News / Americas

In Colombia War Zone, Peace Talks Raise New Fears

Ivan Marquez, chief negotiator for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), center, arrives for a news conference at the close of the 19th round of peace talks with Colombia's government in Havana, Cuba, Feb. 1
Ivan Marquez, chief negotiator for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), center, arrives for a news conference at the close of the 19th round of peace talks with Colombia's government in Havana, Cuba, Feb. 1
Reuters
For farmers like Angel Escue, Colombia's bid to end half a century of war with Marxist rebels may come at too high a price.
 
Stripping leaves from an illegal coca bush at his small plot in the mountains of central Cauca department, Escue says a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC),  could sink him deeper into poverty even if it ends almost daily firefights in the area.
 
“We pray for an end to the violence, but not at any cost,” 61-year-old Escue says as he hunches over the bright green coca scrub in Toribio, a rebel stronghold that processes the leaves into cocaine. “They want us to switch to crops that won't bring enough money to feed a family; we can't do that.”
 
Three months before the presidential election, government envoys and FARC commanders are working through the third item on a five-point peace agenda - the illegal drugs industry, and how to rid Colombia of coca.
 
Negotiations to end the conflict that has killed more than 200,000 - mostly civilians - since the 1960s is a campaign battleground ahead of the first round of voting on May 25.
 
President Juan Manuel Santos is favored to win a second term and continue the peace talks that began in 2012, although he will be hard pressed to match his comfortable victory in 2010 given criticism of the talks and his economic policies.
 
This is the first election held during a peace process, so convincing farmers like Escue and others that an end to the conflict will also bring jobs is key.
 
The scion of one of Colombia's most powerful families, Santos says investors are awaiting the talks' outcome before pouring cash into the Andean nation.
 
His biggest challenge comes from right-wing contender Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, an ally of conservative former President Alvaro Uribe who says he would scrap the FARC talks. Leftist candidate Clara Lopez, Marta Lucia Ramirez of the Conservative Party, and Enrique Penalosa from the Green Alliance will also run.
 
Santos is seeking to compensate millions of people displaced by the war and has returned land stolen by the FARC and right-wing paramilitaries. The measures helped bring the rebels to the negotiating table, although many of those he has pledged to help are unlikely to vote for him.
 
Farmers from across the country last year led violent protests against a free-trade deal with the United States and other reforms they say have left them even poorer than before.
 
Coca farmers worry they will be pushed into growing coffee, rubber or cacao, which they say require additional workers, costly fertilizers and generate less income.
 
“We only just make ends meet with coca,” says Escue's sister Teresa of the weed, which needs little water and can earn double what legal crops do for each of its three annual harvests.
 
It also has a regular buyer in the FARC, which sends rebels to farms such as Escue's to purchase the leaves.
 
Negotiators at the peace talks in Cuba have already reached partial agreement on agricultural reform and rebel participation in politics. Still on the agenda is an end to the conflict - including a ceasefire - and reparations for war victims.
 
While most Colombians are desperate for peace, many are wary of how much Santos is willing to offer the rebels for them to put down their weapons. That may play against him in the election.
 
Zuluaga and Uribe - a one-time Santos ally - are furious that FARC leaders could be handed light sentences for their crimes, and perhaps even given seats in Congress.
 
“We won't accept that FARC leaders who have killed soldiers and police in cold blood, recruited children, kidnapped and extorted - killed defenseless Colombians - are awarded a place in Congress tomorrow,” Zuluaga told Reuters.
 
Almost a third of voters still say they will not mark the ballot for any candidate, pollster Gallup said recently.
 
Off limits
 
The war-torn region of Cauca remains off limits for most Colombians. Violence can flare at any time, forcing villagers to hide and dodge bullets and the rebels' homemade cylinder bombs.
 
Two-thirds of Cauca's 1.4 million people live on $3 a day and dirt roads to market are frequently washed away. Subsistence farmers depend on growing coca to survive.
 
Many here sympathize with the FARC, trade with it and have family in its ranks. They have little faith in the government and are deeply skeptical about peace talks and the election.
 
“It's all just empty promises ahead of the vote. What will peace really bring here? There are no jobs to replace coca and other crime gangs will just move in after the FARC leave,” said Manuel Bonilla, 62, who lost his right arm when the rebels detonated a bus bomb in Toribio's central square.
 
'I'm voting blank'
 
Bonilla's wife, Marta Lucia, scratches a living by trimming and bagging marijuana on the porch of her crumbling adobe shack. She feeds her family of seven with sugar water, plantain and rice with the $2.50 she is paid daily.
 
“I wish I'd died. That way there would be one less mouth to feed,” says Bonilla, struggling to mend an old motor with a hook fixed to his stump. “This election will bring us nothing new.”
 
As an outlet to the Pacific, Cauca is used by the FARC and criminal groups as a corridor to smuggle cocaine and marijuana to Central America and Mexico and then to the United States.
 
The FARC is believed to control about 60 percent of cocaine output in Colombia, one of the world's biggest producers, netting the rebels as much as $1 billion a year, the government says. FARC leaders deny involvement in drug trafficking but accept their role in coca production.
 
Founded in 1964 as a Marxist movement that fought to defend the poor, the FARC later turned to cocaine, kidnapping and extortion.
 
At its height, the FARC had some 20,000 fighters but a U.S.-funded military offensive has whittled them to as few as 7,000.
 
While details of negotiations in Havana remain secret, the government has said it wants total eradication of the coca crop.
 
Critics question how the government would teach new skills or fund subsidies for hundreds of thousands of coca farmers.
 
Santos has suggested he would help farmers substitute coca for coffee, fruits and pepper and that peace would attract fresh private sector investment, meaning new jobs.
 
“It's evident that the eradication or substitution of coca will have a cost because the families that are in this activity should have an alternative. They can't be put in a vulnerable position,” Finance Minister Mauricio Cardenas told Reuters. “But with the same logic we can say that there are resources that today we are using for war that we could redirect to peace.”
 
About two hours down winding roads from Toribio, sugar cane companies such as Bengala Agricola are waiting for the outcome of the talks before making million-dollar investments to switch to pineapple cultivation.
 
Safety concerns are vital, says Bengala executive Mauricio Lopez, since pineapple requires more on-the-ground management.
 
“We could double the hectarage planted with pineapple to 200 by the end of 2014,” he says of the plantation close to Pradera, where two months ago the FARC killed a civilian and injured 30 in a motor-bike bomb. “It depends totally on the peace process.”
 
Military leaders in the area say social change is key to a lasting peace, no matter who wins the election.
 
Colonel German Lopez, commander of the heavily guarded 14th mobile brigade stationed in Caloto, says his work is 60 percent social and 40 percent military.
 
“It's logical and understandable that they don't believe in the peace process,” said Lopez, dressed in battle fatigues. “But they have to understand that the world is changing and they have to create a new culture away from coca and conflict.”

You May Like

Islamic State Survivor: A Yazidi Girl's Tale

Sarah Said Haydar, captured a year ago while fleeing Islamic State onslaught in northern Iraq, was so traumatized by militants, she sought to end her own life More

EU, US Applaud Kosovo Law on Special Court

Joint statement says lawmakers' decision to address allegations of war crimes 'demonstrated their commitment to the rule of law and to honor international agreements' More

ASEAN Ministers to Push for S. China Sea Agreements

According to documents obtained by VOA Khmer, ministers will stand up for 'freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful maritime commerce, trade and over flight' More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Cambodia Makes Progress Curbing Bear Tradei
X
Robert Carmichael
August 04, 2015 3:07 PM
Cambodia’s wild bears are under unprecedented pressure. Their native forests are being cut down at record rates, and China's huge demand for traditional medicine has made them targets. But experts say Cambodia's conservation efforts are setting an example that has put it well ahead of its neighbors in protecting bears. Robert Carmichael reports for VOA from Phnom Penh.
Video

Video Cambodia Makes Progress Curbing Bear Trade

Cambodia’s wild bears are under unprecedented pressure. Their native forests are being cut down at record rates, and China's huge demand for traditional medicine has made them targets. But experts say Cambodia's conservation efforts are setting an example that has put it well ahead of its neighbors in protecting bears. Robert Carmichael reports for VOA from Phnom Penh.
Video

Video Growing Number of E. Jerusalem Palestinians Seek Israeli Citizenship

Most Palestinians living in East Jerusalem have long rejected the option of full Israeli citizenship, seeing it as a betrayal to their political cause - the formation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. But as that dream remains elusive, more and more Palestinians are applying for Israeli citizenship. Zlatica Hoke reports the decision is hard for many Palestinians who say they have to be pragmatic about it.
Video

Video With No Money, More Students, African Universities Struggle

Academics from around the African continent converged in Johannesburg last week for the African Universities Summit, a chance to tackle some of the major issues facing higher education in Africa today. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Community

A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Bangkok Warned It Soon Could Be Submerged

Italy's Venice and America's New Orleans are not the only cities gradually submerging. The nearly ten million residents of the Bangkok urban area now must confront warnings the city could become uninhabitable in a few decades. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from the Thai capital.
Video

Video Inclusive Gym Gets People With Disabilities in Fitness Spirit

Individuals with special needs are 58 percent more likely to be obese than the general population. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, they also have an increased likelihood of anxiety, depression and social isolation. But a sports club outside Washington wants to make a difference in these people's lives. With Carol Pearson narrating, VOA's June Soh reports.
Video

Video Wisconsin's Voter ID Law Still Mired In Controversy

Voter ID laws have sparked controversy across the US. More than 30 states enacted laws requiring citizens to show identification before they vote. Against fierce opposition, the state of Wisconsin recently enacted one the most restrictive voter ID laws in country. As Jeff Swicord reports, no one can predict its impact as the 2016 election nears.
Video

Video Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missions

Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Hailed as Highly Effective

At last, there's a way to end the suffering from the Ebola epidemic that has ravaged West Africa for more than a year. Researchers say the vaccine is so effective, there may never be a major outbreak of Ebola again. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video Special Olympics Show Competitors' Skill, Determination

Special Olympics competitions will wrap up Saturday in Los Angeles, and the closing ceremony for athletes with intellectual disabilities will be held Sunday night. In a week of competition, athletes have shown what they can do through skill and determination. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Civil Rights Leaders Struggled to Achieve Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, lawmakers approved, and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure outlawed racial discrimination in voting, giving millions of blacks in many parts of the southern United States federal enforcement of the right to vote. Correspondent Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights leaders who were on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights.
Video

Video Shooter’s Grill: Serving Food with a Touch of the Second Amendment

Shooter's Grill, a restaurant in Rifle, Colorado, attracts visitors from all over the world as well as local patrons. The reason? Waitresses openly carry loaded firearms as they serve food, and customers are welcome to carry them, too. VOA's Enming Liu and Lin Yang paid a visit to Shooter's Grill, and heard different opinions about this unique establishment.
Video

Video Despite Controversy, Business Owner Continues Sale of Confederate Flags

At Cooter’s, a store in rural Sperryville, Virginia, about 120 kilometers west of Washington, D.C., Confederate flags are flying off the shelves. The red, white and blue battle flag, with 13 white stars representing the Confederate states, was carried by southern forces during the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s. The South had seceded from the Union over several key issues of disagreement, including slavery. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs

More Americas News

US Asks Venezuela to Scrap Ban on Opposition Candidates

State Department criticism comes as US, Venezuela have opened cautious rapprochement in past few months to try to improve relations after more than a decade of acrimony
More

Helicopter Crash Kills 16 Police Officers in Colombia

US-made UH-60 Black Hawk crashes while taking part in counternarcotics operation in department of Antioquia
More

Venezuela Ruling Party Games Twitter for Political Gain

President Nicolas Maduro's approval ratings may be languishing below 30 percent, but on Twitter he's as popular as Pope Francis - or so it would seem
More

Venezuela Prevents Opposition Leader From Running

Election officials reject Maria Corina Machado's attempt to register as a candidate Monday for upcoming congressional elections
More

Mexico City Mayor Vows Full Probe of Journalist Slaying

Journalist groups had expressed fears authorities would not consider Ruben Espinosa's murder as being related to his work, even though colleagues say he fled state he covered fearing for his safety
More

Puerto Rico Defaults on $58M Debt Payment

Payment was due Saturday, default is first in country's 117 years as a United States possession
More