Colombian president seeks release of 180 soldiers captured by coca growers | Inquirer News
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Colombian president seeks release of 180 soldiers captured by coca growers

/ 05:19 AM October 29, 2021

Colombian president seeks release of 180 soldiers captured by coca growers

Bogota, Colombia — Colombian President Ivan Duque on Thursday urged coca growers to free 180 soldiers they took hostage during an anti-narcotics operation, warning of consequences if they don’t.

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The troops were taken Tuesday while destroying plantations of the cocaine-yielding plant near the Venezuelan border.

General Omar Sepulveda told reporters that six platoons under his command were “kidnapped” in the municipality of Tibu in the northeast by farmers resisting the destruction of the illegal plantations they rely on to make a living.

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The soldiers were surrounded by farmers armed with sticks and machetes, Sepulveda said.

The troops are being held at a rural school.

In a video shown to AFP by the military, a group of soldiers in camouflage gear and armed with rifles are seen huddled together, with civilians keeping an eye on them.

“They are fine, they are armed,” Duque told journalists. “They wanted to avoid confrontation and I value their professionalism.”

But Duque said actions such as those taken by the farmers “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.”

A spokesman for the coca growers, who identified himself as “Junior,” told W Radio they were willing to negotiate over the troops’ release.

He said the soldiers were taken in protest as farmers felt the government had not fulfilled a promise to help them replace coca leaf plantations with legal crops.

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The office of Colombia’s human rights ombudsman said on Twitter it was sending a delegation to Tibu to try and secure the soldiers’ freedom.

Cocaine capital

Tibu is in the Catatumbo region known for being the world’s largest area of drug cultivation, with more than 40,000 hectares (99,000 acres) of coca plantations, according to UN data.

Holdouts from the disbanded FARC rebel group, members of the active National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group, and other armed gangs fight over drug trafficking revenues along the long and porous border with Venezuela.

The country is experiencing its most violent period since a 2016 peace deal disarmed the FARC and ended most fighting.

Duque, in office since 2018, has redoubled efforts to clamp down on the drug trade, with soldiers destroying coca plantations that are the only way of making a living for thousands of peasants and migrant laborers.

Clashes with coca growers are frequent.

Colombia remains the world’s largest cocaine exporter, with a record number of 1,010 tons in 2020, and the United States is its largest consumer.

With Colombia’s economy hammered by the coronavirus outbreak, some 42 percent of its population now lives in poverty, and more than 16 percent is unemployed.

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TAGS: Army, coca growers, Colombia, Crime, Drugs, Iván Duque
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