Quito, Ecuador – After three years of negotiations between the Colombian government and FARC rebels in the Cuban capital, Havana, a peace deal that could bring more than five decades of conflict to an end, appears to be in sight.
On Tuesday, an agreement on the crucial sticking point of victim reparations and special tribunals to try former members of FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, was signed by the government and the rebels.
President Juan Manuel Santos, who narrowly won his second term on the promise of peace, took to Twitter to appeal to 48 million Colombians who will vote on the final deal, when it is reached, in a national referendum. He asked them to give peace a chance and promised a final agreement before the deadline of next March.
He says that there will be no impunity for serious crimes, but there will be a peaceful resolution to the conflict, without retribution, and in which the former rebel fighters will be given a chance to partake politically.
But FARC is only one of the many armed groups participating in this long-running conflict and many wonder what peace it will be if the other participants continue with their violence and, indeed, whether there can ever be real peace without accountability.
Fifteen years and ‘still shaken’
Nancy Munoz Prieto, 45, carefully tends to her garden. For hours, she kneels, propping up her small plants of healing herbs and aromatic spices with mud and sticks to shield them from the strong gusts of wind. In these moments, she is absorbed in the task before her and forgets all about the past she left behind, along with her home and village in Colombia, 15 years ago.
“She tried working for some time but she couldn’t continue. She is still very … shaken. She gets emotional,” says Nancy’s husband, Jorge Andrade. “So this is her life, this garden. Look at how well she has kept it, it’s all her, my wife.”
Jorge and Nancy are among the 50,000 Colombian refugeeswho are living in Ecuador, to escape the Western hemisphere’s longest-running armed conflict – a triangular fight between the government, FARC and right-wing paramilitary groups, which has killed 220,000 people, 80 percent of whom were civilians.
They share the story of how they came to be in Ecuador.
It was one morning in March 2000, when dozens of armed men descended on their village in Putumayo department in the country’s southwest. Jorge was working on his farm when 16 members of a paramilitary group surrounded him and some others at gunpoint and took them to a nearby school.
“Their faces were covered. They were armed and they bore a sign which said AUC. We were rounded up, 48 men in total,” he remembers. “They took six out of us randomly and made them stand 20 metres from where we were and shot them. After that, we were told we had two hours to get lost.”
He had been hearing about the advance of the AUC, or the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia, a right-wing paramilitary group, for two years, but when they finally arrived, the people of his village had little to defend themselves with. The women were separated and taken to another location and the men who survived ran for their lives across the river to Ecuador.
Jorge and Nancy had no idea whether the other had survived until they were finally reunited seven months later.
“I can’t bear to remember the place. A lot of bad things happened there,” says Nancy, crying. “I was almost raped.”
Putumayo was strategically important for the AUC as FARC collected ‘war taxes’ from its vast coca plantations to fund its fighting infrastructure and extend its control over the land and its resources.
The AUC’s strategy was to secure total territorial control – using force and human rights violations, including mass killings, forced disappearances and sexual violence. In 2001, a Human Rights Watch report detailed instances of collusion between the paramilitary group and sections of the Colombian army, which allegedly used the AUC as a tool in its fight against FARC.
In 2003, peace talks began between the AUC, which the US designated a terrorist organisation, and the Colombian government, headed by then President Alvaro Uribe. Three years later, the talks were concluded and the group’s 30,000 combatants were supposedly demobilised. But little changed on the ground as former AUC members simply formed new groups with a focus on narco-trafficking, extortion and kidnapping. They are now referred to as criminal bands or Bacrims.
According to Bernardo Perez Salazar, a researcher in armed conflict and peace process at the Catholic University of Colombia, the AUC was always primarily an economic military project.
“So when they demobilised they installed figureheads to control their seized properties,” he said. “There were many others who wanted to continue their narcotics and drugs business and so they went back to the areas to regain their position.”
“They started investing the illegal money they got through narcotics and money laundering into other legitimate businesses like transportation and mining operations.”
Jorge and Nancy, meanwhile, struggled to piece their lives together, just a few kilometres from the Colombian border in the Ecuadorian town of Lago Agrio. But jobs, even in a booming oil town, were hard to come by for a Colombian refugee.
Generous neighbours helped the couple feed their two children as Jorge drifted from one job to another.
But, even though life in a foreign land has been difficult, returning home is not an option for this family – and the ongoing peace talks have done little to allay their fears.
“It’s a big hope. Our heart tells us to believe that there will be peace if an agreement is reached, but we know that it won’t be like that,” says Jorge. “Because for peace to come to Colombia all the parts involved need to sit down and talk at the same table. In Colombia, it’s not just FARC, there are paramilitary groups which are still operating under different names in different areas.”
“The life of a refugee is bad, what we had was lost overnight, but there is no guarantee of our security in Colombia if we return,” he adds.
Twenty-nine-year-old Alexandra Garcia (not her real name) was pregnant with her sixth child when she left her house and her Afro-Colombian community in Buenaventura, a city on the Pacific coast, notorious for being the most violent in the country.
Her brother was rounded up and shot four times in the head and stomach, allegedly by members of a paramilitary group after he refused to join them.
Scared, her family fled to Bogota, the Colombian capital. But they say they were hunted down and threatened there. So, Alexandra, her five children and her family took a 22-hour bus ride to Quito, the Ecuadorian capital, hoping for a fresh start.
Now, her husband, who couldn’t get a job because he doesn’t have the necessary paperwork, sells coconut water on the streets of Quito to feed their newborn baby and five other children. Still waiting for refugee status in Ecuador, the family struggled to find a room to rent.
“People are extremely racist. My children were bullied in school. It took us one month to find this room. One of the landlady’s asked me, ‘Where are you from?’ I said, ‘I am from Colombia’ and she said, We don’t want Colombians or black people’,” Alexandra explained.
She is too frightened to reveal the name of the group that killed her brother and threatened her family, but says they would regularly collect taxes and forcibly recruit men. She refers to them just as right-wing death squads.
Alexandra’s family is among the thousands of Afro-Colombians who have been displaced from their land in Buenaventura, where massive investment and port infrastructure projects began five years ago. The streets there are dominated by groups that emerged out of the AUC demobilisation process and which have unleashed violence on the residents. A 2013 Human Rights Watch Report detailed accounts of chop houses where dozens of people had been dismembered, and their body parts thrown into the sea. More than 150 people reportedly went missing there between 2010 and 2013.
“In Buenaventura, efforts are being made to pretend that there are only criminal gangs and yet we continue to receive reports that paramilitary groups have a strong presence in neighbourhoods facing large development projects,” said Peter Drury, a member of Amnesty International’s Colombia research team, who visited Buenaventura earlier this year. “Members of these neighbourhoods are facing forced displacement to make way for the expansion of ports and large-scale tourism projects. Yet these areas are strongly militarised.”
A Colombian conflict analysis group, CINEP, says that there have been 143 cases of human rights violations against civilians by paramilitary groups across Colombia this year, and 42 by FARC.
“[The] government trying to play down the role of the paramilitaries is a problem. There needs to be a recognition that these are paramilitary groups and not just criminal gangs,” said Drury. “There’s a big problem with the security for the civilian population so impunity needs to be tackled for a stable peace process. There needs to be decisive action to tackle the issues of human rights violations and abuses committed by the security forces, paramilitary forces and FARC.”
Across the river
The San Miguel River meanders through forests, farmlands and scattered settlements, dividing Colombia and Ecuador with a sluggish swirl of muddy water. The bridge over it serves as one of the official border crossings.
The smell of charcoal, roasted pork, bananas and sausages wafts through the air from the street barbecue shops that line the road, catering to weary travellers who part with a dollar and a half for a quick meal.
Under the bridge, boatmen wait on brightly-painted motorised canoes to zip men, women and motorcycles back and forth across the river. The transit is as easy as entering the countries on either side.
“I come here for the dollar, the clothes are insanely cheap in Colombia,” said Angie with a grin. “We can bring them here in Ecuador and sell [them].” She and a friend have just arrived in Ecuador with bags of purchases made on the other side of the river.
Ecuador’s dollar-based economy has driven hundreds of Colombians to smuggle cheaper goods across the porous borders, selling them on for a profit and to the resentment of some locals.
The wave of refugee settlement in Ecuador has decreased since 2001, but the lack of employment opportunities in Colombia has seen some migrate for economic reasons. Many Colombians find informal work in Ecuador’s coca plantations, coffee farms, and oil companies.
“Many Colombian refugees are doing survival work and working in small businesses. Many still don’t have protection status, some are undocumented, some have been asking for international protection to stop persecution in their own countries,” said Enrique Oves, a coordinator of Access Ecuador, an NGO assisting refugees gain legal status.
“There is a huge problem of labour exploitation. The employers take advantage of their illegal position and force them to work for long hours with very little pay.”
‘I am never going back’
Those who have been living like this for years are caught in a limbo – between the hope of being able to return home to peace and the fear of having to rebuild their lives from nothing, again.
Jelena Ramos Barrera, 48, has been living in a refugee shelter for 14 years after her husband was caught in crossfire and killed by a paramilitary group. Her children are Ecuadorian nationals, but she longs to return home.
“I watch the news on television. I like the idea of peace, it’s good. If they can come up with a deal it will be good. If there is peace, I guess I will go back,” she said.
But for some, going back is not an option.
Alba Lucia Vasquez was 15 when she was put on a boat and sent to Ecuador by her parents. Forced recruitment and the constant threat of sexual harassment by paramilitary groups had made life impossible for the people of her community. For her, a life of uncertainty abroad is better than living in perpetual fear at home.
“If there’s a 12-year-old kid, the guerrilla group will try to force him to be recruited. Our neighbours would say they are coming, they are coming so we could hide the boys. With FARC, the boys were at risk but with paramilitaries the women were at risk,” she said.
“Paramilitaries, if they like a girl, they will go after them and harass them. Whenever we knew they were coming we would just hide. I came here to protect myself.”
Late, last month, FARC warned that a peace deal would be impossible to achieve if the government does not dismantle paramilitary groups. It proposed an emergency law and made a government action plan against such groups a prerequisite before a final agreement is signed.
Nancy Munoz Prieto still has nightmares about the days when the paramilitary group raided her village and killed and raped her neighbours. “I am never going back,” she said before bursting into tears on Jorge’s shoulder.
Priyanka Gupta reported from Ecuador on a fellowship from the International Reporting Project.