META, Colombia—Making peace after five decades of armed conflict in Colombia is a process fraught with challenges. The stakes for the United States stake are enormous both politically and economically. The two countries have a free trade deal and American companies like Coca-Cola and ExxonMobil are major players in Colombia. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is at the White House today to talk with President Donald Trump about protecting Colombia’s nascent peace process. After supporting the Colombian military for years—seven billion dollars since 2000 in its fight against leftist rebels —the U.S. is now helping to finance peace after a deal to end the conflict was signed in November. The U.S. Congress approved a 450-million dollar package earlier this month called Peace Colombia to help Colombia craft a durable peace. That number is likely to be reduced next year however as the Trump administration has been clear that it plans to reduce foreign assistance packages.
Driving through the hills of Meta, where the Colombian Andes cascade down into a lush green valleys, where sunbeams dance on the bluest of skies, it is hard to imagine the bloodshed that once unfolded here. Meta was ravaged by a war that pitted Colombia’s army and private militia against leftist guerrillas known as the FARC—-the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The FARC began as a rebellion against economic inequality in the 1960s. It then entered the cocaine trade to finance the conflict. And sowed terror in rural Colombia, killing civilians and extorting businesses.
Latin America security analyst Adam Isacson at the Washington Office on Latin America has said that the FARC has one of the worst human rights records within Latin American leftist movements. The FARC is still on the U.S. Terrorist List. Last year, in peace accord actively supported by the U.S., the FARC agreed to retreat to 26 remote camps.
“Trump or Obama, it doesn’t matter,” said Aldinever Morantes in Spanish. He is the FARC commandante in one camp in Meta. He said he believed the U.S. will help fortify the Colombian because it is Washington’s economic interest. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly recently told Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper that peace in Colombia will not only benefit Colombia but the region as a whole and specifically the U.S. But Morantes said that while peace is progressing well, the situation is fragile currently.
“Colombians aren’t seeing the security that peace was supposed to usher in,” he explained. This year alone, 27 human rights activists and indigenous leaders have been murdered. Morantes said the guerrillas are worried they will also be targeted. “We have our fears right now,” he said as the staccato of raindrops fell onto the roof of his tent. The U.S. State Dept states that coca leaf production is rising. Cocaine is made by processing coca leaves. In Meta, and other large parts of Colombia, the retreat of the FARC has created a vacuum that has attracted criminal gangs, narco-traffickers and hired guns working for wealthy landowners. Now, Morantes said, the army and police, forces he once fought, are his only protection from those threats.
Morantes and more than 500 other guerrillas at this camp are pleading for more protection. They stopped roaming this section of the Colombian countryside in February. The rebels put down their weapons and moved to this camp, where makeshift is the operative word. The FARC live in tents with plastic sheeting. None of the social services, like clinics, promised in return for demobilizing has been delivered. Though he says he regularly engaged the U.S.-backed Colombian military in battle, Morantes said Colombia needs U.S. assistance to solidify peace.
“The U.S. should help us with peace because they actively participated in this war,’ he said. Colombia traded justice for peace in cutting the deal with the FARC. With few exceptions, FARC will be spared prison time and they’ll run for political office. Colombia’s right wing bitterly opposes immunity for the FARC. The right is led politically by former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe.
“You would never give impunity to al-Qaeda, nor would you give impunity to ISIS,” he said referring the United States. “Why in Colombia (do) we have to accept impunity for the FARC ? ” he asked rhetorically.
For rural Colombians in Meta like 33-year-old Yeisson Pereira, words like that are an echo of his youth, when the pendulum of power swung between the FARC, the army and right wing paramilitaries. “The gov’t, private militias and the guerrillas, they’re all practically the same,” he said.
Jorge Restrepo acknowledges that concern. But he said the tide has turned away from mass conflict. studies the economics of conflict at CERAC, a Colombian think tank. “We’re not going to get back to war. We’re not going back to having a narco-trafficking guerrilla group,” said Restrepo, who studies the economics of conflict at CERAC, a Colombian think tank. Restrepo said pockets of intense insecurity remain. But he pointed out statistics showing a large overall reduction in violence, that Colombia is far safer today than ever before. He said U.S. military assistance used by Colombia to contain the FARC only went so far. “We were not being able to produce the security that we are enjoying now through military means.”
In Meta, people interviewed for this story said creating a durable peace is still a work in progress.
Jorge Ivan Sanchez grew up fearing whichever group held sway here. Today, he’s a lawyer who works for the Colombian Office of the High Commissioner for Peace, an arm of the Colombian presidency. He said candidly that his gov’t has so far not delivered on many of its promises and that it will be compelled to do so to sustain the peace. But Sanchez said he is proud to be contributing to the process and helping to revive a one of Latin America’s largest economies that has been blunted by generations by war.