SAN VICENTE DEL CAGUAN, Colombia – There was a time when the FARC guerrilla group controlled San Vicente del Caguan in Colombia’s Eastern Ranges but nowadays times have changed and a handful of those fighters are reincorporating themselves into society through sustainable farming.
The area, located in Colombia’s southern Caqueta region, has a long tradition of cattle farming.
And yet, it is perhaps better known as the former heart of the demilitarized zone created when peace talks between the conservative government of former president Andres Pastrana (1998-2000) and the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army) collapsed.
San Vicente del Caguan was also known for the presence of one of the FARC’s most notorious roaming units, the elite Teofilo Forero column, which has been credited with several high-profile attacks such as the murder of Congressman Diego Turbay Cote, his wife and five others in an ambush on December 29, 2000.
It also stands accused of carrying out a bomb attack on the El Nogal Club in Bogota on February 7, 2003, which killed 36 people and injured 200 more.
Departing from that dark period of Colombia’s history, six former combatants, most from that bloodthirsty unit, have exchanged their weapons for udders in a course on how to produce milk and manage livestock.
Despite the hiccups in the more recent peace agreement between the government of ex-president and Nobel Peace laureate Juan Manuel Santos and FARC, which was rejected by Colombians in a referendum in 2016, both sides of the negotiating table are working hard to uphold the premise of the accord.
Evidence of this can be found at the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace, which has registered 13,200 ex-fighters in the rehabilitation process, of which 1,506 have benefited from state aid in their projects.
The training course is taking place at a farm called La Siberia, which is nestled in the vast landscape near the mountains about a 30-minute drive from the nearest village, La Cocha.
The land is owned by Lucia, a woman who opened her doors to the initiative led by the government agency for the reincorporation of former militants and guerilla fighters (ARN) and the National Training Service (SENA).
Among the beneficiaries of the course is Wilmer, a man who after downing his arms has dedicated his life to scything grass and landscaping for agriculture and livestock.
“We started two months ago and the teacher has taught us many things. After the course I have to do what is required to move forward, fight to get our project to work, fight to get it to make money,” he told Efe.
Wilmer had a child after the signing of the peace deal when the militant groups lifted its rule banning pregnancies in its ranks– women would sometimes be forced to have an abortion if they fell pregnant as a member.
Providing for his firstborn in the future is what drives him to stay on the right path and the livestock training is the key to his future success in this regard.
“Now with the child, I have to find a stable place to live, the kind of thing that never occurs to you when you go join the guerrillas, because you know that in there you can’t have children,” he said.
Floro Penagos, a professor at Caqueta’s SENA, delivers the course. For him, it was an opportunity to pass on the knowledge he had gathered throughout his life.
He said he sees the determination in the former FARC members, who work alongside 10 local farmers to learn about their new lifestyle, skills they then put to use on their own land.
“They are being taught that they can improve livestock practices, that they can improve feeding through proper management of pasture and fodder and make dietary supplement programs to improve milk productivity,” he told Efe.
To help them learn the practical skills, they have access to 20 cows on the farm, the objective being that they do not dedicate themselves to extensive farming but use intensive techniques instead, making better use of the space available and boosting productivity in a tropical setting.
Despite everything, Wilmer is aware that the situation for reforming FARC members is not easy. Some 140 former fighters have been assassinated since the peace accord.
“With what I’ve seen, with the death of so many comrades who were in the peace process, it gives you a bit of a fright because you don’t know if you’re on the list. One feels fear,” he said.
For decades, the leftist FARC fought a civil war with the Colombian state, a conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands of people.
As part of the 2016 peace deal, FARC became a legitimate political party and pledged to cease its militant activities.
Several other paramilitaries remain active.