When two young men on motorcycles came up beside the NGO’s pick-up and took a photo of our number plate, we crossed an invisible demarcation line. Nothing is left to chance when you are about to enter an area in which there is massive coca cultivation and where illegal armed bands lay down the law.
The dirt road that leads to the town of Leiva in the Nariño region in the south of Colombia could stand for all the rural areas of the country where the state is inexistent.
The houses that you pass along the way leave you in no doubt as to who is calling the shots. The acronyms written with spray paint mark the boundaries of the groups that control the territory and update us on the recent change of power: the FARC acronym has been cancelled and replaced with that of AgC (Autodefensas gaitanistas de Colombia). The guerrillas have therefore gone but the paramilitaries have now arrived.
When you arrive in Leiva you find yourself amongst people perched on a ridge of the western cordillera of Colombia; in front of you are the Cauca mountains, whilst behind you is the western cordillera which forms a natural barrier at the entrance to the enormous stretch of forest that extends down to the Pacific Ocean, where the only communication routes are rivers.
The geographical position is striking and thought-provoking and it is not very difficult to understand the strategic importance of all the towns neighbouring this cordillera. Historically this part of the country has been a fertile area for the production of illegal crops and has long been a place of armed conflicts.
The newspapers talk about Leiva not only because of the clashes between the army and the groups at the margins of the law, but also because of the secret struggle between the various groups that have been fighting for some time over the production and trafficking of cocaine and its raw materials. The Nariño region continues to be Colombia’s largest area for the cultivation of coca, contributing to almost a third of the total production of the country.
“Until about two months ago,” reveals Silvio Mellara, head of the Perigeo NGO mission in Colombia “the opposition to the old guerrilla FARC fighters were still in charge on the other side of the cordillera. With the field left open, the paramilitaries immediately moved in with greater numbers, making the crossing of the cordillera off-limits to anyone not involved in their activities”.
It is a mountain which, on the opposite side to where Leiva is situated, is a sort of Disneyland for the cultivation of coca and the operations tied to it.
The sudden change in the law has meant that some militiamen moved from one group to another. A move as risky as this is difficult to forgive. Just the day before we arrived in Leiva, two charred bodies were found at the entrance to the “pueblo” and other bodies have been found over the last month.
However, murders currently linked to control over cultivation are not being committed within the village but are instead a settling of accounts between rival groups. Most of these deaths, however, are not officially registered.
It is within this difficult context that the Italian NGO Perigeo, which conducts mine clearance operations, has been working in since 2016.
From the windows of their offices in Leiva, you can see young men playing football in the cement pitch that defines the village square. And it is here that we meet Dora, an NGO aid worker who specialises in mine clearance. It is with her and her colleagues that we follow the work on the clearance of areas that are at risk or where explosive devices are present. This is the only way to understand how the deminers operate on the ground.
The link between large areas of coca cultivation and mines/explosives appears almost inseverable. And Leiva (and the surrounding area) are an example that proves this.
“I am deeply convinced of the importance of the work that my team is doing on mine clearance and the measures taken to educate the local population “, Dora explains, whose eyes reveal life experiences not common to most people.
During the armed conflict, both guerrillas and paramilitary groups made widespread use of anti-personnel mines and homemade explosive devices, often resulting in the injury of many innocent individuals.
One of those victims was Don Nicolas, a local farmer, whose calloused hands make plain a hard life of years spent working in the field. “I was lucky”, he recalls, “because the trigger mechanism of the mine that I stepped on was not directly on the device but nearby. If the mine had exploded instantly I do not think I would have survived”.
Translation by Dale Owens