LA CUCHILLA, Colombia – A female indigenous activist has embarked on the reckless mission of visiting her hometown in the southwestern Colombian province of Nariño, a mountainous area near the border with Ecuador where peace remains elusive.
The sense in that region, Maria Antonia Amaya says, is that the peace deal signed by the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group in 2016 is on the verge of total collapse.
“People were delighted and thrilled to see that after so many years, the winds of change were coming. But now people are seeing that the peace process is disintegrating,” Amaya said.
As a member of the High Council for the Integral Development of the Black Communities of Nariño’s Western Mountain Range, Amaya devotes her life to giving people a voice and empowering them to denounce human rights violations.
Her undertaking is a dangerous one in today’s Colombia. According to the National Ombudsman’s Office, a total of 462 social leaders were killed in the Andean nation between Jan. 1, 2016, and Feb. 28 of this year.
For its part, the Jose Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective, which defends human rights nationwide, puts the number of social leaders killed over the past two years at 706.
A DAILY THREAT
Like so many others, Amaya accepts danger as a part of daily life.
“Every time we go out to a territory, we’re held, threatened; they send us messages.”
The activist – who hails from a region marked by the presence of the National Liberation Army (ELN), the country’s last active guerrilla insurgency; a group of FARC dissidents; and the self-proclaimed Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC), the heirs of paramilitary groups – says there is a logic behind the crimes.
“In most cases, a leader is getting in the way of an outlawed group.”
Amaya says her role is to bring attention to “all the violations they commit.”
“Every time (the leaders) bring attention to that, people are encouraged not to remain silent. And the less silent people are, the more difficult it is for the groups to control them,” she said.
A MISSED OPPORTUNITY?
For more than 50 years, Colombia’s armed conflict revolved around three axes: access to and use of land, social democracy and illegal economies, says Ariel Avila, deputy director of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation.
All of those points were included in the peace agreement that then-President Juan Manuel Santos signed in 2016.
His successor, Ivan Duque, who spearheaded efforts to reject the peace deal, has repeatedly neglected to honor the commitments acquired by the Colombian state, his critics say.
“There won’t be an agrarian reform. There’s no rural cadastre (a register of real property ownership). There won’t be any Land Fund,” Avila lamented.
That situation is compounded by the uncertainty hovering over guerrilla fighters who turned in their weapons as part of the peace deal. At least 140 of them have been killed and the remainder could find themselves in a legal limbo due to Duque’s attacks on the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, the backbone of the peace deal.
Furthermore, questions surround the productive projects that were to have enabled ex-combatants to successfully transition to civilian life.
Roughly 7,000 FARC fighters turned in their weapons, although that number doubles when taking into account freed prisoners and the militia members who provided logistics support.
A RETURN TO ARMS
In a surprise move, the FARC’s former chief peace negotiator, Ivan Marquez, announced in August that he was resuming the armed struggle. Accompanying him were Hernan Dario Velasquez, alias “El Paisa,” and Henry Castellanos, AKA “Romaña,” who had been two of the now-demobilized guerrilla group’s most violent leaders.
The big concern is that these men may be able to bring under their command the nearly 1,800 members of 24 dissident groups that have sprouted up in Colombia – criminal gangs without any political facade or hierarchy.
Also posing a risk are the last remaining active leftist guerrilla group in Colombia – the ELN, which has grown steadily since the FARC’s demobilization – and successor groups to the country’s right-wing, anti-guerrilla paramilitary squads. Those latter outfits include the Clan del Golfo, which is regarded as Colombia’s largest criminal organization and is alternatively known as the AGC.
One additional factor is the less far-reaching but more unpredictable Popular Liberation Army (EPL), the remnants of a Maoist-inspired insurgency that formally demobilized in 1991.
Referred to as “Los Pelusos” by Colombia authorities, the last several hundred EPL members operate in the jungle region of Catatumbo, near the Venezuelan border.
According to Avila, “of the 280 municipalities prioritized during the post-conflict (phase), there are around 100 that are hotspots today, that are experiencing combat.”
MORE OF A MAN WITH A GUN
“We came here. We’re here to stay.” So reads an AGC sign at the entrance to the town of Santa Rosa.
This is the Colombia of leg-deep mud and virtually unmarked trails that are only accessible by mule back.
This is the Colombia of thick jungle where rivers are the only transportation routes, the Colombia where local residents build and finance roads without state support and often against the will of armed groups that don’t want any traffic near their cocaine laboratories or bases.
Almost no one dares to share their thoughts with a stranger, but one young man agrees to talk. Turning his back to EFE’s camera and concealing himself with his cap, he explains what life is like in Nariño, where children grow up playing with weapons amid a landscape of illegal crops and criminal gangs.
“You’re raised with the mentality of being a man. Culturally, you’ve been taught that as a male figure you have to make a living for yourself. You have to have money.”
“Children grow up with the idea of having a weapon, of knowing what it feels like, of being more of a man because they have a gun. When you get the chance to own a gun, you do so. And for people who are there it’s normal. It gives you status” within the community.
Armed gangs set their sights on children between the ages of 10 and 12. “They come to them with little gifts, little offerings of friendship.”
And that’s how kids come to see the armed actors “not as someone bad but as a friend.”
But there also are people who seek to provide children with an education, such as German Mosquera, a tall, slim, 28-year-old Afro-Colombian teacher in Las Palmeras, a community nestled away in Nariño’s mountains that is reachable via an hours-long trek over rugged terrain.
Mosquera invited his students to take a pencil in one hand and a machete in the other so they could see which was heavier while also receiving a valuable lesson: that it is important to “pick up a pencil (to avoid) ending up with a machete.”
His school doesn’t even have four walls. Classes take place on a dirt floor and there are no bathrooms or running water.
“When I arrived at the school, it was in a catastrophic state. You get emotional when you see how ... kids are neglected by the government, have been totally forgotten about,” he said.
FUELING THE CONFLICT
In 2017, coca plantations in Colombia climbed to a record total of 209,000 hectares (807 square miles).
Traveling through many Colombian municipalities means crossing fields teeming with the shiny green leaves of the coca plant and catching glimpses of homemade laboratories where the leaves are cut and mixed with lime before being soaked in barrels of gasoline and transformed into coca paste.
The laboratories are rudimentary wood constructions filled with the pungent smell of chopped coca leaves. To ensure they go undetected by government officials, these labs are precariously tucked away amid steep, virtually inaccessible hillsides.
Coca is the only alternative to hunger for many poor farmers. But it also fuels Colombia’s conflict. Wherever coca and illegal mining proliferate, the war is sure to rage on.
That is the reality in Catatumbo, a much drier part of the country than Nariño and a region crisscrossed by roads that at first glance appear to lead to nowhere at all.
The population there bears the brunt of the lawlessness. Traveling the streets of its towns implies coming upon thousands of soldiers and police who conduct their patrols with fingers on their triggers.
The tension is pervasive. Traces of bullets and shrapnel can be found on every corner.
Discipline among the troops is imperative, since anyone who lets down his guard for an instant to look at his cellphone or joke with a fellow soldiers can become the target of a sniper.
Local residents, who also are hostages of the war, are frequently perceived as enemies.
It is also here in the heart of this region that one of the most silent tragedies of Colombia’s armed conflict plays out – the plight of the country’s internally displaced population.
One of these victims is Jesus Salcedo, an inhabitant of Campo Grande. His landholdings in the mountains are trapped in the crossfire of Colombia’s conflict, and he claims the army has occupied his property.
He says that when he confronted the encroaching soldiers in January they burned part of his croplands.
“What am I supposed to do with my lost farm? I’m waiting for assistance from the government ... I need my (land) to be able to work,” the farmer said, adding that his complaint has been ignored.
Salcedo is one of more than 7.7 million internally displaced people in Colombia.
Jesus Emil Cañizares’ rural property in the hamlet of Culebritas also became caught in the crossfire between illegal armed groups and the Colombian army, which has a base near his farm.
Cañizares is the owner of between 30-40 hectares (75-100 acres) that he is unable to cultivate due to fear of landmines.
“I can’t even go cut down a small tree and make a chicken shack,” the farmer lamented to EFE.
“What we’ve always wanted in Colombia is peace. Peace is our greatest wish.”