Colombia's Drug War Spills into Ecuador

Lago Agrio, Ecuador - As the American-backed anti-drug offensive known as Plan Colombia pushes ahead, a rising wave of crime and violence is spilling into neighboring Ecuador.

That wave is bringing with it bloody gunfights, execution-style murders, cocaine laboratories, fleeing refugees and mounting fears that Colombia's problems could soon spread along Ecuador's 370-mile shared border and throughout the region.

The recent discovery in an isolated jungle thicket near Lago Agrio of the body of Ronald Sander, 54, a kidnapped oil worker from Missouri, has added to the sense of insecurity felt by locals as well as the 300 Americans who work here.

"If this conflict turns into an all-out war, it will engulf not only Ecuador but many other countries in South America," said Maximo Abad Jaramillo, mayor of this oil town about 18 miles south of the Ecuador-Colombia border.

Members of the rival forces in Colombia's civil war are a common sight crossing the porous border into Ecuador, just a short ride from town.

They spill out of dusty trucks in front of brothels at twilight and stare at each other in the strobe-lit bars that hum at night with pulsating music. Officials say guerrillas have long trolled this region trying to buy guns or chemicals to process cocaine.

Authorities fear Colombia's violence is already moving quickly into Ecuador, a nation of 12.5 million struggling under the weight of a political and economic crisis that renders it the least prepared of Colombia's neighbors to deal with such a challenge.

In the past month, Ecuadorean military troops raided two cocaine-processing laboratories, and the ensuing shootout with drug traffickers left six people dead. One of the labs was capable of producing 440 pounds of cocaine a week.

In one of the raids government troops also found a factory that was making uniforms for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, Colombia's biggest guerrilla group.

It was the second rebel camp discovered in recent weeks. Ecuadorean officers also found an abandoned camp 5 miles within their territory that included a hut, trenches and more military uniforms belonging to the FARC.

The discovery of the guerrilla outposts may be just the beginning. There also has been a growing exodus of hundreds of Ecuadoreans who have fled their homes in the last two weeks because they say unidentified, armed Colombian groups have threatened them.

Colombians have been buying property along the Ecuadorean side of the border, officials fear, with the goal of setting up new frontiers for the drug trade.

Meanwhile, more than 20 people have been killed since December in Lago Agrio, a town of only 25,000. Police say most of the deaths have been the result of clashes among Colombians, but five people died when a bomb exploded in one of a series of attacks on Ecuador's main oil pipeline.

Sander, the slain American, is perhaps the most potent symbol of the region's growing lawlessness. He was kidnapped in October from a jungle oilfield and held along with seven other foreigners, including four Americans.

A technician with Tulsa-based Helmerich & Payne Inc., Sander was discovered two weeks ago, shot five times in the back and covered with a sheet.

A message scrawled on the sheet in Spanish read: "I am a gringo. For non-payment of ransom. HP company."

Sander's death has sent a shock wave of fear through this petroleum-rich region in which the number of U.S. workers could double to 600 later this year when construction is scheduled to begin on a new oil pipeline.

"I am worried," said Police Commander Marco Amores Segovia, who is in charge of Sucumbios, the border province where Lago Agrio is located.

"In Colombia they have started to get rid of the coca crops with spraying, and there is news here saying many [drug traffickers] will be transferring operations to this side," Segovia said. "To fight this, we need guns, vehicles, everything."

Sucumbios is just across the border from Colombia's Putumayo province, considered the world's largest cocaine-producing region. As of late January, nearly 66,000 acres of coca in Putumayo and Caqueta provinces had been destroyed with aerial spraying in an initially successful Colombian anti-drug offensive backed by the United States.

The escalating problems are being watched closely by leaders across South America, many of whom have already expressed concerns about Plan Colombia.

Colombia is the world's main supplier of cocaine and a growing source of heroin. The country's 37-year armed conflict involving leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and the armed forces has taken more than 35,000 lives, mostly civilians, since 1990.

More than 2,200 Colombian refugees have applied to stay in the Sucumbios region of Ecuador.

Colombian President Andres Pastrana and FARC leader Manuel Marulanda agreed Friday to resume formal talks Wednesday in a bid to end the guerrilla war.

The U.S.-backed effort to sharply curtail the role of Colombian cartels in international drug trafficking, according to city leaders in Lago Agrio and elsewhere, has the potential to become another Vietnam. Across the region, from Panama to Argentina, Plan Colombia has raised similar concerns.

Brazil's government has reacted quickly, sending military reinforcements along its 1,000-mile border with Colombia, particularly in the Amazon region, where about 22,000 troops, more than 10 percent of its force, are stationed.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been highly critical of the plan, and Peruvian and Bolivian officials are bracing for trouble, monitoring the potential for higher coca prices that threaten to undermine successful eradication programs in their countries.

"There is a risk that both the Colombian production and drug trafficking and other operations will move to other countries, especially when there is little authority and control, which is the case in Ecuador's border region," said Michael Shifter, a vice president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue.

Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Heinz Moeller Freile said that because of that risk, the U.S. has a "shared responsibility" to help Ecuador and other countries in the region create an "economic buffer zone."

Washington has committed $40 million to Ecuador in the next two years and agreed to set up a new drug surveillance operation at an Ecuadorean base in the port city of Manta. FARC leaders described the move as a "declaration of war." But Moeller says the U.S. should do more. He said that so far only $8 million in aid has been received for additional resources along the border. He traveled to Washington recently to request an aid package of more than $300 million. The crisis could not have come at a worse time for Ecuador. President Gustavo Noboa, the latest head of state through an almost yearly revolving door, said he would declare a state of emergency if problems persisted. Noboa recently faced large street protests by Indians; Ecuador last year had the region's highest inflation rate.

Meanwhile, officials in Lago Agrio say additional resources cannot come quickly enough, noting that the region is ill-prepared to deal with the escalating conflict. They say they have been pleading for more resources.

Police describe many of the recent slayings as "justice killings" that occur when leftist FARC members and right-wing paramilitaries cross the border to carry out execution-style murders.

Even at newly refurbished centers that can house up to 5,000 Colombian refugees, relief workers say danger is close at hand. Armed men wearing ski masks have been seen circling one of the camps.

"We can't deny this region is involved in an armed conflict," said Carmen Rosa Perez, vice coordinator for the refugee program run by the local Roman Catholic Church, which has been working with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

"The commander of police has said they don't have the material resources or the police to defend even the local population, let alone the refugees," she said.

In a region of Ecuador where liberal Colombian spending had long kept a depressed economy afloat, residents are feeling the strain not only of increased violence but from poor refugees who are putting additional pressure on the city's infrastructure and services.

Recently, a Colombian refugee, a 42-year-old mother, recounted how paramilitary fighters burst through her front door two days after Christmas. The gunmen screamed, "Where are the guerrillas?" and started to shoot.

Five members of her family died that night, she said. She and her little girl, her 82-year-old mother and brother-in-law escaped througha window.

The family made it most of the way to Lago Agrio on foot a month ago but has been unable to decide what to do next. "They say we can stay for at least three months," the mother said, "but after that, I don't know."

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