Tibú, the Colombian town with the most coca in the world, but no judge or mayor

Armed groups operating outside the law have killed all the authorities or sent them into exile. Local residents live in a permanent state of fear due to rampant violence

Ilustración de personas que viven bajo armas de fuego.
An illustration of people living under the constant threat of firearms.Westend61 (Getty Images)
Diana López Zuleta

Improvised bridges made from tin, a road filled with potholes and signs alluding to the ELN and EPL guerrillas. Throughout the journey, there isn’t a single uniformed person in sight.

A rope strung across the road acts as a signal to stop. Later, another one appears. These are two “tolls” that have been set up by the armed groups. They control who enters and who leaves, charging fees that are, supposedly, meant to fix the ruined roads. In reality, the money just ends up in their pockets.

Tibú is an abandoned, crime-ridden town with destroyed streets. Whenever a murder occurs, there are no authorities to collect the corpse or the evidence. Oftentimes, bodies are buried without an autopsy having been performed. There is no prosecutor, no court and nobody manning the morgue. Mayor Nelson Leal López was forced to take refuge in Cúcuta – the capital of the Norte de Santander department – after dozens of threats were made against his life. Before he fled, two of the armored vans that were assigned to his security detail were robbed. The Colombian government cannot guarantee his safety, nor the lives of anyone else in town.

With 22,000 hectares of land dedicated to coca cultivation, Tibú occupies first place among the coca-producing municipalities in the world, according to the latest report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. It’s the largest municipality in the department of Norte de Santander, which borders Venezuela. It’s part of Catatumbo – a region known as the “red zone” due to its historical association with violence. Paramilitaries from the Catatumbo Block – who were once under the orders of militia leaders Salvatore Mancuso and Carlos Castaño – acknowledged in court that, between 1999 and 2004, they committed 12,427 homicides and 375 forced disappearances in Norte de Santander. Many of the victims were thrown into the Catatumbo River. Others were buried in mass graves.

You only hear negative news about Tibú: bombings, massacres, kidnappings, murders, extortion, the recruitment of minors by armed groups. However, walking through the urban area, one gets the impression that normality reigns. There is fresh meat on display in food stalls, bars blast loud music and children play in the park. The residents claim that you can walk in peace… although there’s an underlying sensation of fear. The greatest risk appears to occur on rural roads: “They don’t steal here. You can walk around town with your phone in your hand without a problem. The danger is that a bomb will explode, or that they’ll kill you,” a resident jokes. He explains that thieves are punished by execution.

The police station remains cordoned off, behind fences and barricades. Since the last attack this past May – in which two uniformed officers and a woman died after the detonation of a bomb – the police have lived in hiding. They only go out on patrol in armored vehicles. The inhabitants fear approaching them for help, since most of the attacks have been directed against the authorities. Taking photos of the station is prohibited.

Since prosecutor Esperanza Navas was murdered in 2021, Tibú was left without a justice system. The murdered prosecutor was in charge of more than 400 cases involving homicides and illicit crops. Those responsible for her killing haven’t been captured and the investigation has been transferred to Cúcuta. Without institutions or local investigators – and without criminal prosecution – impunity is rampant. Funeral homes collect the bodies for burial, but the evidence is lost.

An automatic rifle, pictured during a funeral for a police officer in Tibú, in 2023.
An automatic rifle, pictured during a funeral for a police officer in Tibú, in 2023.Long Visual Press (Getty Images)

The town has no court or ombudsman. In 2019, while a judicial proceeding was underway, the municipal court was attacked with grenades and bullets. The secretary of the office and the judicial expert were murdered, while 11 others were injured, including the judge, three soldiers and three police officers. The courthouse has since been closed.

The mayor tried to return aboard Colombian Army helicopters, but as soon as he landed, the National Police discovered a new murder plot and he was forced to return to Cúcuta, from where he spoke to EL PAÍS via video call. He notes that insecurity has increased with the upcoming local elections. “We’ve begun to recover territory… but we need the state institutions [to support] the public security forces, so that the communities can trust their police again,” the mayor emphasizes.

Six other mayors in Colombia have had to leave the municipalities they govern. The majority hail from the departments (states) of Chocó and Norte de Santander. This is the first time that mayors have been forced to resign in 20 years. And, as the Colombian Federation of Municipalities informed EL PAÍS, the last time a mayor had to flee their district before this crisis was in 2006.

In Tibú, all types of armed groups operate outside the law, including dissidents from the now-dormant FARC, the ELN, the EPL and criminal gangs, some of them which are international, such as the Sinaloa Cartel (Mexico) and the Tren de Aragua (Venezuela). Before a ceasefire with the ELN was implemented, guerrillas armed with rifles went to Tibú and took photos with some children. In several videos, it has been recorded how members of the FARC dissidents patrol the municipality in broad daylight, carrying automatic weapons and frisking residents. They even stand outside the empty mayor’s office. In the absence of justice – and with little action from the police – the dissidents impose their own rule of law, with punishments such as tying up thieves or drug dealers to power poles and draping them with cardboard signs. Sometimes the people they capture are forced to sweep the streets or go work in the countryside. The threat of murder or disappearance hangs in the air. “The guerrillas are the ones who resolve judicial problems, marital problems, money problems. This is what happens when you don’t have a police station, a family court, or a strong police presence,” Mayor Leal laments. In the past, the guerrillas lived in the mountains. Today, they’re the lords of the town.

Coca crops are one of the reasons why armed groups dispute this area. A large part of the population lives off the harvesting and sale of coca leaves. However, in recent months, there has been a slowdown in purchasing, with some experts attributing this to oversupply. In rural areas, it’s now common for people to carry out transactions with cocaine, rather than cash.

Despite the poverty, living in Tibú is expensive. The armed groups ask everyone for protection money, even the informal vendors who sell coffee out of a thermos in the street are forced to pay up. In contrast to this lawlessness, Shakira’s foundation has launched the construction of a school in the town.

A Colombian police officer from an anti-narcotics task force torches a cocaine laboratory in Tibú, in 2000.
A Colombian police officer from an anti-narcotics task force torches a cocaine laboratory in Tibú, in 2000. Anonymous (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

In the last 25 years, thousands of people have been displaced by the violence. Zenayda Pérez is one of them. Because of death threats, she doesn’t have a fixed place to live. In the past, the armed groups have detained her for up to two hours. She barely ventures out into the street – she has no peace of mind. Her husband – a former combatant for the FARC – has also suffered attacks. “My security is that, after five in the afternoon, I stay home, I don’t go into town. I restrict myself from saying much,” she explains.

Tibú is one of the municipalities where it’s most difficult to safeguard human rights. Since the signing of the 2016 peace agreement between the government and the FARC, 20 community leaders and eight former combatants have been murdered, according to the NGO Indepaz. Armed groups have even stolen two United States cars in the Catatumbo region, where the UN maintains two offices to oversee the implementation of the peace and reconciliation process.

On October 8, the first dialogue between the government’s peace delegation and the so-called Central General Staff – the largest group of dissidents from the now-dormant FARC, led by Iván Mordisco – will be set up in Tibú. That same day, the ceasefire will officially begin. It is set to last for 10 months, as part of the “total peace” policy being pushed by President Gustavo Petro’s administration. The dissidents declared a unilateral cessation of offensive actions against state forces on Friday, September 22.

In Tibú, there are more registered victims than inhabitants: there are 88,566 victims, while the town has 59,536 inhabitants. Anyone you talk to can tell you a story about threats and silence.

Community leader Francy Elena Durán holds a banner alluding to peace. It’s 6:00 a.m. in Tibú: local students and members of victims’ organizations have gone out to march for peace, a walk that has been happening annually for the past 40 years. Durán admits that she’s afraid because of the work she does. “Sometimes, there are shootings. A stray bullet can hit our children or grandchildren at any time. We ask God to stop the [violence],” she sighs.

The parish priest – Jairo Gelves Tarazona– is part of the peace and reconciliation council of the municipality. He has gone out to march as a representative of the Catholic Church. “You can always leave Tibú, but you don’t know if you can return,” he warns. “Here, people are suspicious of everyone, even us priests. It’s a difficult situation.”

Olguín Mayorga – president of the Association of Victims of the Armed Conflict in Norte de Santander – has recently been threatened with messages signed by the “ELN,” which demand that he revoke his candidacy for the state’s Legislative Assembly. He’s running because social leaders don’t have the same security guarantees as politicians to publicize human rights violations. “In the region – and in Tibú – it doesn’t feel as if there’s really been a ceasefire with the ELN… they go out and patrol the streets, which puts the civilian population at risk,” Mayorga explains.

Coca growers in Tibú, in 2001.
Coca growers in Tibú, in 2001.SCOTT DALTON (Associated Press)

Carmen García – president of the Association of Mothers of Catatumbo for Peace – says that she felt a little calm after the 2016 peace agreement was signed. However, since 2018, she affirms that the war has gotten worse. “Catatumbo has been abandoned [by the state]. Nobody says anything about what happens here. They kill here every day,” she concludes. So far this year, the association she presides over has helped 25 women who have been threatened by the illegal armed groups leave the municipality. She herself is facing death threats. While she has been assigned a security detail, her bodyguards aren’t allowed to accompany her when she enters Tibú. As even armed guards aren’t safe, she has to take constant risks. “I didn’t want to be a leader,” she shakes her head. “The war made me become a leader. The Army killed my husband.”

In the Indigenous Barí language, Catatumbo means “house of thunder.” The region is known for its nighttime lightning. Juan Titira – a Barí leader – believes that his community now suffers more violence than before the peace agreement. Armed groups set up illegal checkpoints, dig mines across the territory and shoot at police stations. “Our Indigenous authorities have been threatened… the armed groups have tormented us and forced us to shut ourselves up in our homes. We have no peace or harmony,” he says.

Perhaps as a means to protect themselves, residents tend to talk about the violence in general terms, without singling out any particular group. Accustomed to war, some prefer not to speak at all. But despite the silence, everyone – including the priest – is afraid. Tibú is a town adrift and without justice.

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