San Carlos, Colombia – Father Angel David Agudelo manoeuvres his small 4×4 along sharp turns cut into rolling green hills to the site of some of the bloodiest violence in Colombia’s internal conflict.
Jamer Atehortua Tobon, a soldier who lost his leg in a landmine explosion while battling Marxist rebels, sits in the front seat. Several years after receiving his injuries, he is still trying to make sense of the violence which has claimed more than 215,000 lives, including some of his friends.
“When I stepped on the mine, my foot became like ground beef,” he says. “I had to learn how to walk again. I was angry and frustrated. For a while, I felt like I was nothing.”
Today, he thinks the worst of the violence is over. It’s an opinion shared by most residents of San Carlos, a small town in Antioquia department about four hours by road away from Medellin, the regional capital.
Residents want life to get back to normal, like it was before 1998. But thatls no easy task.
Before the war, 27,000 people lived in the village, says Agudelo. As violence descended on the community, between 1998 and 2005, 22,000 fled. Most have returned, but several thousand are still displaced, like an estimated 5.7 million Colombians.
Jorge Horacio Galeano Cuervo and his family were among those forced from their home. Armed fighters – he didn’t always know if they were leftist guerrillas or right-wing paramilitaries – were roaming around the community, located a few kilometres outside of San Carlos in hills cloaked in mist.
He remembers the morning when two men with holsters bulging came to his house demanding he hand over his horses. Then, two weeks later, in January 2003, the massacres started.
“They [paramilitaries] killed 19 people in the next pueblo over,” he says, pointing to the mountain. “They hung two publicly so everyone could see. Earlier guerrillas killed 12 supposed paramilitaries [in a nearby town], but they were just farmers – nice people. We fled to Medellin [the nearest major city located about three hours away].”
He came home two years later to start again from scratch. Today, wearing rubber boots and blue jeans dirty from a day of field work, a machete hanging from his belt, Cuervo is happy to be home, even if rebuilding is difficult and forgetting past violence impossible.
Cristian Andres Mosquera Marco, a representative of the local government, oversees the return of refugees as part of broader peace efforts.
“Before 1998, the guerrillas were here living with the residents with no major problems,” Marco says during an interview in the town hall. “Then in 1998, the paramilitaries entered this area. That’s why the bloodshed and kidnappings happened.”
Posters promoting peace efforts dot the walls of his sparse office, flanked by reports of demining outcomes and resettlement efforts. It’s no coincidence this town witnessed particularly brutal violence, Marco says. “It’s is a strategic corridor, near many important places in Colombia, [as itls close to] the Medellin-Bogota highway.”
The townls hydroelectric power station, the largest in Colombia, made San Carlos a particularly “attractive area for armed groups” keen on disrupting the status quo, he says. Much of Colombials worst violence happens near major resource projects.
“The zone where San Carlos is located produces 40 percent of the country’s [hydroelectric] energy,” Father Agudelo says. Fighters would throw mines near power stations, along with using them to cover their retreats after attacks and to protect their bases, he says.
Since a government effort in 2005 to demobilise paramilitary forces, the army, NGOs and other groups have tried to rid the area of landmines, but Colombia remains one of the most heavily mined countries in the world.
wanted to be the owners of everything. The land is really fertile.”]
In San Carlos alone, forces destroyed 817 landmines from 2009 to 2012, Marco says, estimating that the area is nearly clear. Humanitarian experts deemed 70 of the regionls schools safe from explosives, but Agudelo still thinks danger could lurk beneath the surface.
“Two weeks ago, a rural affairs professor took some kids to play with kites, near a safe place by the school. Two days later, military forces blew up two mines in the same place,” the priest says. “Some sources are saying that 100 percent of the territory [around San Carlos] is now free of mines, but it’s not true.”
Three hours away from San Carlos, in the regional capital, Medellin, Carlos Augusto Jaramillo Gutierrez is showing students how to disarm unconventional landmines. Wearing black combat boots and matching military regalia, he advises Colombia’s government on counterinsurgency.
Unlike the factory-produced ordinances sold by major arms companies, many of the “artisanal mines” placed in areas like San Carlos cannot be deactivated, he says, “they need to be blown up”.
Students in white lab coats watch with fascination as he shows a prototype of a small mine, which is placed under a baseball cap and triggered by a light sensitive camera when the hat is moved. Holding a long stick, he flips the hat, causing a massive bang.
“The principal victims of this conflict are campisenos [small farmers],” he says, when asked about human rights abuses perpetrated by security forces.
There have been serious offences, he says, criticising the actions of some of his fellow military men who were involved in the “false positives” scandal – when about 3,000 civilians were killed by the military and their bodies were then dressed in guerrilla uniforms.
Rosa Emilia Galeano, a farmer living outside of San Carlos, doesn’t think terrorism is necessarily the right word to describe the men who displaced her. “They [armed groups] wanted to be the owners of everything,” she says, “the land is really fertile”.
As she speaks about being forced from her farm, her son does his homework sitting on a plastic chair, looking up occasionally at his red toy monster truck. Bags of animal feed lay on Galeanols concrete porch as cows graze nearby and several puppies scamper around. She believes that all land mines have been cleared from her fields, after four were diffused nearby.
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“The government helped teach us how to forgive people, how to live near people who killed your family members, “says Dora Nelly Bedolla, a community activist and friend of Galeano. “There has been a lot of social recovery and – the most important thing – forgiveness.”
Both women support ongoing peace talks between the government and FARC rebels taking place in Cuba. The paramilitary groups who operated in San Carlos have, officially, been demobilised since 2005.
Tobon, the former soldier, worries that many former paramilitary members have moved into other unsavoury ventures. “Everyday, common criminality is growing,” he says. “Nowadays, you can hear that there are some paramilitaries still here.”
While many residents say they feel secure today, a large military presence remains in the area. Bases, surrounded by barbed wire interrupt the otherwise picturesque landscape, men in camouflage gear carrying powerful automatic weapons speed along rural roads on motorbikes and large groups of soldiers can be seen jogging together near some of the bigger settlements. Demining operations are ongoing.
Today, much of the violence is focused on Colombials border areas with Panama, Ecuador and Colombia. “Antioquia is the region with the highest numbers of deaths and injured people from landmines in historical terms,” says
Alvaro Jimenez, coordinator of the Colombian campaign against mines. “But in this moment, this year, departments like Caqueta, Putumayo, Arauca, Catatumbo are the most effected regions.”
As Colombials violence shifts, geographically and strategically, the desires for land, power and wealth – rather than left-wing or conservative ideology – provide incentives for many to continue fighting.
Despite some new infrastructure, the scars of war still blight the landscape around San Carlos. A bridge farmers used to haul their produce to market was destroyed and hasnlt been rebuilt.
But community members, religious leaders, farmers and even former fighters have pulled together and many believe San Carlos is a microcosm for how Colombia can move forward.
Watching her son study, Galeano knows there are still powerful forces, violent men backed by moneyed interests, who would like to take everything she has. But she doesn’t think they will return to San Carlos anytime soon. “We won’t be quiet people again,” she says.
Follow Chris Arsenault on Twitter: @chrisarsenaul