Years of neglect, expansion of drug trafficking, FARC dissidents and, now, coronavirus, are some of the many factors affecting the Amazon Trapezium. Located in the triple border between Colombia, Peru and Brazil, in this area of the Amazon, the population resists between viruses, contraband and violence. What is happening in the most remote corner of the South American jungle?
By José Carlos Díaz*
RCII, May 21, 2020. - To speak about the beginning of 2020 is to speak about a different world. The coronavirus pandemic was already hitting hard in Asia and spilling over into Europe, but the western world, including Latin America, refused to see the dimension the virus would have. A few months later, the pandemic reached all corners of the planet, also affecting the Amazon. Within the latter, one of the most remote areas of South America: the Amazon Trapezium.
Located between two of the most important Amazon rivers (the Putumayo and the Amazon), this strip of rain forest intersects the borders of three countries: Colombia, Brazil and Peru. The variety of ethnic groups that have lived in this region for centuries and the porosity of the borders, force us to think of the Amazonian Trapezium or Triple Border, as a universe in itself in which problems go back several years before the coronavirus.
The largest city in this area is Leticia, located in Colombian territory, and where until this weekend there were 1,000 infected. Leticia has a population of 49,000 inhabitants, which means one of the highest rates of infection on the planet.
As expected, deaths began to occur. So far there are 35 deceased, including Antonio Bolívar (75 years old), the famous indigenous actor who starred in the movie Embrace of the Serpent. His death made us look from the great cities of the region at that forgotten South American corner.
Drug Trafficking Migration
In recent years, the Peruvian Army has attacked with relative success the cocaine manufacturing laboratories that proliferated in the southern jungle, in the area known as Valles del Río Apurímac-Ene-Mantaro (VRAEM). Faced with this, the weakened and abandoned Triple Border became a desirable territory to transport drugs.
Roger Rumrrill (1), writer and Amazon specialist, has warned that this migration of drug traffickers from the southern Peruvian jungle to the north in recent decades has stimulated the flow of drugs in the Triple Border. In this complex assembly of towns, rivers and borders, drugs flow alongside the many goods that already feed the contraband: fuel, wood, food and people.
A few days ago, Pedro Yaranga (2), specialist in security and drug trafficking issues, warned that in the midst of the pandemic the production and flow of drugs has not stopped, but has sought alternative routes. Among them, he said, is the Amazon Trapezium, where the Colombian cartels mainly dominate, which, when meeting with Peruvian newcomers, could unleash a new conflict.
Violence and the Leticia Pact
We must add a new actor to this situation, who has only brought violence to the area: FARC dissidents. As is known, in 2016 not all members of FARC agreed to sign the Peace Agreement with then-President Juan Manuel Santos. It is estimated that more than a thousand guerrillas did not surrender their weapons, but instead moved to the Amazon Trapezium (3) where the expanding drug trafficking presented itself as a new business opportunity.
In 2017, the then Peruvian Minister of Defense, Jorge Nieto Montesinos warned that coca leaf plantations on the banks of the Putumayo River had tripled since 2015. This increased the level of violence, due to the presence of armed groups.
In September 2019, after a dramatic forest fire, the presidents of Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Suriname and Guyana (Brazil was conspicuous by its absence), signed a pan-Amazon collaboration agreement called the Leticia Pact (4). The 16 axes of that commitment are oriented to fight against deforestation and climate change little was said during that meeting about the increasing violence in the area.
El 2020 llegó con una pandemia bajo el brazo y todo el panorama cambió. A few weeks after this agreement, each of the signatory countries experienced a particular crisis. Without the support of Brazil, with social protests in Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia, and with the parliamentary closure in Peru, no one paid attention to the commitments of the Leticia Pact in late 2019. The pandemic came in 2020 and the whole picture changed.
The Crisis Worsens
In the midst of this chaotic situation, the coronavirus reached the Triple Border. Since the beginning of May, the health services have collapsed in Leticia (5) and drug trafficking has taken advantage of the crisis to intensify its activities. One could almost say it is one of the few industries that has not stopped. The location is strategic, Peru and Colombia are the main cocaine producers and Brazil is the largest consumer in the region.
The only effective reaction to the problem convergence in this area has been the militarization ordered by Colombian President Iván Duque (6) a few days ago. As he explained, the objective is to stop the flow of people between borders to mitigate the spread of the virus. However, it is inevitable to see that this means a new-armed actor in the area. Meanwhile, the coronavirus continues to spread amid the chaos that has the indigenous peoples of the Amazon Trapezium as its main victims.
*José Carlos Díaz is a Journalist and PhD student of cultural studies at Rutgers University.