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An Evening on the Putumayo


I recently read that Ecuadorian President is to close the US base from which the America operates its war against drugs in that country. I was reminded of a different time, when the Ecuadorian and the Columbian police worked in cooperation with the American Drug Enforcement Administration - DEA.

It was in the early eighties and I was on a DEA financed combined operation between Ecuadorian and Columbian police, to search and destroy cocaine cultivations on both sides of the Rio Putumayo, which forms a northern border between the two countries.

We had already been in the jungle twenty-two days; operating from a temporary base on the banks of the Putumayo river.  We, being the Ecuadorian contingent consisted of eighty police and Special Forces, two DEA agents, Alfredo Iglesias and John Fernandes and I. On the other side of the river and operating from their compound just outside the Wild West town of Remolino were the Columbian police.

For the base we had commandeered three wooden buildings which normally served as a primitive school for the local children. As the majority of the locals were illegally involved in the cocaine industry, it was hardly likely that any of them were going to turn up with their children while we were around.  The police themselves were living a miserable and wet existence in tents. Alfredo Iglesias, Johnny Fernandes and myself shared one hut with police major, Efrain Ramirez, a captain and one small, extremely, rotund army colonel, who was second in command to the Ecuadorian President’s drug Tsar.

Another of the buildings served as the camp kitchen and an adjoining four by four meter shack had been converted into a makeshift jail to hold any traffickers or growers who had been unlucky enough to be caught.  The colonel gave us some miserable nights with the loudest snoring I have ever had the discomfort to bear. It was so bad that even the prisoners complained about the noise. We were even prepared to let the prisoners go free and make a bed for him in the jail, but to theirs and our dismay he refused on the grounds that it would be bad for the moral of the troops, should he have the privilege of private quarters.

Each and every morning – torrential rain and jungle mist permitting - we would clamber into two Super Puma helicopters, belonging to the Ecuadorian army and take off over the Amazonian jungle searching for cocaine cultivations on both sides of the border. There was no shortage of them; from the size of a soccer pitch size on the Ecuadorian side to multi-acre plantations on the Columbia side. In this sweltering climate a coca plant can be harvested three times a year and it was usual for the growers to construct a house or hut on or near the site to avoid   long treks back and forth through the undergrowth to the river. They would also construct their primitive on-site laboratories in which to convert the coca leaves into paste.
    
Our plan did not vary. Locate a cultivation, swoop in low and unobserved - the jungle foliage deadening the noise of the chopper’s blades - secure the area and attempt to capture as many growers as possible before they could escape into the  surrounding impenetrable jungle undergrowth.

With the perimeter of the cultivation secured guarded by the Special Forces the police would then begin the backbreaking work of uprooting every single coco plant - this in the broiling daytime jungle heat without adequate gear. Any prisoners would be interrogated and flown back to our base for further questioning. With these tasks completed and the buildings and laboratories burned, we would off again - on to the next target.

It was now our third weekend stuck in the jungle.  Johnny Fernandes had been recalled to Quito with orders to proceed to Miami, where he was to appear as prime witness in a successful drug seizure. The colonel, the Major and the second chopper pilot had all taken advantage of a helicopter lift to Quito with him, saving themselves a twelve-hour road journey,  leaving behind one remaining Special Forces captain and eighty bored resentful and bored and resentful policemen. Despite another week’s arduous work, once again they were to remain at the base camp in the middle of nowhere and a long way from their friends and families up in the Sierra. There was no entertainment, no alcohol and no women; although they had been somewhat calmed by a rumour that a boat load of Columbian prostitutes working their way Peurto El Carmen would call in  their way down river. 

Alfredo and I had missed the chopper ride back to Quito and we were commiserating each other over a couple of warm whiskies when the muffled thud, thud of chopper engines roused us from our bullshitting. As it came in low along the river, we recognized it as one of the yellow painted civil machines used by the Columbian police. Their commander, Major Julio Sanchez*, apparently feeling sorry for us on hearing that the other officers had departed for Quito, had flown in to invite us both to a night out in Rebellion

Thirty minutes later we landed at their heavily fortified compound. We refused the offer of two beds in a barrack room, preferring single rooms and hot showers in a hotel. Against the Major’s advice  he eventually ordered a lieutenant named Julio, together with an escort of three open jeeps filled with armed police to escort take us town’s main hotel. Seeing the hostile looks we received from the populace along the way, It was all too obvious the police, considered in these parts as the enemy, were aggravating the situation by appearing with  two of the Gringo’s who were destroying their livelihoods only a few miles downriver from Santa…   Alfredo, being of Mexican extraction, did blend in but with my Anglo-Saxon looks and a ginger beard too match, I certainly was not going to be mistaken for a Columbian. 

Our dreams of a little luxury ended when informed by the distinctly surly hotel management that all the rooms were full. A blatant lie, claimed Julio, but he did not insist further. Outside the hotel, Julio informed just how dangerous it would have been to overnight a hotel owned by a local drug baron. So we were conducted back to the barracks and, this time, accepted their hospitality.

Major Sanchez’s wife, who had flown in from Bogota for the weekend, insisted on inviting us to join them for a parillado, at a downtown Argentine grill.   Julio, with two well armed police would be our bodyguards for the evening. But it was not quite what Alfredo and I had in mind. We would have preferred to have toured the nightspots without the police in tow.

San Carlos, with a population of around five thousand, was similar but larger than many other Columbian border towns. Its prime industry was cocaine and contraband. Its second was bars and girls, which meant that it was a wild, wide open sort of place; an ideal spot for the two thirsty lads who had been incarcerated in the Amazon jungle for three weeks.

However, the Major not wishing to later explain our disappearance or worse to his superiors in Bogota refused us permission to go it alone. How dangerous it evidently was became clear when we arrived in convoy to the down-town restaurant. The entire street had been closed off, with armed police stationed at each end of it and two more posted at the open front of the building.

The major, his quite beautiful wife, one police captain and two Columbian chopper pilots had arrived ahead of us and were already seated. As if to further demonstrate the danger around us the group had their pistols on the table - alongside their knives and forks. We were advised to do the same, which we obliged; Alfredo his pride and joy, a silver plated 44 Magnum and I my Steyer, P18 machine pistol. It seemed that there had been a number of recent assassination attempts, some successful, on off-duty police and they were taking no chances. Julio did not join us but remained on a stool at the entrance, a cloth satchel slung around his neck, containing ten spare magazines for his AK 47.

The food was good and the company even better,  Major Sanches being a dab hand at sketching, amused us by doing instant portraits.  I still posses the one he did of me.  By the time he decided that we shhould all head back to the compound, more than enough beer and wine had been consumed and it was still early evening. Possibly the alcohol had relaxed the Major because Alfredo and I convinced him that we were big enough – with the protection of Julio and the two bodyguards – to be allowed to do a little sightseeing. His decision, for reasons which later became clear was obviously welcomed by Julio. 

To be continued....

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