Destroying Drug Labs, Preserving the Environment
By Dialogo July 01, 2013
Colombia’s eastern savanna covers an area of more than 107,000 square miles of green plains where tea-colored water flows in the dry season. The waterways are known as “morichales,” named for the 20-meter-high hardwood trees that grow thickly on the banks.
This remote area is exploited by narcotrafficking and terrorist organizations, which process cocaine and ship it down the morichales toward the Venezuelan and Brazilian borders before being shipped covertly to Central America and beyond. Ares Task Force is charged with stopping drug movement by land, water and air in the Colombian departments of Arauca, Guainía and Vichada. It operates from a base situated alongside the Tomo River and Tuparro National Park. In executing its mandate, Ares is protecting Colombia’s environment and indigenous communities from the harsh chemicals that drug processors dump indiscriminately onto the land and into the water.
“This is our operational concept: Basically, what we are trying to do is negate, block, seize and destroy everything that has to do with narcotrafficking,” said Colonel Sergio Garzon, commander of Ares Task Force. Colombia’s Espada de Honor (Sword of Honor) strategy established nine joint commands in 2012 to fight narcoterrorists in the country. All are interagency, with Army, Navy, Air Force and National Police components working together.
But Ares is the only task force under the direct command of the Air Force. Col. Garzon said 77 tons of cocaine pass through his area of responsibility in a year, moved by criminal gangs and the 10th and 16th fronts of the terrorist group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Ares’ other security responsibilities include eradicating coca plants, stopping criminal and terrorist support networks, seizing illegal chemicals used for cocaine production and halting shipments.
To win this campaign, Col. Garzon and his force of 150 men must operate in such a vast and remote territory, deal with underdeveloped communications systems that can impede intelligence gathering, and unpredictable weather that can threaten a mission. Most importantly, winning the support of the local population is critical to the Ares Task Force mission.
“We are trying to reach the hearts and minds of the enemy as well as the population that lives here,” Col. Garzon said. Three-quarters of the base’s operations are designed to reach out to the 70 percent indigenous and 30 percent farming population in Vichada, he said. In addition to weekly meetings with community members, the base provides medical treatment, food and even barber services. One of the most popular and important programs helps indigenous people gain land titles so they can farm.
The results after one year of work are telling. Ares has neutralized 28 drug labs, seizing 15,507 gallons of gasoline, 2,260 gallons of diesel and 630 gallons of recycled hydrocarbons used in the production of cocaine. The seizures are believed to have prevented the production of 209 kilos of cocaine and immeasurable negative impacts to the local environment and community. By dramatically cutting cocaine production in the area, Ares also reduced the number of detected illegal drug flights from 58 in 2012 to six in the first half of 2013.
Restoring the Environment
To Col. Garzon, the Tuparro National Park has special significance. A protected area of more than 1.2 million acres in the department of Vichada, Tuparro is home to more than 500 species of plants, 74 species of animals and 320 species of birds. Ares conducts daily aerial surveillance of the park and has eradicated 326 acres of coca plants, destroyed six laboratories and seized 1,000 gallons of fuel within the limits of the protected area. “This is the crown jewel for us, the Tuparro National Park. Truthfully, we have a special place for it – all the base’s actions are directed at protecting this jewel,” he said.
Col. Garzon explained that the criminals processing drugs are causing environmental damage and putting the health of local communities in danger. “Generally, the people who are hiding in these remote areas can cause significant environmental damage. They destroy the foliage and hide their laboratories in the middle so that they cannot be detected by air or by land,” he said.
After seeing an affected area firsthand, Warrant Officer Figueroa said, “When you go to the areas where there was a laboratory nearby, there is a lot of fuel and the vegetation is dead, lying dead on the soil,” he explained. “They do not treat the chemicals. They simply process them and throw them in the river because their principle objective is to process a certain tonnage of cocaine, a certain tonnage of coca paste, and they don’t care what happens to the ecosystem.”
Elssye Morales, advisor for illicit crops in the Colombian Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development, which oversees the nation’s national parks, said the growing and processing of illicit crops has many tangential impacts. Those include burning areas to be used for coca growing and processing, introducing nonnative plant and animal species to support the personnel at the laboratory, introducing trash and motor vehicles, and most importantly, polluting the waterways along which labs are often constructed.
“If there is not an intervention to disassemble and dismantle these laboratories and the infrastructure for coca processing, it’s a permanent activity,” she said. During the “summer months, when the rains come, all these chemicals seep into the earth and end up in the waterways.”
Morales said there is close coordination between the environmental ministry and security forces in the region, a necessity, she said, due to the heightened security situation. The environmental ministry provides cartographic information about the parks to public security forces. The cooperation in Vichada, for example, led Ares to help restore zones used for coca growing and processing.
“At the same time that they eradicated the zones, they planted species so that the zone could be restored,” she said. Morales explained that replanting native species where illicit activities were taking place allowed the ecosystem to be brought back into balance.
While drug laboratories are often located far from communities, their impact is sometimes felt in the form of adverse health conditions as well. Morales said that indigenous communities have complained about health impacts on infants. Col. Garzon added that community members have respiratory ailments. Both agreed that Ares is following special protocols to manually destroy cocaine laboratories in a way that minimizes further environmental damage.
As commander of Ares, Col. Garzon praises the efforts of his men, and the progress made through interagency cooperation to achieve the many goals set for the new task force. “We group together all these capabilities in order to work together in direct action. These operations are very quick; we enter, strike a blow and exit right away,” he said. Underscoring a goal that has yet to be realized, he continued: “Our dream – because you always have a vision, something social, we all have something altruistic –is that Vichada will be the first department of the Orinoco basin free of illicit crops. I think we’re on the right path.”