Rural Colombians hope 'pretty promises' can bring peace back to paradise

While residents of a Farc rebel stronghold long for an end to violence and extortion, guerrillas are facing a drastic change to the only life many know

For much of the past half-century, life in paradise has been hell.

As a historic stronghold of leftist Farc rebels, the village of El Paraíso has seen guerrilla bombings, ambushes, murders, threats and the mass arrests of residents suspected of collaborating with rebels. The landscape has been littered with landmines.

“Every day there would be two or three bodies on the road between here and the town,” says Catalina, a lifelong resident so accustomed to having to watch what she says that she prefers to be identified by a pseudonym.

“I know where I live – I know what the rules are,” she explains.

Catalina and her family were driven out of the village – a 40-minute drive from the town of Algeciras in Huila province – after the guerrillas threatened her husband who they believed was helping a deserter from rebel ranks. Catalina’s family were only able to return after they convinced the local Farc commander he was mistaken, but knew they could have problems again any time.

“We lived in a constant state of fear but eventually you get used to it,” says Catalina.

For many Colombians, living with fear is the only way of life they have ever known.

But things are about to change, with announcement on Thursday of the beginning of the end of the 52-year war.

A guerrilla fighter wears T-shirt depicting Farc commanders and their 52-year struggle.
A guerrilla fighter wears T-shirt depicting Farc commanders and their 52-year struggle. Photograph: Stephen Ferry/The Guardian

President Juan Manuel Santos and the top Farc leader, Rodrigo Londoño, known as Timochenko, unveiled a definitive bilateral ceasefire and end to all hostilities between the Farc and the government, and the beginning of a demobilisation and disarmament process for the rebels.

“May this be the last day of the war,” said Farc chief Timoleón “Timochenko” Jiménez, his voice choked with tears.

It is a historic moment for Colombia, one that most of the country’s 45 million people have long dreamed of, but doubted they would see in their lifetimes. And while many Colombians received the news with high expectations, they are mixed with trepidation and more than a little doubt.

“The guerrillas laying down their arms is one thing. But if there isn’t social justice and there isn’t investment for the countryside, there won’t be peace,” says Catalina.

As part of the accords, the government has vowed to support massive investment for rural development and to facilitate the Farc’s reincarnation as a legal political party, without weapons.

The Farc have committed to help eradicate the illegal drug crops that have helped finance their war, to locate and help destroy landmines laid by their troops, and to offer reparations to their victims. As part of a special justice deal, the Farc leaders who offer full confessions of their crimes would avoid jail time, serving “alternative sentences” that could include acts of reparation to victims and other community work.

“That all sounds nice but it could all just all end up as pretty promises,” says Catalina.

One opinion poll by the Centro Nacional de Consultoría showed that more than half of Colombians say their worst fear about a peace deal is that one or both sides will fail to fulfil their commitments made in the accords. With economic growth slowing, many fear the government will not be able to come through on promises of post-conflict investment. And a general mistrust of the guerrillas makes many worry that they are unlikely to hand over all their weapons.

Another 37% fear the government is conceding too much to the guerrillas. That concern has been fuelled by a concerted campaign by critics of the peace process, led by the former president Álvaro Uribe, now an opposition senator. Claiming that Santos is “handing the country over to the Farc”, Uribe launched a signature collection drive in major cities across the country under the banner “Yes to peace but not like this”.

Critics object in particular to the agreement on justice, which they argue amounts to virtual impunity for the thousands of crimes committed by the Farc, a position also voiced by Human Rights Watch.

But in a faraway corner of Colombia, the Farc say they are ready to take responsibility for what they call their “mistakes”.

Farc commander Alberto Camacho joined the guerrillas 37 years ago when he was just 12.
Farc commander Alberto Camacho joined the guerrillas 37 years ago when he was just 12. Photograph: Stephen Ferry/The Guardian

In a rebel outpost in the mountains of the Magdalena Medio region, commander Alberto Camacho is preparing his troops to arm themselves with political arguments rather than AK-47s, even though he admits mixed emotions at doing so himself.

“It’s going to be really hard,” says Camacho, commander of the Farc’s Magdalena Medio Block, who joined the rebel group 37 years ago when he was just 12 years old.

“It implies a whole different life for us, a different regime,” he says. “We have been living in boots for so long, but this will be a new stage for us.”

Already the routine for guerrillas has changed. “Before we would get up in the morning and head to the trenches,” says Camacho. “Today we get up and go to meetings, study the peace accords,” he says.

Camacho says the guerrillas’ commitment to ending the war has been made evident with the unilateral ceasefire the Farc declared in July 2015. Since then the level of violence in the country has dropped to unprecedented lows, with just 10 offensive actions by the Farc in the past 11 months, in which one civilian and three soldiers have been killed, according to the Bogotá-based Conflict Analysis Resource Centre.

Camacho says his own troops showed extraordinary restraint last February when a group of about 200 rebel fighters came under army fire as they were headed to a meeting to learn of advances at the peace talks from members of the negotiating team.

Five rebels were wounded, but the guerrillas said they did not respond. “It could have been a massacre but the ceasefire was on,” says Camacho. “We sent word who we were and the soldiers apologised. We saw it as a provocation but we didn’t take the bait.”

Guerrilla fighters playing around in a jungle camp as they prepare for the transition to civilian life.
Guerrilla fighters playing around in a jungle camp as they prepare for the transition to civilian life. Photograph: Stephen Ferry/The Guardian

But the accord announced on Thursday will require the guerrillas to do more than leave aside their weapons. Ending all hostilities includes putting a stop to widespread extortion demanded by the Farc of everyone from large business and mining concerns to bus drivers and small shop owners.

In El Paraíso it’s still a common practice, although armed and uniformed guerrillas retreated from the area at the start of peace talks in 2012. A network of civilian collaborators known as milicianos, or militiamen, now do the collecting.

Despite the shift to peace, no one has dared not pay, according to community leaders. “But the day will come when people will say no more,” says one leader.

That’s when Catalina says the construction of peace will begin.

“Until then, it’s hard to believe,” she says.


Sibylla Brodzinsky in El Paraíso, Colombia

The GuardianTramp

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