a pool hall in El Estrecho. Unlike the first boat identified, the second had a wooden hut that almost entirely covered the boat, hiding the miners when they work. This type of mining boat is often seen on the Putumayo River, with the miners only working at night.
As in the case of the cocaine enterprise, it is Colombian criminals who typically hire other Colombians and Peruvians. Payment tends to be made daily and depends on the activity carried out on board the boat. Divers are paid three grams of gold every five hours, while the person managing the oxygen earns a gram. The miners then go into the communities and buy items, such as bananas and chickens, meaning community members profit from the illegal money.
Corine Vriesendorp, director of the Andes-Amazon program at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago (an American academic institution for the conservation of Amazonian forests), is concerned about the social dynamics that the money from such illegal activities generates. According to Vriesendorp, being part of that illegal economy increasingly alienates individuals from the forest and from their knowledge and management of the space, which then has a serious ecological impact.
“If you are part of that [illegal] economy, you become increasingly removed from the forest, from the knowledge you have of that place, from the management of space.” Corine Vriesendorp, director of the Andes-Amazon program at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
For Vriesendorp, a genocide is taking place throughout the Amazon basin due to the mercury used in the illegal mining, which is contaminating fauna, flora and people. An example of such contamination is evident in the Napo River area, where communities are prohibited from eating certain fish that they previously consumed, such as catfish, payara and black prochilodus. The decision to ban the consumption of such fish was made following a study carried out by the regional government of Loreto in 2011 to determine the levels of accumulated heavy metals.
The results of the study showed that 98.72% of the people sampled had mercury concentrations higher than those recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), the main source of which was likely to be the high consumption of contaminated fish. The study also determined that the water had high concentrations of lead, a metal present in the river that emerges following the dredging of its soil and sediments.
The indigenous communities of the Putumayo area know what they are facing and are concerned about the situation, especially since, as the leader of the Tres Esquinas community, Wilmer González, notes, they eat fish from the lagoon and drink the river’s water without treating it.
The Putumayo area is not just one of the most biodiverse places in the Amazon, but in the world, as confirmed by Vriesendorp (who has been studying the area for the past 20 years).
Lack of government support
Mining in the Putumayo River area is well structured in terms of logistics, roles and functions, and could therefore be considered organized crime, according to prosecutor Alberto Caraza of the Iquitos Special Prosecutor’s Office for the Environment. To reach this remote location and have all the logistics in place requires money. Although it has not been proven, drug trafficking could be financing mining activities in the area, which would make the situation more complicated.
“If these armed groups are behind the mining activities, the situation becomes more complicated,” says Colonel Luis Guillén Polo, director of the environment of the Peruvian national police.
The collusion between mining and drug trafficking is already happening in places such as the province of Condorcanqui,in the department of Amazonas. In fact, illegal mining has become a more profitable enterprise than drug trafficking, as it is a simpler operation and has less risks, since the penalties for illegal mining in Peru are less severe than for drug trafficking, and the country does not have a gold traceability mechanism in place.
So far in Putumayo, prosecutors have managed to destroy numerous mining boats, but have not been able to identify those funding the activities nor make any arrests. Some reasons for this include those operating the boats jumping into the river and escaping into the Amazon or hiding the boats away in tributaries.
However, the main difficulty in carrying out operations in Putumayo stems from the lack of transportation, with the environmental directorate of the Peruvian national police lacking the river boats needed to patrol the area (at least 20 are needed for an operation, and a minimum of 200 troops).
Distance is another factor, as it takes 16 days for a boat to travel from Iquitos to El Estrecho, making operations too expensive. It is also not possible for the police to rent boats or speedboats from these locations, as doing so would put the boat owners’ lives at risk.
The budget provided to organizations such as DEVIDA have also been in decline, with the amount for this particular organization expected to drop from 302 million Peruvian soles ($76.5 million) in 2019 to 234 million Peruvian soles ($59.3 million) by 2023, making its capacity for action in Putumayo almost non-existent.
As community members and indigenous leaders repeatedly point out, the solution for Colonel Guillén Polo lies in creating job opportunities. If other sources of economic activity are not created in these areas, their vulnerable inhabitants are more likely to engage in illegal activities.
“If we don’t generate other sources of economic activity that will develop these areas, there will always be a vulnerable community that favors this type of [illegal] activity to some extent.” Colonel Luis Guillén Polo, director of the environment of the Peruvian national police.
According to military sources, Putumayo could become the next Valley of the Apurímac, Ene and Mantaro rivers (considered to be the main drug-trafficking hub in the country), if it has not become so already.
Colombian president Gustavo Petro has stated that there should be peace in such areas and will fight against illegal armed groups, something inhabitants such as Lucía hope will become a reality in Putumayo.
Banner image: A member of an indigenous community in Putumayo watches over his community’s territory. Photo courtesy of Michelle Carrere.
Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: We discuss how the October 2022 Brazilian election could decide the fate of the Amazon and deforestation. Listen here: