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Drug Trafficking Spawns a ‘Death Valley’ : Colombia: The Cali cartel turns the Cauca into the country’s ‘most dangerous region in terms of drug violence.’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Because there was no wind here on a recent day, the odor of rotting flesh stayed within a quadrangle of the hillside cemetery, where two curious children held their noses while staring at a decapitated, gray corpse.

The grisly scene is common in Marsella, an otherwise picturesque coffee town in the western state of Risaralda. The wind blows often enough here so that many of the town’s residents are familiar with the smell of death.

They are also familiar with a nearby eddy in the Cauca River, just down the mountain from the cemetery, where vultures wait patiently for the next in a flotilla of bodies being washed up by the slow current. A total of 219 such victims, many of them killed by drug traffickers, have landed in Marsella since January, 1988.

A police inspector in the town, Roberto Gutierrez, said the recovered victims were just a fraction of the number that pass by Marsella and continue downriver into oblivion.

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The town of 30,000 is relatively peaceful, but it suffers from its location downstream from what law enforcement and human rights officials call one of Colombia’s most violent and drug-infested areas. Running from the city of Cali in Valle del Cauca state to the border of Risaralda state, the region is increasingly controlled by cocaine traffickers, as land-hungry as they are vicious.

Many Colombians think of traffickers in Cali and the surrounding Cauca Valley as less violent than their rivals in the city of Medellin to the north. This myth of benign drug lords cannot survive even one look at the brutality and terror used by those seeking total control over the Cauca Valley.

“The valley is the most dangerous region in Colombia in terms of drug violence,” said a law enforcement official who has traveled frequently in the area.

He adds that while Medellin traffickers may blow up a bus of people to kill one perceived enemy, Cauca Valley traffickers are much more sophisticated, focused and, above all, quiet.

“In Medellin, a person can be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In and around Cali, there’s nothing random about it--if the mafia doesn’t like you, you just disappear.”

Disappearing often means winding up in the Cauca River, which meanders through the valley. Bodies began turning up in the river as early as the 1940s, when Colombia entered a decade of bloody civil war known as “La Violencia.”

The problem abated for years and then suddenly grew far worse in the late 1980s. The nature of the killing has also changed. Once, political strife and land disputes led to bloodshed. Now, drug trafficking is largely responsible.

“The majority of violence in the valley is committed by drug traffickers protecting their interests,” said Carlos Alberto Mejia, the regional attorney general for Valle del Cauca state.

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Residents of the valley’s towns speak fearfully of the cocaine mafia as a grim reaper that sweeps away opponents and enforces a deadly silence.

“There used to be people here who were very brave in speaking out against the mafia,” said a woman who lives in the town of Tulua. “Those people have been in cemeteries for some time now.”

As she spoke, she glanced nervously at her living room window each time someone passed outside. A knock at the door caused more than slight panic.

“Hide your notebooks,” the woman told two visiting journalists. It turned out to be only a neighbor stopping by.

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Just as the Medellin cartel bought large stretches of land in central Colombia, the Cauca Valley traffickers have divided much of their region into small fiefdoms centered on towns such as Tulua.

Human rights officials and residents say that drug barons, in alliance with other large landholders, control police and military officials through a combination of bribes and threats, and they add that the army and police are sometimes involved in the disappearances, murders and other violence in the region.

Valle del Cauca suffers the highest rate of disappearances involving alleged participation by government security forces of any state in Colombia, according to a report released in September by the Colombian attorney general’s office.

“What the drug traffickers have done is to strengthen the extreme right wing in the valley,” said Alfredo Vargas, a Bogota human rights lawyer born in Tulua.

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An example of the scope of the violence came in April, 1990, when people began disappearing from the town of Trujillo, 50 miles north of Cali. Of the 25 people missing, 17 were found dead in the Cauca River, including the town’s priest, Father Tiberio Fernandez.

Human rights sources both inside and outside the government now say that drug traffickers suspected Fernandez and the others of helping leftist guerrillas belonging to the National Liberation Army. The guerrillas had been extorting money from large landholders, including traffickers, who ordered the killings. The military carried them out, sources say, adding that at least one army officer was given a farm in payment for his participation.

But the horror did not end there. Two fishermen who recovered Fernandez’s body were later killed by the mafia. Now, fishermen on the river will look for a cadaver only if paid by the victim’s family.

“Whoever murdered these people and threw them in the river meant for them to disappear,” said one fisherman near Marsella. “I can’t say anything about what I’ve seen on the river because the killers will come after me.”

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The body recently awaiting burial at Marsella’s cemetery resembled hundreds of others found in the river. The killers had cut it open along the trunk in order to fill the gaping cavity with stones. The butchery is meant to keep the body underwater long enough to make identification impossible. Fingers are often cut off for good measure.

The methods almost always work. Of the hundreds of corpses that have washed up on the river bank below Marsella, only 8% to 10% have been identified, usually by family members traveling to the hillside town.

The latest victim lying in the cemetery is among the few with a known history. A pilot working for the National Coffee Federation, he had disappeared with his brother in Tulua a week earlier while traveling north from Cali.

The family immediately rented a boat and began searching the river.

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“We came here because of intuition, because we heard this is where many bodies wind up,” said the victim’s cousin, standing at a refreshment stand below the cemetery. He added that the body of the other brother was still missing.

Officials say that most of the victims’ families are too poor to carry out such a search. Most of the bodies turning up at Marsella are male peasants between the ages of 17 and 30. Most are dressed in the same khaki or black underwear, leading authorities to suspect that they were issued the clothes while working in cocaine laboratories.

Authorities say the valley’s traffickers often hire peasants from Valle del Cauca and other states to work in the labs for three months at relatively high pay. Often the traffickers then kill the workers in order to guard the secrecy of the operation. The murders increased after August, 1989, when the Colombian government stepped up a campaign against the cocaine trade.

“Police pressure has made traffickers paranoid and distrustful of their own employees,” said Hector Hincapie, the Risaralda state secretary general. “For that reason, we’re seeing a lot of dead lab workers turning up in the river.”

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Hincapie pointed to recent police raids on several cocaine laboratories in the valley as evidence that authorities are trying to curb the killings.

He added that both Risaralda and Valle del Cauca states are gaining more control over hundreds of miles of the Cauca River through two police patrols on its waters.

But from his police post by the river, Gutierrez said the 1991 body count of 66 had made this year the worst by far in Marsella.

There is no doubt that both state and local authorities have been overwhelmed by the bloodshed. Marsella’s mayor, Manuel Salazar, would rather talk about his environmental work, which won him an international prize. But such talk always ends with a reference to the plague ruining his town’s reputation and draining its budget.

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“We have already spent all of this year’s budget on burials,” said the 68-year-old mayor. “Our cemetery is a national monument, and now it’s full of unidentified dead.”

State authorities seem just as bewildered. Public and private projects to draw tourists to the region by offering boat rides on the Cauca River and advertising Marsella’s eco-vacations are going ahead despite the corpses on the riverbank.

“We have trained our boat guides to spot a body from afar and quickly avoid it by crossing the river,” said Luis Fernando Orjuela, the assistant director of Risaralda’s tourism office. “Any passenger who may see the body will be told that it is a cow.”

Hincapie said that tourism in Marsella is designed partly for families coming to the town in search of their disappeared loved ones. “It’s like a combination of pain and vacation,” he said solemnly.

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