Colombia: In the crossfire of a fragile peace
After years of violence and insurgence, a peace agenda is being pursued in Colombia. Negotiators from Northern Ireland and the Republic have played their part
'On March 25, they killed five youths, and left a child wounded - he lost his arm," says Guímer Quiro, the leader of a small Afro-Colombian community which recently joined the ranks of Colombia's seven million displaced people. "After that, what with the wave of violence that is sweeping through the area, we decided we better move to the nearest city, Buenaventura."
Their story, and that of the other indigenous and Afro-descendent communities who live along the banks of the San Juan River, is the story of many millions of ordinary Colombians.
It is a story of unrelenting physical and economic violence, entrenched inequality, and the persistent failure of the state to deliver rule of law outside of major cities.
Looking out over the waterway, the busiest cocaine trafficking route in the world, Quiro adds with a certain resignation: "It's a strategically important channel - large quantities of drugs and weapons are trafficked here. The FARC used to be here, but now it is more the paramilitaries and the National Liberation Army."
For these, the poorest and most marginalised sectors of the population, Colombia's newfound peace has had little impact. Some time has passed since the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, to give them their full name, were causing problems in the area, and for many, the withdrawal of FARC has only thrown open the door to paramilitary gangs.
When the Colombian government agreed a peace deal with the country's largest insurgent group last year, the international community offered enthusiastic congratulations. The accord was narrowly rejected in a plebescite, however, and despite being pushed through parliament with some hasty revisions, the deal is still regarded with either pessimism or outright hostility by many. Among the rank and file of FARC itself, and among its leadership, there is a strong sense that there is no turning back, however. Having decommissioned their weaponry, and decamped to 26 transitional encampments around the country, they have launched a new political party and are clearly determined to pursue their Marxist-Leninist political project by peaceful means.
"We are not demobilising," Gabriel Angel, one of the organisation's leading intellectuals, corrects me when we meet in Bogotá. "Demobilisation suggests giving up the fight. If you read the Havana agreement from beginning to end, you won't find the term 'demobilisation' once."
Of course, reading the agreement is no small undertaking. At 360 pages, it dwarfs the Good Friday Agreement in terms of both scope and ambition, tackling everything from transitional justice to land redistribution and the rights of ethnic minorities. The level of detail in the accord is small surprise to those familiar with FARC, an organisation which has travelled a long road from its founding in the hills of Tolima half a century ago to its embrace of mainstream politics today.
The insurgency was born of an uprising against conservative and liberal elites that had agreed to take turns governing, rather than be held to account by an electorate, some 50 years ago. That elite's pursuit of large-scale industrial farming, forcibly evicting thousands of peasant farmers from their land, drove soaring poverty and popular anger throughout the 1960s, creating fertile ground for some form of armed resistance.
Against this backdrop, a young communist activist called Manuel Marulanda Vélez declared an independent "Republic of Marquetalia" in the foothills of the Andes in 1961. Three years later, when the new 'state' was crushed by a force of 16,000 Colombian soldiers, its core members retreated further into the mountains where they formed the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. In time, FARC would become a sophisticated and formidable military and political actor, controlling an area of the country larger than Switzerland.
Before long, the conflict came to be characterised by ruthlessness and viciousness on both sides. While FARC's involvement in kidnappings, extortion and numerous human-rights atrocities fuelled popular outrage, its members would become both victims and perpetrator of serious abuses. Most notably, after agreeing to abandon violence and enter mainstream politics under a previous round of peace negotiations in 1985, over 4,000 members of the new party - called the Patriotic Union (UP) - were systematically exterminated by state forces and paramilitaries, leading to widespread suspicion that the talks had been little more than a ruse designed to draw them out of the shadows.
The extermination of the UP would also set a new marker in the noxious relationship between state security forces and paramilitary gangs that continues to afflict Colombia to this day. The rise of 'paramilitarismo' would reach its zenith under the administration of the hawkish Álvaro Uribe, who swept to power in 2002 on a promise to crush the FARC once and for all. Backed by billions of dollars in military and financial support from the US, the Harvard-educated politician led an aggressive and sustained military campaign that significantly weakened FARC.
As part of a devastatingly pitiless strategy, his administration actively promoted the development of private militias to combat the insurgents. These paramilitary gangs, generally answerable to nobody but their paymasters, would pursue a reign of terror in large swathes of the country, leading to a quagmire of brutality that many fear will be exacerbated now that FARC has dearmed. Indeed, the UN estimates that such paramilitaries are to blame for 80pc of the killings in Colombia's civil conflict, with the rebels being responsible for 12pc and state security forces the authors of the remainder.
Throughout his administration, Uribe was dogged by relentless accusations of ties to drug traffickers and paramilitaries, and numerous corruption investigations were opened against his regime. Perhaps the most notorious of the controversies was the 'false positives' scandal, which saw upwards of 3,000 innocent civilians - mostly children and youths - murdered by state security forces and presented as enemy combatants killed in battle in order to access incentives such as promotions and extra time off.
Current President Juan Manuel Santos dramatically veered away from his predecessor's bellicose policies when he took over in 2010. The pragmatically-minded Santos, recognising that military progress had largely stalled and that the underpinnings of the conflict would eventually have to be dealt with if a lasting peace was to be achieved, instead sought negotiations with FARC. The former defence minister, who was himself caught in the blast of an IRA bomb in London in 1974, had monitored Northern Ireland's peace process closely and opened the door for negotiators of the Good Friday Agreement to cross the Atlantic and share lessons learned.
Over the course of four years of talks in Havana, a succession of politicians, activists, and negotiators from Northern Ireland and the Republic travelled to both the Colombian and Cuban capitals to help facilitate the talks. Of course, this wasn't the first time Northern Irish political actors had meetings with FARC. The 'Colombia Three' - IRA members Jim Monaghan and Martin McCauley along with Sinn Féin representative Niall Connolly - were arrested in Bogota in 2001 and charged with training FARC members in bomb-making. While the men succeeding in making a clandestine return to Ireland, a subsequent investigation by the US House of Representatives affirmed they were just one of a series of IRA 'delegations' that travelled to Colombia; a claim that was verified by former FARC officers in discussions with this journalist.
The IRA connection remains a toxic issue among the 'guerrilla', with many rank-and-file FARC members vehemently opposed to the strategy of targeting civilians through remote detonations.
While the Irish are now considered a more benevolent presence by all sides, not least due to the work of Eamon Gilmore, EU Special Envoy for the peace process in Colombia, the détente is far from secure. There is widespread concern over what might happen should Álvaro Uribe's ironically-named Democratic Centre Party, which campaigned vigorously against the deal, win power in general elections scheduled for next March.
"The peace is still very fragile - it's like a new tree; you plant it, you have to give it time to take root, and in its early days you have to have a wooden frame around it to protect it from the winds and make sure it grows," explains Mr Gilmore. "In a way that framework around the Colombian peace process is the support of the international community. We're very conscious of the importance of international support over the next year, particularly given the elections next year. It is quite possible that those elections may produce an administration that was on the 'No' side of the referendum."
When the peace agreement was rejected, albeit by the narrowest of margins, in the plebiscite, it was widely observed that those who lived in more affluent urban areas, who were relatively untouched by the country's long history of violence, had rejected the deal, while the rural population, which had borne its brunt, had voted overwhelmingly in favour.
In the wake of the vote, it also became clear that some of the 'No' campaign's key claims were dubious at best. These included that that FARC members would not only go unpunished, but would also receive huge sums of public money, and that 'gender ideology' and 'homosexuality culture' would become a part of school curriculums. Indeed, one of the architects of the opposition campaign, Carlos Eduardo Velez, sparked a nationwide outcry when he admitted their strategy had been based on fuelling popular indignation rather than dealing with policy realities.
President Santos is now racing to advance implementation of the agreement sufficiently that any rollback would become politically unfeasible for whomever wins the forthcoming elections. Thus far, this has proved difficult, however, with opposition forces effectively impeding progress, and diluting the content, of the myriad legislative provisions required to implement the deal. Meanwhile, paramilitary violence against human rights defenders, and increasingly against former FARC combatants, is soaring.
"We've handed over our arms, and we're pursuing politics by legal means, but the Colombian people's problems and their needs remain unmet," observes former FARC combatant Leonardo Rojas when we meet in the Incononzo transition camp, a few hours outside Bogotá. "If this isn't resolved, the problem of violence - the resistance of the Colombian people - may be reborn in other revolutionary armies.
"I don't even want to think about the possibility of the government failing to fulfil its commitments," he adds. "We've been at war for very a long time."
Four hundred kilometres away in heavy humidity of Buenaventura, a young indigenous man looks out over the river that paramilitaries will no longer allow him to fish, and expresses a similar weariness and apprehension. "You can tell the narcos' boats by the size of the engines, and by the times at which they pass," he says . "No-one else has engines that big, and no-one else dares to move goods down the river at night." It would be a mistake to confuse his fatigue for apathy, though. Straightening his back, he continues: "But we'll keep resisting; we've been resisting oppression here for 500 years."