SAN VICENTE DEL CAGUAN, Colombia – Residents of this city in southern Colombia that in 1998-2002 was the “capital” of a region under control of the FARC rebel group remain reluctant to say much about the guerrillas despite the peace accord announced earlier this month.
When asked about the period of FARC rule, locals refer to the insurgents as “they,” “them” or “the others.”
San Vicente del Caguan, 675 kilometers (420 miles) south of Bogota, was the political center of a Switzerland-sized demilitarized zone established by then-President Andres Pastrana as a venue for ultimately fruitless negotiations between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
The FARC made the city of some 66,000 people the capital of their self-proclaimed “independent republic.”
A taxi driver calling himself “Juan” told EFE that “the demilitarized zone was a good thing” because it meant an end to FARC checkpoints on area roads, no longer necessary as the guerrillas controlled five contiguous municipalities in Caqueta and Meta provinces.
Though the era of FARC domination ended 14 years ago and the rebel group is preparing to disarm as part of the peace agreement, San Vicente residents still fear reprisals from the guerrillas.
Persuading someone to speak on camera or into a tape recorder is a major challenge, for reasons that are understandable given the history of the area.
The road linking San Vicente to the Caqueta provincial capital of Florencia winds through an expanse of jungle that witnessed some of the FARC’s most notorious deeds, such as the 2002 abduction of presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, the burning alive of a dozen soldiers, and the execution-style killings of congressman Diego Turbay Cote, his mother and five other people.
Today, the 160-kilometer (90-mile) highway is dotted by army checkpoints.
The soldiers won’t comment for publication, but off-camera, they tell visitors that the region has been considerably calmer since the start of the peace talks between the FARC and the government of President Juan Manuel Santos.
While the formal signing of the peace pact is set for Sept. 26, a bilateral cease-fire is already in place.
The troops say that both they and the civilian population worry that once the FARC demobilizes, armed criminal gangs will try to move in.