David Dunham: Conflict, Violence and Everyday Life in Sucumbios (up-dated January 2011)

Sucumbios is the most northerly province of the Ecuadorian Amazon (the so-called Oriente), bordering on the Colombian department of Putumayo. An area of 18,600 km2, it is sparsely populated, with a total population of about 130,000. Until the late 1960s and the discovery of oil, its indigenous people were largely ignored and lived undisturbed. Sucumbios was of little interest to the national government. Since then, however, oil extraction, deforestation, trafficking and a steady movement of settlers into the area have transformed its economy. The oil it produces is a major component of national GDP, but it has seen very few benefits and a flood of refugees from Colombia has created additional pressures. A separate note traces the experience with oil extraction. This looks at some of the violence that pervades Sucumbios today.


Sucumbios is one of the most backward provinces of Ecuador and it has paid a heavy price for the discovery of oil in the late 1960s and for its proximity to Colombia. Since the ‘60s, its indigenous population has fallen dramatically. Oil extraction has been accompanied by high levels of pollution and a disturbingly high incidence of morbidity and mortality amongst both adults and children. It has opened the Amazon to colonos from other parts of the country (to poor people desperate for land as a means of family subsistence), and an inevitable consequence of oil and the immigration has been the marginalization of Indian communities and extensive deforestation. Today there is widespread poverty amongst the population in general (even by conservative estimates, well over half live on less than US$2 a day and the vast majority have insufficient to meet basic needs). The province’s welfare infrastructure is minimal, even at times non-existent, and it is well below the national average on almost every score. Its schools are basic and ill-equipped, it has the lowest per capita health expenditure in the country and the highest child mortality.[1]

This is partly because it is difficult to provide services in a peripheral rural area with a population density of less than 7/km2, but it is also because the government’s priority is oil and with more important electoral constituencies in other parts of the country. Needs of the poor in Sucumbios have been consistently neglected because they are of no strategic relevance for the central government. At the same time, close proximity to the endemic violence in southern Colombia has cut off traditional trade to the north and seen violence spread southwards. Pollution, displacement, new diseases and violence have decimated and transformed many local communities. The indigenous population has plummeted. Cofán numbers, for example, have declined from about 16,500 in the 1960s to perhaps 650 today. The objective of this and a subsequent follow-up note is to draw the attention of a wider audience to what has been happening and to the violence and fear that is shaping everyday lives in Sucumbios.

Since 2000, there has been concerted southward pressure by the armed forces in Colombia in an effort to defeat anti-government rebels and to eliminate the drugs trade (part of the US-backed Plan Colombia and later, after 2004, its successor Plan Patriota). There was a radical re-structuring of the Colombian military, improving its operational capacity and placing greater emphasis on the use of military intelligence. It led to major gains. Rebel groups were pushed south into less accessible areas and one result was that violence spread over the border into neighbouring Ecuador. Movements across the border were not new (to all intents and purposes it had been little more than a line a map). Indigenous communities had straddled it and the FARC, other armed groups and narco-traffickers had been crossing it, transporting goods, for R & R, to source medical and other supplies, for combat training or to relocate other activities to more secure areas.

The Colombian border with Sucumbios had always been porous and, while there were a few official crossing points, the Putumayo and San Miguel rivers that comprised it flowed through dense Amazon jungle. They could be crossed in minutes in dugout canoes with an out-board motor and it was almost impossible for government forces to patrol them effectively. Rebels and drug-traffickers moved back and forth, at times with the Colombian army pursuing them, and ordinary Colombians also crossed (most without documentation) to escape the threats, persecution, forced recruitment, kidnapping and murder inflicted by government forces, leftist guerrillas, paramilitary militias and others in Colombia.[2] They also moved because of poverty, because normal life was so disrupted, and because of aerial fumigation that Colombian armed forces were using to destroy coca plants (which not only killed other crops and affected their animals but also terrorised people and made them ill). One specific objective of the exercise was to weaken local support for armed groups and for traffickers.

The result was a corridor some 10-20 kilometers wide on the Ecuadorian side that was driven by what is perhaps best described as “a frontier mentality”. There had been persistent incursions but it was only with the Colombian aerial attack on a FARC camp in Ecuadorian territory in March 2008 (in Angostura, Sucumbios) that the Government in Quito began to focus its mind on the question of border security. Military numbers and budget commitments were boosted substantially as the Ecuadorian government made a serious move to secure the area (with what it called El Plan Ecuador—announced in 2007). The initial idea was “to oppose war with peace”. It was to mean a much stronger military presence in the area, but it was also to strengthen state institutions and promote sustainable development. It was to have humanitarian and peace-keeping components.

In practice, the latter were to receive little priority for several reasons. The plan emerged at a time when the government was pre-occupied with creating a Constitutional Assembly as part of the new constitution. There were high turnovers of civil servants and serious political distractions, as a result of which the plan lacked the leadership to coordinate the different inputs needed to turn it into reality. In the end, it proved to be just as security-driven as Plan Colombia. The question was whose security it would serve, and in practice it was to be the security of borders and the country’s oil, not the security of people. Military costs left little funding for institution-building, local development or social welfare expenditure and eventually, in 2008, responsibility for Plan Ecuador was formally handed over to the Ministry of Defense.[3] But it has not proved a solution. The flood of refugees into a backward area with high levels of poverty, weak state institutions, lawlessness, widespread corruption and an ineffective police force left a great many people powerless and extremely vulnerable—whether they were local Indians, mestizos or Colombian immigrants. It was often unclear to them who police and government officials or armed forces personnel were actually working for or where their allegiance lay. Many were out for personal gain, and people who tried to help the vulnerable or to uphold the law were often threatened for what they did and in some cases assassinated. It created a complex and often bewildering situation.

It also, inevitably, had repercussions on the local economy—on the economic base, on the way it was controlled and on the scope for any real change. Rebels and traffickers paid cash for their needs, they invested in the area and they controlled a great many businesses, creating an economy along the border that was increasingly dependent on them. Smuggling, trafficking, commerce and their demand for a wide range of services and logistical support generated critical income, and Lago Agrio is today remarkable for its number of bars, cheap hotels, shops, pharmacies, private doctors and relatively smart modern houses for a small town of its size in a backward area. In the absence of any alternatives and a strong element of lawlessness, support work or direct involvement in illegal activities was not just tempting. For a great many men, it offered the opening they were seeking.

Sucumbios, as a result, has a very high level of criminality, illicit trafficking of weapons, of cocaine, of the chemicals that are used to process it (in particular ‘white gasoline’), and of young girls and women (Lago Agrio, the provincial capital, being a focal point for the latter).[4] Few details are known about the trade in arms and munitions or local narco-trafficking, though their prominence is well-documented. We do know, however, that the smuggling of white gasoline (gasolina blanca) alone is a lucrative business. The national police estimated in 2008 that at that time about 10,000 gallons a day were crossing the border to Colombia, 70% of it destined for cocaine laboratories. Shipment was usually in 55 gallon drums and the annual value of the trade ran into millions of dollars. This was big money—big enough to secure the necessary complicity of employees of PetroEcuador, figures in the local police, and powerful networks of protection.[5] The Ecuadorian government has increased security around the shipment of white gasoline in the border region and it has made the business more difficult, but in 2010 it was still continuing to thrive.

A second major problem concerns the refugees and immigrants in such a highly charged environment. Ecuador has the largest refugee population in Latin America. They come principally from Colombia, roughly half of them are women, often no more than girls, who have fled from escalating violence (or the fear of violence) in their home towns or villages. Almost a third of them are unaccompanied—often unaccompanied children. Many arrive with no more than the clothes on their backs or with the little they can carry. Since asylum seekers and unregistered immigrants cannot legally work in Ecuador, they have no choice but to look for temporary jobs in the informal sector where they are extremely vulnerable to exploitation and demands for sexual favours. They are also easy prey for trafficking networks that play on the vulnerable. Women are driven to survival sex—with employers, landlords, police or the military to hold on to whatever job they can get or a place to stay, to be able to feed their family or avoid deportation. Or they are recruited into prostitution rings. Bordellos are a major industry in Lago Agrio, serving the needs of oil workers, refugees and the R&R requirements of rebel groups. A UNIFEM survey in 2004 found that roughly half the workers in these establishments were underage. This figure is dated, but there is little evidence that since then the situation has changed markedly. If they become HIV positive or catch a sexual disease then they are immediately expendable and they can end up dead. Not only is there very little decent employment available, but any up-rooted Colombian woman is seen, almost instinctively, as a prostitute and sexist attitudes more generally have become the norm. Vulnerabilities and pressures inherent in the border economy have created a highly permissive environment in which gender-based violence and abuse have become endemic. The Ecuadorian police and security forces are unresponsive to complaints, and they are more often part of the problem than part of a solution to it.

All this has created a profound sense of vulnerability and helplessness—it has created ‘a culture of fear’. Immigrants, Indian and small settler communities (women and children included) face threats and abuses from all sides—-from the FARC, Colombian ex-paramilitary groups, narco-traffickers, oil workers and security forces. They are harassed and intimidated, caught in the cross-fire between opposing interests and often faced with daily demands they dare not reject. Many have been forced from their land or their homes. Others have moved away because the pressures were too great or they felt they were putting off the inevitable. In some areas, they have been replaced by FARC sympathizers or family members to be its eyes and ears, stockpile arms, help them with supply lines or act as lookouts and messengers.[6] Crime rates are soaring; mafia-type extortion and protection rackets have been reported, and the rate of homicide is increasing. People kill with impunity. Police are not prepared to confront the FARC, other militia or traffickers. They show little interest in investigating killings (and do not hear about many of them), and a widespread fear of reprisal and revenge discourages the police and prevents witnesses from coming forward to report whatever they have seen.[7]

A recent press statement by the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions (dd. 15 July 2010) reported increasing numbers of Colombian ex-paramilitaries entering Sucumbios over the previous 6-8 months. They have been imposing their own policies of “social cleansing” under which they promise to murder sex workers, drug-dealers, thieves, car-hijackers, kidnappers and drug addicts, and ask the public to forgive any “innocents” who get caught up and who they might kill in the process. In the previous 4-6 weeks, an estimated 30 bodies (all with clear signs of torture) had been found on one main road on the northern border of Sucumbios renowned for robberies on buses (and also, not incidentally, as a route for trafficking—which made the control of it significant). Harassment, torture and killings by the Ecuadorian military were also found to have increased over the previous year, a trend that seems inevitable where relations between the army and local people has seriously deteriorated, where its excesses are resented, and where there is obvious local sympathy for anti-government groups but the army lacks the training and the military intelligence to root it out. The fact that the army’s activities have been condoned by the church and state authorities has soured relations even further.

What is then left is terror: an extremely violent and unnerving situation in which it is difficult, if not impossible, for families (even communities) to live normal lives. It has led to internal displacement, and to people moving further and further south into jungle and forest reserves, cutting into the rainforest. The indigenous population—Siona, Secoya, Cofán and (to a lesser extent) Quichua—still straddle the border and have moved back and forth as the need arose, though little is known about their patterns of movement or if their traditional ties are now weakening. Moving south, away from the border, the violence gradually declines and is essentially localized. However, life in indigenous homelands is blighted by other problems. The loss of traditional land rights, conflicts with oil personnel and the devastating health impact of 40 years of extraction and illicit waste disposal in production areas have been widely reported and have received international attention (though gender violence and the oil industry has been much less well documented). The story there is equally disconcerting and again it is one of powerlessness on the part of very vulnerable communities.

Looking at Sucumbios as a whole, what all this reveals is a pattern of everyday life that is shaped by poverty, and by routine violence and exploitation carried out with impunity. The everyday economy is driven by oil and by the border economy. What basic services there are have been overwhelmed, the presence of foreigners is increasingly resented and the internal displacement of Ecuadorians is an emerging issue. People are being pushed from land that was often only loosely titled or else tenured irregularly, but which had provided a livelihood. And not only is there no end in sight, but the situation is worsening. In Lago Agrio and in the border corridor, conflict is an everyday event. UNHCR, the World Food Programme, a few international NGOs and local women’s groups offer some support for the victims, but because of the rules under which they work, their limited resources, or both, they are overwhelmed. It is not just oil pollution that needs systematic documentation in Sucumbios. Measures are desperately needed that can offer ordinary people some degree of protection—that go beyond government promises and an inadequate judiciary, that provide human security, protect people’s social and economic rights and offer them a future, and that enable them to live a normal life with some decency and dignity.

[1]               See “Conflict Beyond Borders: humanitarian impact of the Colombian conflict in Ecuador”, IDMC/NRC Briefing Paper, 10 October 2009.

[2] UNHCR has estimated that there are 135,000 undocumented Colombians in Ecuador who are in need of assistance, about 55,000 of whom are women and concentrated mainly in the north. Support from UNHCR is only allowed for people who are registered as refugees and they are a small minority.

[3] Such was the link between Colombian immigrants and crime in the mind-set of the general public that it was a short step to associate problems of security with immigration and control by the military.

[4]  White gasoline is a bi-product of oil drilling used as a solvent in the processing of coca leaves to make cocaine. Much of it is tapped by drilling a hole in a local oil pipeline and then inserting a spigot, which requires inside knowledge about to what is passing down the pipe and police protection. Other products in demand are cement and sulphuric acid.

[5] See Kelly Hearn, ‘Drug Cartels Siphon Pipelines’, The Washington Times, 4 June 2008.

[6] A distinction has been drawn between forced displacement of communities, moving the home elsewhere but still retaining the use of their land in more dangerous areas, and a decision on the part of immigrants from the other parts of Ecuador to abandon their land and return to their origins in the face of increasing violence. There are all three in Sucumbios.

[7] It has been estimated that, at best, 1 in 3 murders are reported in Sucumbios and that just over 1% of those that are reported eventually lead to a conviction.

~ by FSVSF Admin on 12 January, 2011.

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