Coca growers capture 180 soldiers destroying crops in Colombia
Coca Field (Raul ARBOLEDA AFP/File)

Colombian coca growers have taken hostage about 180 soldiers who were eradicating crops of the cocaine-yielding plant near the Venezuelan border, a military official said Thursday.

General Omar Sepulveda told reporters six platoons under his command were "kidnapped" Tuesday in the municipality of Tibu in the northeast by communities resisting the destruction of the illegal plantations they rely on to make a living.

The soldiers were surrounded by farmers armed with sticks and machetes, Sepulveda said.

The troops are being held in a rural school.

In a video shown to AFP by the military, a group of soldiers in camouflage gear and armed with rifles are seen huddled together, with civilians keeping an eye on them.

A spokesman for the community, who identified himself as "Junior" told W Radio the kidnappers were willing to negotiate over the troop's release.

He said the coca growers had detained the soldiers in protest as they felt the government had not fulfilled a promise to help them replace coca leaf plantations with legal crops.

The office of Colombia's human rights ombudsman said on Twitter it was sending a delegation to Tibu to try and secure the soldiers' release.

Tibu is in the Catatumbo region known for being the world's largest area of drug cultivation, with more than 40,000 hectares of coca plantations, according to UN data.

Holdouts from the disbanded FARC rebel group, an active guerrilla group called the National Liberation Army (ELN), and other armed bands fight over drug trafficking revenues along the long and porous border with Venezuela.

President Ivan Duque, in office since 2018, has redoubled efforts to clamp down on the drug trade, with soldiers destroying coca plantations that are the only way of making a living for thousands of peasants and migrant laborers.

Clashes with coca growers are frequent.

With a record number of 1,010 tons in 2020, Colombia remains the world's largest cocaine exporter, and the United States its largest consumer.

Its economy hammered by the coronavirus outbreak, some 42 percent of Colombia's population now live in poverty, and more than 16 percent is unemployed.

© 2021 AFP