The Children’s War

San Vicente del Caguán is a small town on the edge of the jungle that runs from the Andean foothills of Colombia down to the Amazon river basin. It has a sunstricken central square—a patch of dust and a few mango trees—with a graceless modern church on one end and a nondescript municipal building on the other, and around it a grid of narrow streets laid out in Spanish style. The layout is traditional, but San Vicente has the look and feel of the kind of frontier town where people have been lured overnight by the promise of money. There are loud cantinas; fleshy women in too much makeup under the glaring sun; block after block of storefronts selling boom boxes, high-heeled shoes, glitter eye shadow, and telephones shaped like hot dogs. More boom boxes and plastic jewelry are offered for sale along the narrow sidewalks. Mules, motorcycles, and roaring pickup trucks compete for space on the gutted road.

Beginning in the 1950s, the region was populated by poor campesinos from other, war-ridden, parts of the country, who cleared patches of land here and started a new life. Many hundreds pressed deep into the jungle and were never heard from again. The luckier ones survived to become modestly prosperous cattle ranchers. In the last ten years or so, however, a new wave of poorer and even more adventurous settlers arrived. They were looking to plant coca, the tealike shrub from which cocaine is processed, and thanks to high prices for this illegal crop the region’s economy flourished. So did the finances of Colombia’s oldest guerrilla group, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, known by its Spanish acronym as the FARC. For years, the FARC had been involved with coca growers throughout the country, offering protection from government anti-cocaine patrols in exchange for a tax levied on the sale and transport of coca and cocaine paste.

Thanks to the 1990s cocaine bonanza San Vicente prospered, and so did the guerrillas. The most widely quoted estimate of how much protection money the FARC takes in each year from the coca business is $500 million. With these funds, the FARC has severely escalated its thirty-five-year war against the state, and brought the government of President Andrés Pastrana to the negotiating table.

In June of 1998, when he was still running for the presidency, Andrés Pastrana announced that if he were elected he would order military forces to withdraw from a portion of territory in the sub-Amazon region around San Vicente, in order to guarantee the FARC leadership safety so that the government’s peace negotiations with the group could begin. The territory, referred to as the zona de despeje, or cleared zone, would include five municipal districts, each one with only a few hundred thousand inhabitants, but each with as much territory as a small European country. All told the area in question added up to 26,250 square miles—twice the size of El Salvador. San Vicente, which …

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