This story was produced in collaboration with VICE Colombia.
On Sunday, two journalists with ¡PACIFISTA!, VICE Colombia's vertical focused on armed conflict and the struggle for peace in the country, had to take cover and run amid gunshots and stun grenades fired by members of the Colombian National Police's anti-drug task force.
The incident took place around 2 PM local time in El Tandil, a village of a dozen houses three hours away from Tumaco, a port town located in Colombia's southeast, which has suffered the dramatic consequences of years of drug trafficking, organized crime, political violence, poverty, and social and ethnic exclusion. Today, Tumaco and the rural area that surrounds it are Colombia's most extensively cultivated (that is, the highest number of hectares) coca-leaf region.
The gunshots and stun grenades were fired in the vicinity of a humanitarian commission assembled by members of the United Nations, the Organization of American States (OAS), and local human rights advocates. Journalists from several Colombian media outlets accompanied the group, ¡PACIFISTA! among them.
Multiple stun grenades were fired, and, according to a UN press release, one of them "came very near" to impacting the group. "We also heard shots and, additionally, some type of gas was used," the release added. An advocate for peasant rights who accompanied the commission told ¡PACIFISTA! reporters present at the site that he had been injured by bullets in one arm and one leg, before being attended to by nearby soldiers with the Colombian National Army.
Fortunately, no one appeared to be seriously wounded.
The observers and journalists were visiting the area to investigate a deadly incident last Thursday, when six coca-leaf cultivators were shot and killed by armed men in uniforms. About 20 more people were injured in that episode, one witnesses described as a massacre at the hands of the National Police. The Colombian Ombudsman's Office as well as the Attorney General's Forensic Department have confirmed that the dead were struck by long-distance shots common in military interventions. According to the Ombudsman, the only members of Colombia's armed forces in the zone last Thursday (besides the army, whose soldiers wear distinct uniforms) were with the National Police.
Though President Juan Manuel Santos has dubbed the violence "regrettable," neither the National Police nor the Santos administration have acknowledged the initial, deadly attack may have been unprovoked. Instead, the Police alleged that ex-members of FARC, the revolutionary guerrilla marxist group that struck an historic peace accord with the government last year, were present during the protest and that they had thrown explosives requiring a police response.
Last Thursday's confrontation came as the National Police were attempting to eradicate local coca plantations, in keeping with the Santos administration's drug-war policy. A group of local farmers came out to protest the authorities' actions; according to advocacy organizations, there were more than 1,000 peasants involved in the demonstration, and they made a human chain around the plantations in the middle of a tropical forest. Many peasants in the Tumaco region depend on the income from coca-leaf harvests and have expressed frustration at the government's failure to implement substitution policies that help farmers grow new, different crops.
It was in hopes of learning more about the Thursday massacre that international observers—accompanied by reporters from ¡PACIFISTA! and other outlets—visited the area on Sunday. There, they endured an attack of their own.
Adding to the confusion surrounding the more recent attack, according to the UN press release, the humanitarian commission had received authorization from the National Army and from the National Police's anti-drug task force to visit the zone, though it did not explicitly cover the journalists present.
The National Police released a statement Monday apologizing and assuming responsibility for the Sunday attack on observers and journalists. However, they claimed the violence erupted after a group of people had tried to access a military base by force. Journalists on scene were quick to dispute the official account of what happened. "No one acted violently. We only walked toward the crime scene because a corpse of one of the killed peasants was supposed to be there," ¡PACIFISTA! photographer Mateo Rueda said. "Then there was an explosion, then another, then another. Then bullets were fired. One man told us he got cut by the bullets."
The Colombian Freedom of Press Foundation (Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa, FLIP) responded to the police statement by saying that it was "insufficient" and "not entirely true," demanding a wider investigation. "These incidents are a risk to the right of an informed society about issues of public interest, and they represent censorship actions from State agents," the group said in a statement.
On Tuesday, responding to the ongoing furor over the twin attacks on unarmed people in the area, Colombia's Minister of Defense announced 102 National Policemen in the region would be assigned elsewhere in the country.
The episode may prove critical in the implementation of Colombia's peace agreement with FARC, signed last December. It also speaks to the dangers and difficulties of eliminating coca-leaf plantations by force, as Donald Trump insisted with his trademark bluster a few weeks ago, when he rebuked Colombia for a recent increase in production.