Victims of a secret chemical war

Observations on Colombia

Some 40 women of various ethnic origins (African, indigenous and European) laugh uproariously in the playground. Gathered in a remote jungle school in Putumayo in southern Colombia for a three-day workshop, they unravel a tangle of ropes, each holding one of the strands. The game is meant to help them relax, and it is already hard to remember that just minutes earlier these women, who have come from all over the region, had been listening intently, many with tears in their eyes, to the horrifying stories that some of them had to tell.

Merita, in her forties, had talked of how she had become a desplazada, an internally displaced person. "My friend Odilia and I used to work as health assistants for a women's organisation. We'd travel into isolated areas, not far from the border with Ecuador. Then the paramilitaries arrived, chasing the Farc guerrillas deeper into the forest. They accused us of taking supplies to the guerrillas. It was a lie and we told them so. But then one night they went to Odilia's house. They killed her husband. And then they turned to her, tearing her clothes off, raping and torturing her in front of her four children. Then they cut off her breasts and decapitated her. They chopped her body into pieces, and left it in a bag. I heard that I was next. So that's how we became displaced."

Most of the women had less dramatic but almost as disturbing stories to tell about the impact of the aerial spraying of coca crops (the raw material for cocaine) that is part of the US-funded anti-narcotics programme known as Plan Colombia. Graciela, 36, who was living in Putumayo after being displaced from Uraba in the north, said that her family, like thousands of others, had planted a patch of coca, the only profitable crop, among their food staples. "We were sitting chatting on our veranda when two small planes arrived. We went down to our fields to see what was happening. My husband said, 'Look, they're dropping poison on our land.' It went all over the food crops - the cassava, bananas, beans, rice - and the pasture. We lost everything. And the poison went on us too.

"I had no coat on, so it went all over my arms. It was like cooking oil. Sticky, just like oil. I washed it off as soon as I could, but even so it made my skin itch. For several days we all felt ill. We had fevers and eye infections. My youngest child hasn't been well since."

Because the internal war is so brutal, stories like Graciela's are often overlooked, but evidence is mounting that the chemical warfare that the US and Colombian governments are waging is causing serious harm to the local population and to the forest. The Colombian government prevents on-the-ground investigations and refuses to divulge the formula of the defoliant. But Ecuadorean doctors, examining families on both sides of the frontier, believe that thousands of people have suffered long-term effects, including serious genetic damage.

Ecuador has begun legal proceedings against Colombia, which may go to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The horrors of the first chemical war of this century, so reminiscent of the past century's Vietnam war, are slowly coming to light.

On 27 October Sue Branford and Hugh O'Shaughnessy launch Chemical Warfare in Colombia: the costs of coca fumigation, published by the Latin America Bureau. For more details e-mail: