Pasto, Nariño 3 July

Carlos Avila Gonzalez and Phillip Robertson, for the Pulitzer Center
Pasto, Colombia

A tour through Colombia's restless south

Two guerilla groups are active in the southern province of Nariño, the Cuban-inspired ELN and the FARC. Colombian Army units have been involved in killings and disappearances of the native Awa people, a community that finds itself caught between the rebels who cross their territory and the U.S.-backed Colombian army. Nariño, the poor but fertile state wedged between Ecuador and the Pacific, has more than its fair share of human rights violations and coca production. Much of Nariño's territory is only accessible by boat. There are only the few roads that connect back to the Pan-American highway.

In another burden to the citizens of Nariño, US spray planes flying out of Tumaco cross the jungle to dump tons of glyphosate defoliant as part of the coca eradication program. It has not slowed the arrival of cocaine in the United States at all, only pushed it from one place to another. Much of the coca production we will find is the work of campesinos who are only a step up from subsistence farmers.

A vast tracery of rivers descends from the Andes mountains to course through thick jungle until it finally empties into warm Pacific to the west. It is perfect terrain for revolutionaries and coca growers because the government cannot control the lengths of the Tapaje and Patia rivers. As Colombian units in their .50 caliber equipped Boston Whalers make their way upriver, a flood of refugees has been arriving downstream in small, poor towns like El Charco, caught between FARC and the Army.

According to the UN High Commission for Refugees, Colombia has the worst internal displacement problem in the Americas and follows somewhere behind Iraq and Sudan. This is why we are headed to Nariño, to see it firsthand. In the language of aid agencies, people who are forced from their homes but do not cross international borders are not refugees, they are IDP's, internally displaced people.

When we land at Pasto's airport at five pm when the light looks as if it is radiating directly from the peaks. The buckled landscape of the cordillera is mountainous like Northern California with tropical forest covered peaks, it is a more mythical version of places I lived when I was kid. Forty-five minutes later, we arrive in Pasto in the shadow of the volcano Galeras.