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

For Lebanon-based Refugees, Desperation Fuels Perilous Passage

In a war that has caused an estimated three million people to flee Syria, efforts to make perilous sea journey in search of asylum expected to increase More

South African Brewer Tackles Climate Change

Mega-brewer SAB Miller sent delegates to climate summit in Peru, says it is one of many private companies taking their own steps to fight climate change More

Indonesia Reports Increase in Citizens Joining Islamic State

Officials say more than 350 of its citizens are now in Syria or Iraq to fight with Islamic State - 50 more than last month 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.
Will Pakistan School Shooting Galvanize Pakistan Against Extremism?i
X
Ayesha Tanzeem
December 17, 2014 11:54 AM
The attack on a military school in Pakistan’s northwest city of Peshawar left 141 dead, including 132 children. Strong statements of condemnation poured in from across the world. The country announced three days of mourning, and the leadership, both political and military, promised retribution. VOA's Ayesha Tanzeem looks at how likely the Pakistani government is to clamp down on all extremist groups.
Video

Video Will Pakistan School Shooting Galvanize Pakistan Against Extremism?

The attack on a military school in Pakistan’s northwest city of Peshawar left 141 dead, including 132 children. Strong statements of condemnation poured in from across the world. The country announced three days of mourning, and the leadership, both political and military, promised retribution. VOA's Ayesha Tanzeem looks at how likely the Pakistani government is to clamp down on all extremist groups.
Video

Video ‘Anti-Islamization’ Marches Increase Tensions In Germany

Anti-immigrant rallies in Germany have been building in recent weeks, peaking Monday night in the city of Dresden where tens of thousands of people turned out to demonstrate against what they call the ‘Islamization’ of the West. Germany has offered asylum to more Syrian refugees than any other country, and this appears to have set off the protests. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Aceh Rebuilt Decade After Tsunami, But Scars Remain

On December 26, 2004 there was an earthquake in the Indian Ocean so powerful it caused the Earth’s axis to wobble a few centimeters. Onshore on the island of Sumatra, the resulting tsunami was devastating. A decade later, VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where although there is little remaining evidence of the physical devastation, the psychological scars among survivors remain.
Video

Video Refugees Living in Kenya Long for Peace in the Home Countries

Kenya is host to numerous refugees seeking safe haven from conflict. Immigrants from Somalia face challenges in their new lives in Kenya. Ahead of International Migrants Day (December 18) Lenny Ruvaga has more for VOA News from the Kenyan capital.
Video

Video Turkey's Authoritarianism Dismays Western Allies

The Turkish government has been defiant in the face of criticism at home and abroad for its raids targeting opposition media. The European Union on Monday expressed dismay after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lashed out at Brussels for criticizing his government's action. Turkey's bid to be considered for EU membership has been on hold while critics accuse the NATO ally of increasingly authoritarian rule. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video US-China Year in Review: Hong Kong to Climate Change

The United States is pushing for a code of conduct to resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea as it works to improve commercial ties with Beijing. VOA State Department correspondent Scott Stearns reports on a year of U.S. policy toward China from Hong Kong to climate change.
Video

Video Japanese Leader’s Election Win Raises Potential for Conflict with Neighbors

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his allies easily won a two-thirds majority in parliament Sunday, even though the country has slipped into recession under his conservative policies. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Seoul, that the prime minister’s victory will empower him to continue economic reforms but also pursue a nationalist agenda that will likely increase tensions with Japan’s neighbors.
Video

Video Nuba Mountain Families Hide in Caves to Escape Aerial Bombings

Despite ongoing peace talks between Sudan's government and the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, or SPLM-N, daily aerial attacks continue in South Kordofan province’s Nuba Mountains. Adam Bailes was there and reports for VOA that government forces are targeting civilian areas, rather than military positions, with their daily bombardments.

All About America

AppleAndroid

More Americas News

US-Cuba Move Ends Decades of Island's Isolation

Cuban revolution, outreach to Soviets set off years of antipathy between Washington, Havana
More

Colombia's FARC Rebels Declare Conditional Unlimited Ceasefire

Group says it is also demanding high-profile certification of its ceasefire through the UN, Red Cross or regional intergovernmental organization
More

American Lawmakers, Others Split on US-Cuba Moves

Some praise approach; Florida Senator Rubio denounces ‘victory for oppressive Cuban government’
More

An Elated Alan Gross: 'It's Good to be Home'

'This is a game changer,' newly-freed political prisoner tells audience, referring to his release and the US policy shift toward Cuba
More

Over $6 Trillion Lost to Illicit Flows

Study says developing nations hurt by corruption, tax evasion
More

New Policy Will Dramatically Alter US-Cuba Relations

Plan will renew diplomatic ties, ease restrictions on travel and remittances, altering how Cubans and Americans can interact
More