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Thursday, 15 February, 2001, 06:20 GMT
Thousands flee Colombian violence
Puerto Asis in Putumayo
The Colombian army blows up a coca laboratory in Putumayo
By James Reynolds in Lago Agrio

The Ecuadorian town of Lago Agrio is just 22km (14 miles) from the border with Colombia.

For many Colombians, Lago Agrio provides some sort of refuge from the violence in their homeland

Its frontier is shared with Colombia's Putumayo region - the heart of the cocaine trade in Latin America and a zone of conflict between guerrilla forces and paramilitary groups.

Since October Lago Agrio has received more than 2,000 refugees from Colombia, fleeing their country's violence.

In this region, the border between Ecuador and Colombia has no restrictions.

Fear of reprisals

There are rudimentary border controls on the Ecuadorian side, but they do not stop people from entering or leaving the country.

For many Colombians, Lago Agrio is easy to get to and provides some sort of refuge from the violence in their homeland.

But it is not a complete refuge.

After they arrive, many refugees try to keep a low profile in Lago Agrio - for fear of reprisals from Colombian guerrilla forces or paramilitary groups.

Some rent rooms, others stay with relatives. Several dozen lodge in shelters provided by the local church.

"They arrive in bad shape - emotionally and physically," says Maria Elena, a church worker who helps the refugees.

The region cannot afford to allow Colombia's cancer to spread

Heinz Moeller, Ecuadorian Foreign Minister
"Some are ill, some have been injured. Some have had to walk for hours to get over the border. When they arrive at first they don't feel safe. They feel frightened - they think they are still being pursued."

For this reason the refugees in the shelters are under constant guard.

Coca leaf plantations

Very few of the Colombians who have come to Ecuador are willing to talk about their situation.

Carlos Melo used to work as a coca leaf farmer in southern Colombia.

His crop would be used for the cocaine trade. But last year he decided he had to give it up and seek refuge in Ecuador.

"It's very dramatic there," he says. "Colombia is dominated by coca leaf plantations and all that goes with it."

Cocaine pickers
Colombia is dominated by coca leaf plantations
Lago Agrio's authorities warn if fighting escalates in southern Colombia they will not be able to cope with the spillover into their town.

They fear an increase in refugees and also a rise in violence.

"In practical terms we are very insecure here," says Deputy Mayor Pedro Montero.

"There are not enough police or soldiers here. We have asked the central government for more protection. They have told us they are doing all they can to make sure we have it."

Ecuador's government has asked the international community for $50m a year over the next five years in order to deal with the problems caused by Colombia's violence.

Buffer zone

"The region cannot afford to allow Colombia's cancer to spread," says Foreign Minister Heinz Moeller.

An officer of the Colombian anti-narcotic police
The Putumayo region is the heart of the cocaine trade
"We are developing a reactivation programme for the northern area of Ecuador to create something like a buffer area there so as to avoid the overflow."

But this buffer zone has yet to be created. For the moment, Lago Agrio is very much on the frontline without protection.

In recent weeks there have been numerous reports of murders in the town carried out by Colombian armed groups.

Along the border more than 300 Ecuadorians have now had to leave their homes following threats by Colombian insurgents.

Colombia's problems have become Ecuador's problems.

If the war against armed groups and drug traffickers in Colombia intensifies, the effects will be felt in the country right next door.

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See also:

03 Dec 00 | Americas
Colombia anti-drugs victory
03 Feb 01 | Americas
Ecuador calls state of emergency
20 Jan 01 | UK
Ecuador's troubled times
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