Colombian President Gustavo Petro visited the troubled Catatumbo region on Friday, bordering Venezuela, where on Wednesday armed actors attacked with firearms the outpost of official vehicles that would make up the presidential caravan as part of a security protocol prior to their arrival.
Safeguarded with a strong security scheme, Petro listened to the community of the municipality of El Tarra and developed a security council with part of the military leadership, the ministers of Defense, Interior and Agriculture and local leaders.
At the end of the meeting, he said in a public statement that all the armed actors operating in Catatumbo have communicated with the national government asking to open negotiations. Petro, who in his youth was a member of a guerrilla group that handed over his weapons in 1991, intends to silence the current armed groups by negotiating and bringing the gangs to justice.
The day before, Defense Minister Iván Velásquez told the press that they are still investigating who is behind the attack on the presidential outpost. Official information indicates that at least six individuals set up an illegal checkpoint on the highway and attacked official vehicles with firearms. No injuries were reported.
In El Tarra there is a presence of various armed groups that are fighting each other for control of the illegal economy. Among them, the guerrilla National Liberation Army (ELN) that began rapprochements with the government to resume the negotiation table, the Popular Liberation Army and the dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) that did not accept the peace agreement signed with the State in 2016.
Petro proposed to the population of Catatumbo to improve their living conditions with education and agribusiness to leave illicit crops behind. Colombia is the largest producer of coca in the world and Catatumbo is the enclave with the largest area with coca for its more than 40,000 cultivated hectares, according to the report of the Integrated Illicit Crop Monitoring System (SIMCI).
“I have admitted that the first assembly of coca leaf growers be held,” assured Petro, who hopes that at the meeting the residents will propose public policies for the substitution of illegal activity and point out priority works for the development of the region.
The president reiterated that he has asked the United States government to change its anti-drug policy, which in his opinion failed. He proposes to persecute criminal structures, but not small growers, to whom he offers to take advantage of illicit crop substitution programs, voluntarily eradicate and maintain the prohibition of aerial fumigation in plantations with the herbicide glyphosate.
On Thursday night, very close to the same area, seven soldiers were injured by the activation of mines installed by armed groups when they carried out offensive operations on the road that connects the municipality of El Zulia, the army reported in a statement.