Santa Lucia, Colombia – The way to the reintegration camp follows many rudimentary dirt tracks where the rivers and minor waterfalls occasionally bleed into its path.
The area initially looks like many other villages one may encounter across the country. Scampering roosters, poker-faced mules, and stray dogs eyeing every empanada in hand.
The unmoving gaze of heavily armed soldiers surveyed the compound of the public library in Santa Lucia. Plastered across the wall behind them were coloured posters and pictures made by the children of the small village, about 90 minutes from the town of Ituango.
“They’re not usually here,” a farmer said as he sharpened a blade. “They’re only here for the election, and after that, they leave again.”
Roberto Antonio had seen this all before. “What are they going to do for the farmers here? What difference does it make who wins?”
For many in the village of Santa Lucia, Sunday’s presidential elections mattered.
In addition to being the 54th anniversary of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), it was also the first time that the former rebel group’s ex-combatants participated in choosing their country’s leader.
Following the historic peace accord of 2016, the vote meant those who had been soldiers were now citizens with a voice and had a say in the direction of the country.
Right-wing candidate Ivan Duque finished first with 39 percent of the vote, leftist candidate Gustavo Petro came in second with 25 percent, and former Medellin mayor Sergio Fajardo, a centre-left candidate, was third with 24 percent.
As a consequence of the results, the field is now wide open as Colombia has chosen candidates who offer markedly different visions for the future of the country.
On the one hand, Duque of the Centro Democratico party has promised a return to the fighter presidency of his mentor Alvaro Uribe, where peace with FARC would not include impunity for former combatants, nor would there be an easing up on the use of paramilitary attacks against the rebel group.
Targeting ex-FARC rebels
According to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, 40 FARC members have been killed since the peace accord was signed into law – six in the northern region of Antioquia near Ituango. In addition to the deaths, former combatants are often on the receiving end of threats and harassment that jeopardise the chances of them reintegrating into civil society.
Rodrigo Londono, alias Timochenko and FARC’s leader and presidential candidate, had to suspend his campaign because of threats.
Which is why, on Sunday night, as Petro took to the stage for his celebration rally, many former fighters from FARC saw in him a new hope to build lasting peace.
“We’re just happy that he won,” Liliana said. “Maybe now real change can come to Colombia.”
As a fighter, Liliana was given the warrior name Estefania. Liliana joined the 18th Front of the FARC when she was 16 after she saw how well the group treated her village. After it disarmed, she moved to the reintegration camp in Santa Lucia and took on the role of a social leader within the newly formed community.
“What we expect from him is that he supports us in the peace process,” Liliana said as she served pork stew and sweet flatbread in the camp’s community hall.
She added that many in the camp hoped Petro has what it takes to become president on June 17, when the second and final round of voting takes place.
‘Petro is hope’
Jhonhader shares that hope. Having joined FARC as a 20-year-old, Jhonhader spent four years in Medellin’s Bellavista prison before he moved to Santa Lucia to start a new life with his partner, a woman who was also a member of the 18th Front.
“For us, the presidents of Colombia have always been capitalists and the poor never get a chance,” Jhonhader said, highlighting the strongly leftist leanings they have come to admire in Petro.
The former M-19 guerrilla may now be far from his rebel roots, but his campaign has found a following among former FARC combatants.
Petro now faces a further round against Duque. Despite Sunday’s strong poll showing, his newest battle has only just begun.