In a Colom­bian rebel strong­hold, no peace yet

The FARC in­sur­gency has fed on ru­ral anger at a dis­tant gov­ern­ment

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY JOSHUA PART­LOW AND JU­LIA SYMMES COBB joshua.part­low@wash­post.com

la esper­anza, colom­bia — Maybe some­day, if the truce holds, the cov­ered soc­cer pitch in this moun­tain town will be­come some­thing of a me­mo­rial, the pre­cise hill­top spot where Colom­bian rebels launched their last ma­jor at­tack in a half-cen­tury of civil war.

For now, it’s Hugo Rendón’s job to make the world for­get. So the fore­man is pour­ing con­crete where 11 Colom­bian sol­diers were slaugh­tered as they bivouacked that rainy night in April. He will be re­plac­ing the sheet-me­tal roof that has so many bul­let holes it looks like a plan­e­tar­ium. There will be new bath­rooms and a snack bar.

The gov­ern­ment is pay­ing for the ren­o­va­tion, but that’s not enough to win the vil­lagers’ trust. Gov­ern­ment here means spotty elec­tric­ity, a poorly equipped health clinic, air­planes spray­ing chem­i­cals on coca fields. Hang­ing proudly along the main road that the gov­ern­ment hasn’t paved is the tricolor flag of one of the world’s old­est rebel groups — the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Armed Forces of Colom­bia, or FARC.

“They have bet­ter ideas than the gov­ern­ment, no?” Rendón said.

Af­ter three years of dis­cus­sions in Ha­vana, ne­go­tia­tors for the Colom­bian gov­ern­ment and the rebels have ar­rived at a place tan­ta­liz­ingly close to peace. By March, Pres­i­dent Juan Manuel San­tos has pledged, there will be a fi­nal ac­cord.

But in the south­west­ern cordilleras of Cauca prov­ince, where thou­sands have been killed or driven from their homes, the dis­tance to peace seems far greater. Along this rugged Pa­cific coast, the FARC guer­ril­las have at times func­tioned as a shadow state, or­ches­trat­ing pub­lic works projects and de­mand­ing loy­alty by force.

The in­sur­gency has fed on ru­ral anger at a dis­tant gov­ern­ment seen as rul­ing for the few. In that sense, the tough­est fight is yet to come: build­ing a last­ing bond be­tween the peo­ple and their gov­ern­ment.

“We’ve had 50 years of war,” said José Nifer Díaz, a former mayor of Buenos Aires, the mu­nic­i­pal­ity that en­com­passes La Esper­anza. “What they’re sign­ing in Cuba is not peace. Each and ev­ery one of us has to build our own peace.” ‘It’s a tense calm’

The res­i­dents of Buenos Aires, a sleepy farm­ing town shaded by aca­cia trees, have stepped gin­gerly into the truce. The cease­fire be­gan last De­cem­ber, broke down af­ter the soc­cer-field at­tack, then re­sumed in the sum­mer. But the guer­ril­las have not laid down their weapons, nor have sol­diers been with­drawn from their posts.

“It’s a tense calm,” said a po­lice of­fi­cer in town. “They are still armed and hid­den and wait­ing for or­ders.”

Ear­lier this year, the United Na­tions listed 125 mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, about 10 per­cent of the coun­try, with the great­est need for post­con­flict re­build­ing. One was Buenos Aires. Out of 30,000 peo­ple here, nearly one-third have reg­is­tered as vic­tims of the war. The fed­eral gov­ern­ment seems far away. Some­times peo­ple get called by the in­sur­gents to clear de­bris from a road or to lis­ten to a talk by FARC lead­ers.

“Th­ese com­mu­ni­ties have been aban­doned by the state,” said Franklin Ramírez, a mu­nic­i­pal em­ployee.

Ramírez hosts com­mu­nity meet­ings for res­i­dents who have lost some­thing in the war. He hands out lit­er­a­ture ex­plain­ing the peace ne­go­ti­a­tions. Be­fore the truce, bom­bard­ments and gun bat­tles rat­tled the high­lands. Things have calmed, but risks re­main. A young girl leav­ing school was killed re­cently when she stepped on a land mine. Gun­men shot at the po­lice sta­tion de­spite the cease-fire.

“The peo­ple are scared,” said María Yuli Gómez, a 44-year-old res­i­dent forced from her home by the vi­o­lence. “We haven’t over­come every­thing that has hap­pened.”

Even if peace holds, the in­equal­i­ties of ru­ral life will re­main. There are few prospects for hon­est work be­sides peas­ant farm­ing on lands of the rich. The guer­ril­las’ Marx­ist-in­spired ide­ol­ogy still res­onates.

“What they’ve al­ways said is they want to help the campesinos,” said Ale­jan­dro Ruiz, 42, a coca farmer. “Ob­vi­ously, we would vote for them.”

But there is also anger that the FARC might sud­denly be wel­comed as a nor­mal po­lit­i­cal party, as if the dam­age it has caused might be for­got­ten. Res­i­dent Vi­cente San­doval, 60, laughed bit­terly at the prospect of FARC can­di­dates. Af­ter the de­mo­bi­liza­tion, he said, the rebels will get health care, jobs, train­ing and hous­ing, “while some­one who was peace­ful will have noth­ing.”

Town of­fi­cials say the fed­eral gov­ern­ment must do more to help heal such re­sent­ments if the guer­ril­las are to live openly among the peo­ple again.

“If they agree to some­thing in Ha­vana, but we haven’t done the work at the com­mu­nity level, it won’t be worth a thing,” said the mu­nic­i­pal­ity’s No. 2 of­fi­cial, Vianey Pala­cios Cara­bali. A long rec­on­cil­i­a­tion

The FARC, as a mil­i­tary threat, is a shadow of its former self. Founded in 1964 as the armed wing of the Com­mu­nist Party in Colom­bia, its in­sur­gency spread to in­clude tens of thou­sands of men un­der arms who con­trolled wide swaths of the south and east.

In the mid-1980s, the FARC es­tab­lished a po­lit­i­cal party, the Pa­tri­otic Union, with other left­ist groups and won hun­dreds of lo­cal gov­ern­ment seats and leg­isla­tive posts. But para­mil­i­tary fight­ers killed more than 2,000 mem­bers of the party, in­clud­ing two pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates.

San­tos’s pre­de­ces­sor in the pres­i­dency, Ál­varo Uribe, launched an ag­gres­sive mil­i­tary of­fen­sive against the FARC. But the in­sur­gents per­sisted with sab­o­tage and hit-and-run at­tacks, blow­ing up roads, bridges and po­lice sta­tions. Such vi­o­lence has left them widely un­pop­u­lar in Colom­bia, and the FARC has dwin­dled to about 8,000 fight­ers. It no longer openly con­trols ter­ri­tory.

The guer­rilla group’s great­est chal­lenge is con­vert­ing it­self into a vi­able po­lit­i­cal party, said An­ge­lika Ret­tberg Beil, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at the Univer­sity of the An­des in Bogota. “The pub­lic is very skep­ti­cal about the FARC’s sin­cer­ity and de­sire for peace.”

The peace talks in Ha­vana have cleared many hur­dles, but the path for­ward is daunt­ing. Un­der the agree­ment, the gov­ern­ment must set up spe­cial tri­bunals to hear com­bat­ants’ con­fes­sions of their crimes, along with a sep­a­rate truth com­mis­sion to take tes­ti­mony. It is un­clear whether the FARC will end up pay­ing repa­ra­tions to its vic­tims.

Guer­rilla foot sol­diers not ac­cused of a spe­cific crime are ex­pected to re­ceive amnesty. But the lead­ers and those fac­ing ac­cu­sa­tions of se­ri­ous of­fenses such as mur­der or kid­nap­ping will be asked to con­fess in re­turn for sen­tences of five to eight years in some type of half­way house or work camp. Pri­son time is ex­pected to be re­served for those who do not come clean about the past.

“End­ing the war is much more than just the lay­ing down of weapons. It’s re­ally ac­count­ing for re­spon­si­bil­ity for the crimes on all sides,” said Bernard Aron­son, the U.S. State Depart­ment’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive to the peace talks.

Given their his­tory with the Pa­tri­otic Union, the FARC’s lead­ers are wor­ried about their phys­i­cal safety as they tran­si­tion to peace­ful pol­i­tics. Some of the right-wing para­mil­i­tary groups formed to bat­tle the rebels have be­come crim­i­nal gangs that the FARC still con­sid­ers a threat. The guer­ril­las “want the forces that they be­lieve are their en­e­mies to be dis­man­tled by the gov­ern­ment,” Aron­son said. Seek­ing apolo­gies

Ramiro Al­men­dra sat silently in the front row of the vic­tims’ meet­ing in the Buenos Aires hall of jus­tice. He at­tends th­ese ses­sions, rid­ing the bus for an hour from his lit­tle hill­top shack, but his hopes of real repa­ra­tions have dwin­dled.

Or­phaned as a child, he grew up work­ing in coca fields. When right-wing para­mil­i­tary fight­ers swept through the moun­tain town of Naya in April 2001, in­tent on emp­ty­ing vil­lages the guer­ril­las had moved through, Al­men­dra walked for eight days through the jun­gle to es­cape. The mas­sacre was one of the most bar­baric of the war; para­mil­i­tary troops used chain saws and ma­chetes to slaugh­ter dozens of farm­ers.

Al­men­dra set­tled on a chilly ridge with a view of the Pa­cific. With his wife, Rosa Delia Fernán­dez, he started sell­ing cof­fee and fritters to mule-driv­ers trekking through. Over the next decade, they built a crude wood house, which dou­bled as a restau­rant and inn, that they named the Mi­rador. But FARC rebels used the area, too. When Colom­bian sol­diers en­tered the town, they ac­cused him of har­bor­ing ter­ror­ists in his ho­tel.

“You feed the guer­ril­las, then you’re an ac­com­plice. You sell a juice to the sol­diers, then you’re col­lab­o­rat­ing with the army,” Delia said. “You find your­self in­side a con­flict you have noth­ing to do with.”

By the sum­mer of 2012, the Colom­bian mil­i­tary was bom­bard­ing the forested hills around their house. One night, with a he­li­copter hov­er­ing above their roof and the chil­dren sob­bing, they de­cided to flee. It has been three years, and they don’t feel safe enough to re­turn.

Al­men­dra is not yet bet­ting on peace.

“The gov­ern­ment has to apol­o­gize to the campesinos, to the peo­ple, be­cause they’ve done a lot of dam­age,” he said. “And the guer­ril­las have to do the same.”

JOSHUA PART­LOW/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

PANAMA Buenos Aires ECUADOR 2014 re­port from the Foundation for Peace and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion PERU VENEZUELA BRAZIL THE WASH­ING­TON POST

A con­struc­tion worker re­pairs a soc­cer pitch in the town of La Esper­anza, where 11 Colom­bian sol­diers were slaugh­tered as they bivouacked in April, the last ma­jor at­tack by the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Armed Forces of Colom­bia, or FARC, in a half-cen­tury of civil war. Af­ter three years of dis­cus­sions in Ha­vana, ne­go­tia­tors for the Colom­bian gov­ern­ment and the rebels have ar­rived at a place tan­ta­liz­ingly close to peace. But lo­cal of­fi­cials in the area of La Esper­anza say the fed­eral gov­ern­ment must do more to help heal re­sent­ments if the guer­ril­las are to live openly among the peo­ple again. Caribbean

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COLOM­BIA Pa­cific Ocean

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