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World & Nation

Not everyone’s ready to make peace with the rebels in Colombia

The resentment of 7 million displaced Colombians could complicate efforts to implement the new peace accord.

For most of her life, Natalia Jaramillo endured the abuses of living in a village controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The leftist guerrillas spied on her, told her when she could leave her house and forcibly recruited two cousins.

Her breaking point came one day in 2014 when a rebel commander told her he was looking for a male heir and wanted to “buy” her 9-year-old son.

“I was convinced that he would end up stealing him,” the 26-year-old single mother of two recalled.

The next day she and her boys packed up the belongings they could carry and fled to Mocoa, a southwestern city of 110,000 people, half of whom are also displaced by the civil war.

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The victims of the longest-running conflict in the Western hemisphere would seem to have much to gain from the government’s push to make peace with the rebels. The accord approved by Congress this week — two months after voters narrowly rejected a similar deal in a national referendum — offers them the chance to return to their villages, reclaim their land and collect restitution for stolen belongings and slain relatives.

But like many victims of the conflict, Jaramillo clings to deep resentment of the rebel group known as the FARC and registers disdain for any peace deal that offers it concessions.

The bitterness is widespread among the displaced in Mocoa. In recent interviews with 20 residents who came here fleeing violence, the Times found none who expressed a spirit of reconciliation.

The resentment could complicate efforts to implement the new accord, which will require multiple pieces of new legislation and billions of dollars to compensate and retrain demobilized rebels and enact land reforms, among other measures.

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President Juan Manuel Santos had hoped the referendum would give him a popular mandate. But he has proven unable to even win the support of the people most affected by the war.

Luidine Zumpolle,  director of Let’s Go For Peace, a civil society group, said the government has alienated the war’s victims in its quest for peace. “It was never really clear to them what the government was cooking up at the negotiating table,” he said.

Jaramillo, who voted against the accord in October, said that the government is offering more to the rebels than to the victims and that she was especially bothered by the prospect of her former tormentors receiving stipends to demobilize.

“If peace is in their hearts, they shouldn’t need a prize to disarm,” she said.

Colombia’s civil war, which started in 1964, when the FARC was founded, forever altered the demographics of the country of 48 million people by dramatically speeding up urbanization. More than 7 million people have been displaced, the majority of them fleeing the poor countryside for the relative security of the cities.

They started arriving in Mocoa in the 1990s and have generally been welcomed, earning the city a reputation as a relatively friendly place for the migrants. Thousands of displaced live in settlements that the local government has set aside for them on the outskirts of the city. Many have rebuilt their lives. Some have prospered as business owners.

Jaramillo lives in the Villa Rosa settlement and works as a maid in a hotel.  Praising the schools and the food aid her family has received, she said that her boys were doing well and that she has no intention of returning to her old village.

Her sentiments are common.

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“I’m never going back,” said 30-year-old Sandra Pardo, who arrived here with her four children in June from the northern province of Santander. Her brother-in-law already lived there, and she was tired of making extortion payments to the rebels to keep open her small restaurant and worried about her 13-year-old daughter. 

“I feared the day was coming when they would abduct her by force,” Pardo said. “I was afraid to leave because I  might meet them on the road. They control everything.”

It’s just another case of the bad people ending up winning.
Natalia Jaramillo

Pardo was standing in line at an assistance center for war victims, joining more than 100 other displaced people that day to enroll their children in school and sign up for healthcare, food aid and cash payments when available.

She too voted against the peace deal because she felt it was too generous to the rebels. “It didn’t seem fair to give them salaries when they should go to jail,” she said. “They never paid me for the food they took.”

The deal rejected by the voters was the product of four years of negotiation between the Santos government and the FARC. Opponents led by former President Alvaro Uribe argued that it went too easy on the rebels, who were already hurting militarily when they entered a cease-fire with the government in 2015.

The cease-fire held after the failed referendum as the government and the rebels quickly resumed negotiations. Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. In late October, the two sides signed the revised deal.

It includes some 50 changes insisted upon by “no” voters in meetings with the government’s negotiating team after the plebiscite. Demobilized rebels would face greater restrictions on where they can travel and be forced to use their own assets to pay reparations.

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Santos was able to bypass the voters and go straight to Congress because his party holds a majority there. Opposition legislators boycotted the vote in both the House of Representatives and the Senate and have vowed to fight the new accord.

Their most immediate hope is that a constitutional court will block Congress from using fast-track authority to quickly pass dozens of new laws needed to implement the deal and start the process of demobilizing the rebels as soon as the end of December.

If the court blocks that authority, Santos would be forced to hold another referendum or use the normal legislative process, which could take more than a year. A court decision is expected in days.

Displaced people in Mocoa said they feel defeated.

“I can only hope with God’s help it turns out all right,” Pardo said this week as it became clear Congress was going to approve the deal.

“It’s just another case of the bad people ending up winning,” Jaramillo said.

There is another reason some victims oppose a peace deal: In some sense, they rely on the FARC. In some isolated areas where there is no rule of law, the rebels settle property and debt disputes. Some peasants are concerned that once the rebels leave, other less reliable armed groups will move in.

“They still have families in remote areas where the FARC is the only law they have,” said Yimi Vacca, a Mocoa-based coordinator with Mercy Corps, an Oregon-civil society group that aids war victims. “If the FARC puts down their arms, it will leave them unprotected and unsure about who will replace them.” 

Jorge Edgar Munoz, 69, lost his son, livestock and farm in the southern province of Cauca before deciding last year to flee to Mocoa. He now lives in a one-room plywood shack in a displaced settlement called Nueva Betania a few miles south of the city.

He  said he doesn’t trust government promises of restitution and that in any case peace with the rebels would only lead to new problems in the countryside.

“I have nothing because of them,” he said. “I’m a poor man with no other place to go.”

Kraul is a special correspondent.

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