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

Australia-Cambodia Resettlement Agreement Raises Concerns

Agreement calls for Cambodia to accept refugees in return for $35 million in aid and reflects Australia’s harder line approach towards asylum seekers and refugees More

India Looks to Become Arms Supplier Instead of Buyer

US hopes India can become alternative to China for countries looking to buy weapons, but experts question growth potential of Indian arms industry More

Earth Day Concert, Rally Draws Thousands in Washington

President Obama also took up the issue Saturday in his weekly address, saying there 'no greater threat to our planet than climate change' 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.
Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?i
X
Steve Sandford
April 17, 2015 12:50 AM
Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?

Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Overwhelmed by Migrants, Italy Mulls Military Action to Stabilize Libya

Thousands more migrants have arrived on the southern shores of Italy from North Africa in the past two days. Authorities say they expect the total number of arrivals this year to far exceed previous levels, and the government has said military action in Libya might be necessary to stem the flow. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Putin Accuses Kyiv of ‘Cutting Off’ Eastern Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his annual televised call-in program, again denied there were any Russian troops fighting in Ukraine. He also said the West was trying to ‘contain’ Russia with sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports on reactions to the president’s four-hour TV appearance.
Video

Video Eye Contact Secures Dog's Place in Human Heart

Dogs serve in the military, work with police and assist the disabled, and have been by our side for thousands of years serving as companions and loyal friends. We love them. They love us in return. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports on a new study that looks at the bio-chemical bond that cements that human-canine connection.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Search for Bodies of Missing Soldiers

As the cease-fire becomes more fragile in eastern Ukraine, a team of volunteer body collectors travels to the small village of Savur Mohyla in the what pro-Russian separatists call the Donetsk Peoples Republic - to retrieve bodies of fallen Ukrainian servicemen from rebel-held territories. Adam Bailes traveled with the team and has this report.
Video

Video Xenophobic Violence Sweeps South Africa

South Africa, long a haven for African immigrants, has been experiencing the worst xenophobic violence in years, with at least five people killed and hundreds displaced in recent weeks. From Johannesburg, VOA’s Anita Powell brings us this report.
Video

Video Sierra Leone President Koroma Bemoans Ebola Impact on Economy

In an interview with VOA's Shaka Ssali on Wednesday, President Ernest Koroma said the outbreak undermined his government’s efforts to boost and restructure the economy after years of civil war.
Video

Video Protester Lands Gyrocopter on Capitol Lawn

A 61-year-old mailman from Florida landed a small aircraft on the Capitol lawn in Washington to bring attention to campaign finance reform and what he says is government corruption. Wednesday's incident was one in a string of security breaches on U.S. government property. Zlatica Hoke reports the gyrocopter landing violated a no-fly zone.
Video

Video Apollo 13, NASA's 'Successful Failure,' Remembered

The Apollo 13 mission in 1970 was supposed to be NASA's third manned trip to the moon, but it became much more. On the flight's 45th anniversary, astronauts and flight directors gathered at Chicago's Adler Planetarium to talk about how the aborted mission changed manned spaceflight and continues to influence space exploration today. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video Badly Burned Ukrainian Boy Bravely Fights Back

A 9-year-old Ukrainian boy has returned to his native country after intensive treatment in the United States for life-threatening burns. Volodia Bubela, burned in a house fire almost a year ago, battled back at a Boston hospital, impressing doctors with his bravery. Faith Lapidus narrates this report from VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko.
Video

Video US Maternity Leave Benefits Much Less Than Many Countries

It was almost 20 years ago that representatives of 189 countries met at a UN conference in Beijing and adopted a plan of action to achieve gender equality around the world. Now, two decades later, the University of California Los Angeles World Policy Analysis Center has issued a report examining what the Beijing Platform for Action has achieved. From Los Angeles, Elizabeth Lee has more.
Video

Video Endangered Hawaiian Birds Get Second Chance

Of the world's nearly 9,900 bird species, 13 percent are threatened with extinction, according to BirdLife International. Among them are two Hawaiian honeycreepers - tiny birds that live in the forest canopy, and, as the name implies, survive on nectar from tropical flowers. Scientists at the San Diego Zoo report they have managed to hatch half a dozen of their chicks in captivity, raising hopes that the birds will flutter back from the brink of extinction. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Exhibit Brings Renaissance Master Out of the Shadows

The National Gallery of Art in Washington has raised the curtain on one of the most intriguing painters of the High Renaissance. Mostly ignored after his death in the early 1500s, Italian master Piero di Cosimo is now claiming his place alongside the best-known artists of the period. VOA’s Ardita Dunellari reports.
Video

Video Sidemen to Famous Blues Artists Record Their Own CD

Legendary blues singer BB King was briefly hospitalized last week and the 87-year-old “King of the Blues” may not be touring much anymore. But some of the musicians who have played with him and other blues legends have now released their own CD in an attempt to pass the torch to younger fans... and put their own talents out front as well. VOA’s Greg Flakus has followed this project over the past year and filed this report from Houston.
Video

Video Iran-Saudi Rivalry Is Stoking Conflict in Yemen

Iran has proposed a peace plan to end the conflict in Yemen, but the idea has received little support from regional rivals like Saudi Arabia. They accuse Tehran of backing the Houthi rebels, who have forced Yemen’s president to flee to Riyadh, and have taken over swaths of Yemen. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA, analysts say the conflict is being fueled by the Sunni-Shia rivalry between the two regional powers.

VOA Blogs

More Americas News

Better Lives Sought for Larimar Miners in Dominican Republic

Blue-green stone's existence on Caribbean island seen as both a boon and a curse for those looking for jobs in impoverished southwestern mountains
More

Antibiotic Resistance Found in Isolated Amazonian Tribe

Yanomami villagers in Venezuela offer rare chance to see what microbes likely shared our bodies before civilizations evolved
More

Brazil's Olympic Host Rio Has Phones Cut Due to Unpaid Bills

Brazilian telecoms firm Oi SA says it cut Internet and telephone lines after state government racked up debt of $55.7 million in unpaid bills
More

Pope Considering Cuba Stop During US Trip but No Decision

Pope Francis is scheduled to visit New York, Philadelphia and Washington in the last week of September
More

India and Canada Look Forward to Deeper Ties

Modi was the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Canada in 42 years
More

Colombian Rebels Blame Government for War's Rising Death Toll

But FARC rebels declined to say whether they had broken their own ceasefire with recent attack that killed 11 government soldiers
More