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

    US-Russia Tensions Complicate Syria War

    With a shared enemy and opposing allies, Russia and the US are working to avoid confrontation

    Video Re-opening Old Wounds in Beirut's Bullet-riddled Yellow House

    Built in neo-Ottoman style in 1920s, it is set to be re-opened in Sept. as ‘memory museum’ - bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity

    Cambodian-Americans Lobby for Human Rights Resolution

    Resolution condemns all forms of political violence in Cambodia, urges Cambodian government to end human rights violations, calls for respect of press freedom

    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.
    Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Uncharted Territoryi
    X
    June 24, 2016 9:38 PM
    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.
    Video

    Video Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Uncharted Territory

    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.
    Video

    Video Tunisian Fishing Town Searches for Jobs, Local Development Solutions

    As the European Union tries to come to grips with its migrant crisis, some newcomers are leaving voluntarily. But those returning to their home countries face an uncertain future.  Five years after Tunisia's revolution, the tiny North African country is struggling with unrest, soaring unemployment and plummeting growth. From the southern Tunisian fishing town of Zarzis, Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at a search for local solutions.
    Video

    Video 'American Troops' in Russia Despite Tensions

    Historic battle re-enactment is a niche hobby with a fair number of adherents in Russia where past military victories are played-up by the Kremlin as a show of national strength. But, one group of World War II re-enactors in Moscow has the rare distinction of choosing to play western ally troops. VOA's Daniel Schearf explains.
    Video

    Video Experts: Very Few Killed in US Gun Violence Are Victims of Mass Shootings

    The deadly shooting at a Florida nightclub has reignited the debate in the U.S. over gun control. Although Congress doesn't provide government health agencies funds to study gun violence, public health experts say private research has helped them learn some things about the issue. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
    Video

    Video Trump Unleashes Broadside Against Clinton to Try to Ease GOP Doubts

    Recent public opinion polls show Republican Donald Trump slipping behind Democrat Hillary Clinton in the presidential election matchup for November. Trump trails her both in fundraising and campaign organization, but he's intensifying his attacks on the former secretary of state. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.
    Video

    Video Muslim American Mayor Calls for Tolerance

    Syrian-born Mohamed Khairullah describes himself as "an American mayor who happens to be Muslim." As the three-term mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, he believes his town of 6,000 is an example of how ethnicity and religious beliefs should not determine a community's leadership. Ramon Taylor has this report from Prospect Park.
    Video

    Video Internal Rifts Over Syria Policy Could Be Headache for Next US President

    With the Obama administration showing little outward enthusiasm for adopting a more robust Syria policy, there is a strong likelihood that the internal discontent expressed by State Department employees will roll over to the next administration. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports.
    Video

    Video Senegal to Park Colorful ‘Cars Rapide’ Permanently

    Brightly painted cars rapide are a hallmark of Dakar, offering residents a cheap way to get around the capital city since 1976. But the privately owned minibuses are scheduled to be parked for good in late 2018, as Ricci Shryock reports for VOA.
    Video

    Video Florida Gets $1 Million in Emergency Government Funding for Orlando

    The U.S. government has granted $1 million in emergency funding to the state of Florida to cover the costs linked to the June 12 massacre in Orlando. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the grant Tuesday in Orlando, where she met with survivors of the shooting attack that killed 49 people. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video How to Print Impossible Shapes with Metal

    3-D printing with metals is rapidly becoming more advanced. As printers become more affordable, the industry is partnering with universities to refine processes for manufacturing previously impossible things. A new 3-D printing lab aims to bring the new technology closer to everyday use. VOA's George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Big Somali Community in Minnesota Observes Muslim Religious Feast

    Ramadan is widely observed in the north central US state of Minnesota, which a large Muslim community calls home. VOA Somali service reporter Mohmud Masadde files this report from Minneapolis, the state's biggest city.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora

    More Americas News

    Video Artist Federico Uribe Turns Agents of Death Into Living Beauty

    Animal sculptures, brightly colored landscapes Uribe creates with bullet shells now on display at Adelson Gallery in New York

    Quebec Museum Offers New Connections to Culture

    City's National Museum of Fine Arts provides boost to Francophone art by doubling exhibition space, unveiling 400 new works

    Panama Opens Canal Expansion

    $5.4 billion expansion project will double shipping capacity and impact global trade routes

    TransCanada Sues US Over Keystone Pipeline Cancellation

    Oil company is seeking $15B to recover costs and other losses related to project that was to carry oil from western Canada to Gulf of Mexico refineries

    Panama Set for Official Opening of Canal Expansion

    Nine-year, $5.4B project will permit transit by new generation of cargo ships that will double capacity, affect global trade routes