The new struggle for Colombia’s countryside after FARC
The peace deal with the rebel group has left a power vacuum the government is struggling to fill.
Cauca, Colombia – Against the blue outline of the distant mountains of Cauca, black smoke is billowing upwards from dozens of fires burning in the densely planted sugarcane crops that spread out as far as the horizon in every direction.
In the fields, dozens of protesters are dotted about methodically starting new fires and slashing at the crops with machetes.
One man is wearing a navy-blue jumper emblazoned with the logo of a private security company; his face is covered with a black balaclava.
“Warn me if you see the real security or the police,” he says as he kneels down and sets fire to some dry leaves at the bottom of a sugarcane plant.
This protest, involving the destruction of the sugarcane crops, is part of a long-running conflict between the Nasa, one of the indigenous groups that live in Colombia’s Cauca region and the large agribusinesses that run plantations in an area that the Nasa believe is part of their ancestral homeland.
Until recently the Cauca mountains and the surrounding plains, like many rural areas in Colombia, used to be dominated by the country’s biggest guerrilla group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
But in August, the group gave up the last of its arms as part of a peace accord, signed last year with the Colombian government, ending a war that lasted more than five decades.
While the war with FARC is over, the group’s transition to a peaceful political entity has left a power vacuum in much of Colombia’s countryside that the government is struggling to fill.
The Nasa: ‘We don’t know who is assassinating us’
Prior to the peace deal, FARC was far more powerful than the government, local community groups, or any other militant force in much of rural Colombia.
Not only did FARC use its influence to control the drug trade and tax local communities to fund its activities, but it also enforced its own laws, mediated disputes, provided some limited social services and was involved in the building of roads and other infrastructure in regions it held for decades.
Now that FARC has put down its weapons in these regions, a range of entities that include indigenous communities, ideological guerrilla groups, criminal gangs, and the Colombian government are all adjusting to life without the guerrilla group’s dominance.
In many regions, this adjustment has led to new disputes emerging over land and resources, and some ongoing conflicts have escalated, complicating efforts to find lasting peace in the country.
One element of this is the ongoing struggle by rural communities, like the Nasa, who are trying to reclaim farming land they formerly occupied.
Another part is a scramble to take over the country’s illegal drug trade and mining business that were formerly taxed and regulated by FARC.
For those who succeed in controlling these illegal industries, the rewards could be significant.
InSight Crime, an investigative non-profit organisation, estimates that before demobilising, FARC was earning at least $267m a year from the cocaine trade, as well as making $30m from cannabis, $5m from opium and $200m from illegal mining.
Fighting between the groups looking to take over FARC territory has resulted in more than 56,000 displacements in the first half of 2017, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC).
The IDMC said in a recent report that fighting for control of areas once dominated by FARC has “led to a reversal in the trend of reduction of armed clashes, threats, attacks on civilian targets and mass displacements that had been observed between the beginning of the negotiations with FARC in 2012 and 2016”.
The assassination of community leaders in Colombia has also continued at an alarming rate, despite the peace deal being ratified.
As of September 28, 106 social leaders and human rights defenders have been murdered this year, according to the Bogota-based conflict-monitoring NGO Indepaz.
In 2016, 117 social leaders and human rights defenders were killed.
At the demonstration on the sugar cane plantation, several Nasa protesters complain that their communities have seen more violence and uncertainty since the peace agreement with FARC was announced in December last year.
“Outside, the people say peace has come, but for us, life is a lot worse,” says one protester as he rests under a tree in the corner of a field watching the smoke rise from the fields.
“Before we were in regular conflict with the army and FARC, but now there are many new smaller groups – and we don’t know who is assassinating us.”
The protest is like a well-organised family event. Under the shade of a tree, two men are standing in the back of a parked pick-up truck pouring sugarcane water, known as “Guarapo”, out of large cans.
The sweet, murky drink is poured into bowls that are being passed around by a group of men who are taking a break from starting fires.
They’re chatting and laughing as they watch an elderly woman in a bright pink sun hat and a teenage girl wearing a purple rucksack hack away at a patch of sugarcane.
The relaxed atmosphere instantly evaporates when the army arrives. The soldiers announce their presence with a megaphone and slowly move up a nearby road in formation, with a line of men with riot shields at the front.
Behind them stands a line of soldiers armed with tear gas launchers and stun grenades. At the back are two armoured trucks.
As the army advances, the older people disappear into the sugarcane while some students and younger indigenous protesters gather near a junction and prepare to clash with the soldiers.
Calmly, they quickly arm themselves with shields made out of road signs, unpacking slings from rucksacks and tying t-shirts over their faces before moving into the centre of the road.
At around 200 metres, soldiers start firing tear gas at the protesters, as well as shooting live rounds over their heads.
The protesters respond by lobbing rocks and homemade grenades at the soldiers with their slings.
One soldier and two protesters were injured in this particular incident, but sometimes the price paid by indigenous protesters is much higher.
On May 9, the police opened fire on a demonstration in the same sugarcane plantation with automatic weapons, killing Daniel Felipe Castro Basto, a 17-year-old Nasa protester, and putting a local journalist into intensive care.
The guerrillas: ‘Aggressive recruitment’
An hour away by car, young children play outside during their lunch break in the mountain town of Toribio.
Down the road from the primary school, in a low-ceilinged open-plan office Jose Miller Correa Vasquez, the Education Secretary for the Municipality of Toribio sits at a desk where he has been holding meetings with local people all morning.
“Over the last couple of years everything has changed for the children in this region,” he tells Al Jazeera. “Before, there were clashes every single day here. The school children could never play outside – it was just too dangerous.”
“Now the children can have real dreams about building their future – and we can make real education policies that aren’t just about managing the crisis and solving short-term problems associated with the conflict.”
While fighting on a daily basis is a thing of the past, Miller says his community faces new challenges that are likely to escalate if local authorities and community groups don’t work together to combat them.
Most of these challenges stem from armed groups that are moving into the region with the aim of taking control of the region’s trade in coca and cannabis, which is cultivated by local farmers.
Prior to its demobilisation, FARC used to control the drug trade in these mountains, but over 2017 the FARC graffiti on road signs and walls in the Toribio municipality has been painted over by other groups that are looking to take control of the region.
These include the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the smaller Popular Liberation Army (EPL).
Negotiations between the ELN and the government began in February, but have stalled several times. The Marxist rebel group and the government began a ceasefire in this month as a sign of goodwill during the talks.
Officials believe it will be harder for the Colombian government to forge a lasting peace deal with ELN due to the group’s structure, which is less hierarchical and more fragmented than FARC’s.
In the weeks building up to the ceasefire, both ELN and EPL were active in parts of the Cauca region that were previously controlled by FARC, clashing with the military and recruiting from local populations, according to Miller.
“These groups have been aggressively targeting children in school as potential recruits,” he says. “A few cases I have been involved with directly, and I am aware that there are many others.
“Former FARC guerrillas that have rejected the peace process have joined the new groups. They know how to recruit vulnerable people and are employing more extreme tactics because they need these groups to grow quickly.”
Over 2017, several regions that are key to Colombia’s illegal drug trade have seen an increase in activity by criminal groups led by former FARC members who left the rebel group because they were unhappy with the peace deal.
Many of the FARC dissidents have joined the ELN, EPL, small criminal gangs and larger organised crime groups.
In July, the Colombian navy reported the seizure of large quantities of cannabis in the region of Caqueta, which security forces linked to one-time members of the FARC 47th and 14th units.
Security forces have also identified criminal networks led by FARC dissidents that are controlling drug trafficking corridors in the regions of Meta and Narino, as well as cocaine processing sites in Antioquia.
The recruitment of minors by dissident-led groups has also been seen outside Cauca with reports of young people bring targeted in the regions of Meta, Guaviare and Caqueta.
Between 1975 and the end of 2016, around 11,000 children were recruited into FARC, according to Colombia’s attorney general’s office.
In collaboration with other education officials from neighbouring regions, Miller has been involved in creating a team that tours schools to teach children how to respond to recruitment efforts by guerrilla groups and criminal gangs.
“This is very difficult to do effectively,” Miller says. “Once one student has been recruited it can become a very effective tool for persuading more young people to join an armed group.”
Miller says young people are especially vulnerable to recruitment in rural regions like Toribio where there are very limited opportunities for young people to improve their standard of living by legal means.
The valleys around Toribio are heavily scented by the hundreds of cannabis farms that are a key pillar of the municipality’s economy. At night, the mountains are illuminated with thousands of lights, which are used by farmers to stimulate rapid plant growth.
“If young people believed they could become successful without breaking the law – then the offers made to them by armed groups wouldn’t be so attractive,” Miller says.
The military: ‘We can’t let our guard down’
At the foot of the mountain on the road between Toribio and Corinto, Lieutenant Diego Carreno Betancourth is watching his men as they confiscate two large bales of cannabis from a scooter driver who was heading down the mountain.
Although the military has been able to move with increasing ease around these areas over the last year, Betancourth still can’t relax.
“The peace deal is here, but we can’t sleep in the sun,” he tells Al Jazeera while watching his men throw bales of confiscated cannabis in the back of a lorry. “We need to stay alert.”
His unit, Battalion 149 from Brigade 29, has been called out to disarm an improvised bomb that was placed near a dam at a water processing facility.
The bomb is made out of a gas cylinder that has been filled with explosives and shrapnel. It is a type known as a “tatuco” that has been used by guerrillas in this region for years.
As the unit prepares to detonate the bomb, a team of six soldiers in full camouflage huddle together and talk in the shade of a tree next to the road.
Three of them disappear down a path towards the dam with detonators and explosive charges.
Another two motorbikes laden with sacks of cannabis drive past, but go unnoticed by the soldiers who are now preoccupied with the bomb disposal.
A crowd of residents stand nearby talking and watching the soldiers.
One says the bomb was found by children who had been swimming in the reservoir the day before and no one knows why the bomb was put there, or who put it there.
“Maybe it’s one of the new groups in the area,” a fruit farmer named Mateo says.
“Maybe they want to destroy the dam or to kill the soldiers that patrol around the edge of the water facility,” he adds. “Perhaps they just want to keep people afraid.”
The explosion is loud and is followed by a wisp of white smoke that rises from a patch of trees.
There’s a palpable sense of relief among the soldiers when the bomb has been detonated without any complications.
“Gradually our relationship is changing with the people in this area,” Lieutenant Carreno says as his men pack up their things, chat with the villagers and prepare to leave the area.
“Before, civilians would be afraid to be seen talking to soldiers in public as they would have been accused of collaboration,” Carreno adds.
“Now FARC’s grip has been loosened, but we still can’t let our guard down.”
Though armed clashes between the military and guerrilla groups are no longer a daily occurrence in Cauca they still happen enough to be a constant cause of concern for Lieutenant Carreno.
A few days before, Carreno’s battalion was involved in a clash near Corinto with an armed guerrilla group. They captured one fighter, but still don’t know for certain whether he belonged to ELN, EPL or another group.
On September 23, one week before the ELN ceasefire, a soldier was injured when a military sentry post was targeted with two grenades and machine-gun fire. The attack was blamed on ELN.
On September 30, three policemen were killed in the nearby region of Miranda when a patrol was ambushed by suspected FARC dissidents.
“Before, we always knew who we were fighting against,” says Lieutenant Carreno. “Now, we’re not so sure.”
The growers: ‘Big problems remain’
A two-hour drive from Toribio, an eagle is soaring, hardly moving its wings as it rides currents of rising air above the mountaintop village of La Esmeralda.
Down on the ground, Hector Cundalatin is walking through his three-hectare coca plantation, describing the qualities of the different coca varieties.
The Ecuadorian strains produce all year round and are more resistant to the herbicides that used to be sprayed by aeroplanes as part of a US-led eradication programme.
The Colombian plants are bigger and have a greater yield.
Cundalatin is a 40-year-old Nasa farmer. He has grown coca since he was 16 and his farm is one of 20 plantations in La Esmeralda.
As part of a country-wide scheme to encourage coca farmers to switch to legal crops, Cundalatin has already slashed the number of coca plants on his farm by a quarter in return for a subsidy, but he is still waiting to receive the funds from the government.
Officials were meant to visit his farm three months ago to assess the progress that he has made switching from coca to coffee, but the visit has been repeatedly delayed, and his farm still hasn’t been assessed.
“I’m proud that I’ve been given this opportunity to change to legal crops,” Cundalatin tells Al Jazeera.
“But for it to be a real opportunity, the government must keep its promise on subsidies,” he adds.
“Legal crops are hard to grow on the mountainside and are worth much less money. In order to switch, we need government support, or we just won’t be able to survive.”
As he walks through the crops, touching their leaves and breaking off berries, military vehicles rattle up and down the dirt track that borders his property.
Though he welcomes the end of daily armed clashes in this region, he is worried that soon he may not be able to provide for his family.
“This is the only business I have – and it’s becoming much more difficult to make money,” he says.
Since the peace process started, coca prices have declined across the country due to increased production in other areas, including Narino, a region to Cauca’s south that borders Ecuador.
Both US and Colombian officials have blamed the boom in coca production on poor implementation of the mechanism that was meant to encourage farmers to grow alternative crops.
In March, the Colombian minister of foreign affairs said farmers were planting more coca so they could take advantage of the new substitution initiatives under the peace accords. The farmers rejected the allegations.
Figures published in July revealed that cocaine production in Colombia hit an all-time high last year.
The country produced an estimated 866 tonnes of cocaine in 2016, up from an estimated 649 tonnes in 2015, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.
Unlike most farmers in Colombia, Cundalatin has not been able to expand his production due to his farm being located close to an official FARC demobilisation zone, which is protected by a 24-hour military presence.
Such demobilisation zones were created within territories that were traditionally controlled by FARC for its former members to live while they transitioned to civilian life.
FARC insisted that the camps were provided with military protection as a precondition for disarming, as they feared fighters would be targeted by attacks once they had given up their guns.
“The farmers in this area don’t want to create problems for anyone,” Cundalatin says.
“All we do is grow coca, which is a natural product. We don’t get involved in processing it to make cocaine.”
Prior to the ceasefire deal, the farmers that lived in La Esmeralda would rarely be bothered by the police or the army.
FARC made sure that traders and cocaine producers were protected and even brought farming machinery to the plantations to help improve productivity.
“Before the peace deal, my buyers would pay for the crops in advance. Now they only pay when they have received them, and sometimes they never arrive to pick up the crops at all,” says Cundalatin.
He adds everyone in his large family is totally dependent on the farm.
“There are about 120 families in this area, and for every family, the story is the same as mine.”
Efforts to eradicate the coca crops by force in other areas have been opposed by local farmers worried about being stripped of their livelihood, and have led to some tragic confrontations.
After weeks of protests by farmers in Tumaco in the Nariono region at least six farmers died in a violent incident on a coca farm this month.
The police and army have blamed the attack on FARC dissidents, but locals and human rights organisations say that the police indiscriminately opened fire on farmers who were protesting against their crops being eradicated.
After walking around his farm, Cundalatin sits on the porch of his small house located on a peak above the fields.
The porch offers a panoramic view of the distant plains that surround Corinto.
Cundalatin says he watched the fires burn in the sugarcane and saw the tear gas rising from the fields the day before when the protesters were clashing with the army.
“Colombia is so close to finding real peace, but big problems remain,” he says.
“The people here are tired of conflict. Everyone needs to be ready to make compromises to stop the country from sliding into another 50 years of war.”