Latin America

Colombia: Coca farmers release 180 soldiers from hostage

Published : October 29, 2021 19:07 IST

Colombia is the world's biggest exporter of cocaine, with the U.S. as its biggest customer. Photo: AFP/L. Robayo

Some 600 coca growers with sticks and machetes took a group of soldiers hostage earlier this week.

Almost 200 Colombian soldiers were released on October 28 after being held hostage by coca farmers with sticks and machetes, a government official said. The soldiers had been part of an operation to destroy coca plants — the source of cocaine — on the border with Venezuela on October 26 when they were taken. General Omar Sepulveda said six platoons had been "kidnapped" by around 600 farmers.

The coca growers subsequently decided to "unilaterally" withdraw and "not to impede the work of government forces," the office of the ombudsman said. "The situation ends here with a voluntary agreement from the growers," Jhon Ascanio, who participated in the mediation, told AFP.

Coca growers claim protest action

President Ivan Duque said that the soldiers had "wanted to avoid confrontation and I value their professionalism." But he went on to condemn the farmers' actions, saying that they "cannot continue in this country... It is a kidnapping, and if there is no quick release, it will be treated as a kidnapping by all the authorities."

One of the coca growers told a local radio station that the soldiers had been taken as a protest against the government that had failed to help them substitute their coca crops with legal ones. Colombian lawmaker John Bermudez tweeted after the kidnapping of the soldiers that: "We cannot allow these types of acts as a means of protesting the eradication of illegal crops."

Colombia's worsening economic woes

The incident took place in the Catatumbo region, home to over 40,000 hectares (99,000 acres) of coca plantations, according to U.N. data. Colombia remains the world's biggest exporter of cocaine with an estimated 1,010 tons leaving the country in 2020. Colombia's economy was hit hard by the pandemic with over 40 per cent of the population living in poverty.

Soldiers have been redoubling efforts to destroy coca plantations, under the orders of President Duque. Duque came to power in 2018, two years after a landmark agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) which led to the militant groups disbandment. However, the country is now experiencing a surge in violence, partly related to armed groups fighting over control of drug trafficking routes.

ab/aw (dpa, AFP)