Colombia is running out of time five years after peace deal, experts say

LA PAZ, Colombia – At a coca farm hidden in the jungle, half a dozen day laborers slip out of hammocks and go to work, harvesting the sh...


LA PAZ, Colombia – At a coca farm hidden in the jungle, half a dozen day laborers slip out of hammocks and go to work, harvesting the shiny green leaves that will turn into cocaine.

In the nearby village of La Paz, the chalky white cocaine base serves as currency, used to buy bread or beans. And in the community pavilion, the propaganda on the wall pays homage to an insurgency that, in villages like this, has never ended.

Scenes like these were meant to be a thing of the past in Colombia.

Five years ago, the government signed a peace accord with the largest warring rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, marking the end of a conflict that raged for half a century and had killed more than 220,000 people.

The rebels agreed to lay down their arms, while the government pledged to retreat long neglected rural communities into the Colombian state, providing jobs, roads, schools and a chance for a better life. By tackling poverty and inequality, the peace pact was supposed to quell the discontent that had fueled the war.

But a third of the way in the 15-year period of the deal, much of that aid has still not reached the Colombian countryside. Armed groups still control villages like La Paz.

And, experts warn, Colombia’s window for achieving the lasting peace envisioned in the deal may close.

“They talked about benefits,” said Jhon Jiménez, 32, a coca producer. “It was a lie.”

Colombia’s 2016 peace pact was one of the most comprehensive in modern history, winning international applause and a Nobel Peace Prize for then-president Juan Manuel Santos. The United States, which had spent billions of dollars to support the Colombian government during the conflict, was among its biggest supporters.

Since then, more than 13,000 FARC fighters have laid down their arms. Many integrate into society. The agreement also established a Ambitious transitional court of justice who investigate war crimes and bring charges against key players.

After five years, many academics consider a peace agreement a success if the signatories have not returned to the fight. In these terms, the treaty is a success: while dissident factions remain, as in La Paz, the FARC as an institution did not rearm.

But many academics and security experts warn that the transformation of the long neglected campaign – the heart of the deal – is dangerously blocked. By failing to gain the trust of rural populations, experts say, the government is allowing violent groups, old and new, to take hold and perpetuate new cycles of violence.

“There are too many things that haven’t been done, ” said Sergio Jaramillo, one of the government’s main negotiators in 2016.

President Iván Duque, a conservative who, since his election in 2018, has found himself in the uncomfortable position of implementing a deal opposed by his party, has called the criticisms unfounded.

“There is no slow implementation at all,” he said in an interview. “We have not only implemented, but the problems that we have implemented are going to be decisive for the evolution of the agreements.”

To secure land rights for poor farmers, his office has granted thousands of them land titles, he said, and approved more than a dozen regional development plans.

But Mr Duque’s party is allied with powerful landowners who have the most to lose if land tenure rules are rewritten, and many critics accuse him of slowing down the effort.

According to The Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, which monitors the progress of the agreement, only four percent of the agreement’s rural reform measures have been completed. As of June, 83 percent had just started or had not started at all.

At the same time, security has deteriorated in many rural areas, as criminal groups fight for territory previously held by demobilized FARC.

Massacres, mass displacements and the killings of social leaders have all been in place since 2016, according to the United Nations, making it increasingly difficult for the state to move in.

Analysts blame Mr. Duque and his predecessor, Mr. Santos, for not filling the void left by the FARC.

The village of La Paz is over three hours from the nearest town, on a long muddy road. A statue of the Virgin Mary presides over the two main streets of the city. There is no cell service here and community meetings are announced by a loudspeaker hanging from a pole in the center of town.

During the war, La Paz was FARC territory. Coca was the main engine of the economy. Poor farmers picked it up, rebel fighters taxed it, and drug traffickers turned it into cocaine, then transported it to buyers in the United States and beyond.

When the deal was signed, he was met in La Paz, a city whose name means “peace,” with a lot of skepticism – and a little bit of hope. The government has included the area in one of its development plans, while coca growers have been invited to participate in a substitution program intended to help them grow new crops.

But the changes that followed were limited. Part of the highway to La Paz has been paved. Electricity and ambulances reached some of the remote towns.

And a dissident FARC faction remains in the nearby jungle, welcoming new recruits. Their “laws” – spelled out in a manual – dictate everything from punishments for thieves (death after a third offense) to labor rules (prohibiting wage discrimination) to taxes (those who can afford must pay).

Coca still dominates.

Bad roads prevent them from bringing other crops to market, residents said, and lack of money excludes them from the traditional economy. The town store accepts cocaine as a form of payment, instead of coins and banknotes.

“We know that what we are doing is illegal and that we are harming Colombia and the world,” said Orlando Castilla, 65, a community leader, of the coca crop.

“But how are we going to make a living otherwise? “

At home, on a long dirt road, Sandra Cortés, 44, mother of 11 children – her “half-battalion”, she called them – explained that she was one of those who joined the substitution program. the cultivation of coca.

The decision to participate was a leap of faith: it forced her family to pluck up her entire crop, which was almost everything she owned. In return, she received a year’s worth of minimum wage subsidies, a cluster of young fruit trees, farm equipment, and a few visits from a technician who was supposed to teach her new skills. She wanted to raise cattle.

But soon the subsidies ended, most of the trees died, and the technician was gone. She never received the funds or the know-how for the cattle.

Desperate, she sold her land to a neighbor, she said, and now she is borrowing money to feed her children.

“We really thought they were going to help us,” she said as she cradled her 14-month-old baby. “We were wrong.”

Of the 99,000 families who participated in the substitution program, just over 7,000 now have new productive businesses, according to the government.

Another morning, at a coca farm outside La Paz, farmers taking a lunch break said they noticed a change since the peace agreement. The government had dramatically increased its efforts to eradicate culture – and with it, their livelihoods.

“Today, the war is the government against the peasant,” said José Yarra, 44, a coca producer.

“If I have no other way to make a living,” said another farmer, Mr. Jiménez, “I will have to go into guerrilla warfare. “

Colombia will hold elections next year and, by law, a president cannot be reelected. It will therefore be up to Mr. Duque’s successor to try to build peace on the back of current mistrust and insecurity.

Despite these concerns, several experts said they still saw reasons to be cautious.

“Implementation is going to be increasingly difficult due to growing insecurity,” said Kyle Johnson, founder of Conflict Responses, a non-profit organization in Colombia focused on peace and security issues, ” but not impossible “.

Several hours from La Paz, a village called Las Colinas offers a glimpse of what the future might look like.

Built as a result of the peace agreement, Las Colinas is home to hundreds of former FARC combatants who now lead civilian lives. Thanks to government and international funding, they have 270 houses, a school, a meeting house, a dispensary, a library and a computer lab.

They have also formed several cooperatives and, recently, construction of a supermarket, a product collection center, a processed food factory and a restaurant was underway.

More than 60 children have been born here since 2016.

Success is far from certain. It is not known whether any of these companies will be profitable, or how long government and donor funds will last.

And the village president, Feliciano Flórez – even better known by his nom de guerre, Leider Méndez – said they were living in fear. Since the signing of the agreement, at least 286 ex-combatants have been killed, according to the United Nations – many by armed groups, some in support of the peace agreement.

But Mr. Flórez, 27, sitting on his porch with his toddler in his lap, urged Colombians not to lose faith in the peace promised by the deal.

“We are committed,” he said. “But I think it’s a job we all have to do together.”

“The point is,” he added, “there is no other way.”

Sofia villamil contributed to La Paz reporting, and Carlos tejada from Seoul.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Colombia is running out of time five years after peace deal, experts say
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