Negotiating an Uncertain Peace in Rural Colombia

In the oppressive heat of Catatumbo in east Colombia, the rhythms of everyday life are underpinned by tension; the threat of violence, the struggle with extreme poverty and just the faintest glimmer of a peaceful future.

Catatumbo is an isolated valley of jungle and mountains, oil and cocaine, powerful Marxist guerrillas and an embattled military. It is also the archetype of the deep rooted social issues and conflicting visions of Colombia that are at the heart of both the country’s 50-year-old civil conflict and the ongoing negotiations to resolve it.

For the last two years, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government have met in Havana, Cuba to negotiate an end to the guerrilla’s armed insurgency. The issues they have debated so far – rural poverty, political persecution and drug production – are a daily reality for the people of Catatumbo. But while the talks have brought Colombia closer to peace than at any point in the last half century, residents remain skeptical; Havana is far away, they say, and peace remains a long way off.

“The government and the guerrillas can sign all the accords they want, but while they don’t solve the social problems, they don’t solve hunger and land rights, they won’t see peace because we will be in the streets demanding our rights,” says Jose del Carmen Abril, a founding member of the Catatumbo Peasant Farmer Association (ASCAMCAT), who is affectionately known as “Carmito.”

Catatumbo lies in the state of Norte de Santander on Colombia’s border with Venezuela. Its only connection to the rest of the country are narrow pothole-strewn dirt track roads, which are blocked by very young and heavily armed soldiers squatting nervously in sandbagged bunkers at military checkpoints. Don’t travel at night, locals warn – this is guerrilla territory.

Many of Catatumbo’s communities are little more than collections of shacks, where roads and public services rarely reach and poverty is a birthright. Hidden in the hills are over 5,000 hectares of coca crops, rudimentary cocaine processing laboratories, guerrilla combat units and, according to the government, the head of the FARC himself, Timoleon Jimenez, alias “Timochenko.”

In Havana, the government and the FARC negotiators have agreed to a series of reforms that aim to transform regions such as Catatumbo. If and when a final accord is signed, the guerrillas will demobilize and participate in unarmed politics, investment in infrastructure and public services will flood the region, and coca farmers will be eased into the legal economy with government funded crop substitution programs. At least, that is the plan.

Many in Catatumbo welcome the agreements, but with a weary skepticism and always with the caveat that they must not rely on distant negotiators to plot their future.

“We cannot allow the government to condition us into thinking that the Colombian people have to wait for all their problems to be resolved in Havana,” says ASCAMCAT Vice-President Juan Carlos Quintero, who although not yet 30 is already a seasoned veteran of war, displacement and battles with the state.

Their attitude is partly a practical response to the still shaky peace process, which is far from guaranteed to reach a successful conclusion. But it is also grounded in a poisoned relationship with a state that the region’s campesinos – small scale farmers and rural workers – associate with violence, persecution and empty promises.

Relations between the state and the Catatumbo campesinos are tainted by what community leaders feel is a campaign to portray them as guerrilla stooges. In 2010, authorities rounded up 18 Catatumbo leaders, arresting them on terrorism charges and publically denounced them as FARC collaborators. The leaders were released within months and while the investigation remains open, ASCAMCAT’s lawyers say it has shown little outward sign of progress since.

Among the 18 arrested was Carmito, and he now complains bitterly about how the powerful use the education he never had – he can neither read nor write – to victimize the campesinos.

“Some people live in heaven, while we live in hell with the accusations, criminalization and stigmatization of the Colombian state,” he says.

Accusations of FARC collusion are common in Colombia’s state-less corners, where the guerrillas often act as a de facto government. The rebels’ control of these territories means contact with residents is inevitable, and their relationship with campesino communities is often complex. This has led to concerns that a demobilizing FARC, whose electoral credibility has been eroded by human rights abuses and links to the drug trade, will use their influence to chisel out political fiefdoms in regions such as Catatumbo instead of truly opening up to the democratic process.

The campesinos, though, insist they are autonomous, and feel the government uses the guerrilla presence to publically discredit them and sideline their legitimate demands. Asking the Catatumbo leaders about their alleged ties to the guerrillas provokes not fierce denials, but exasperation.

“They always say that the guerrillas manipulate us, and this diminishes our own capacity to organize and claim what we deserve,” says Quintero.

However, the mistrust in the Colombian state that feeds cynicism over the peace process has deeper and far darker roots than just legal persecution and public stigmatization. In 1999, the Colombian military facilitated an invasion of right-wing paramilitaries that tore through the region with barbaric violence. By the time the Catatumbo paramilitaries demobilized in 2004, at least 5,700 people had been murdered and over 100,000 people had been displaced, according to the figures of monitoring groups.  

The state-backed counter-insurgency left scars on the guerrilla psyche that give Catatumbo residents even more reason to doubt the Havana accords will bring peace. Across the country, the paramilitaries not only waged territorial war on the guerrillas, but also ideological war, and they exterminated unarmed leftists as casually as guerrilla fighters.

Some in Catatumbo, and many around Colombia, believe the memory of this slaughter as well as ongoing violence against community leaders and activists means the guarantees of safe political participation made in the Havana accords will not be enough to persuade the guerrillas to completely disarm. Instead, they say, the rebels may cling onto their weapons for fear that without them they will be easy targets for political violence, especially as paramilitary successor groups remain active, if now largely criminalized.

One local farmer, who did not want to be named for security reasons, says it would take a decade of peace before the FARC would be prepared to fully disarm in the region, and that by staying in arms the guerrillas could spark a paramilitary revival in Catatumbo and a new cycle of violence.

“As long as there is poverty and misery there will be an insurgency, and as long as there is an insurgency there will be paramilitaries,” he says with the casual resignation of a man long since accustomed to intractable violence.

Guaranteeing the rights to political participation is one of the three points agreed to so far in the Havana talks. The other two, rural reform and the drug trade, provoke similar skepticism in Catatumbo – a result of firsthand experiences of unfulfilled government promises around the very same issues.

In June 2013, Catatumbo coca growers clashed with a military eradication team that had descended on the hills surrounding the town of Tibu to tear up their crops. Protests against the eradication swept the entire region, and quickly morphed into a broad uprising against a whole range of social ills. A general strike shut down Catatumbo for nearly two months, and youths manned burning barricades and faced off against fired-up riot police. The clashes saw four protesters shot dead and left hundreds injured.

A year on, and Tibu is hosting a national campesino summit. Bustling with thousands of people from around the country, the small town is filled with a festive atmosphere that almost conceals the tensions bubbling beneath.

Community leaders in Catatumbo feel the government has done little to keep the promises it made to put an end to the protests and there is concern on both sides that some may see the summit as an ideal launch pad for a new strike and protests. The security forces tensely prepare for the worst while organizers address both the crowds and the undercover police they assume are out in force when they call for things to be kept peaceful.

The agreement the government made to bring a halt to the 2013 protests covered many of the issues on the agenda at Havana; land rights, coca eradication and substitution, and rural development. But while the summit passes off peacefully, leaders refuse to rule out a new protest campaign as they say the only progress they have seen is over the initial trigger for the protests.

“The only part of the agreement they have met is the suspension of eradication and fumigations of coca,” says Quintero. “But this isn’t the solution, the solution is to put in place a program of gradual, structural, environmental substitution of coca crops.”

Such a substitution program is the cornerstone of the Havana agreement on the illegal drug trade, but the coca farmers remain unconvinced. Catatumbo’s experiments with crop substitution are still young, but the experiences of the hundreds of coca farmers gathered for the Tibu summit feed the cynicism that is residents’ default position when faced with government promises.

The old, the young, men and women all line up in the blazing sun to tell their stories of failed government backed crop substitution programs. Some were sabotaged by disease, weather, or price crashes, but many more failed due to far away planners imposing their programs on regions they knew little about. When the programs failed, many farmers were left destitute and in debt, and with little choice but to return to coca.

“The government brings these projects without consulting the communities, it’s just taking them for a ride” says Luis Francisco Gonzalez, a visiting community leader from the state of Bolivar. “And here we have the results, communities that are much more vulnerable and poorer.”

The FARC and the government say this time the communities themselves will be involved in planning the programs, and that the crop substitution will be accompanied by infrastructure investments, such as new roads, to make them economically viable. Nevertheless, promises look cheap to the coca farmers, and when one from the southern state of Cauca tells the crowd, “After the negotiations in Havana, they are going to have to renegotiate with us!,” he is met with widespread applause and cries of support.

While the coca farmers at the Tibu summit freely blasted the government, paranoia over the presence of both undercover security forces and FARC representatives left one question unasked and unanswered: Who would take the FARC’s place in the drug trade?

The FARC are the overseers of much of Catatumbo’s coca crop, a role they play in around two thirds of Colombia’s coca cultivations. They tax production and sales, buy and sell coca paste – the intermediate stage in making cocaine – and in some parts of the country process cocaine and traffic the drugs to foreign contacts.

The guerrillas also offer coca growers protection and a stable, regulated market. The world of drug trafficking hates a vacuum and if the FARC demobilize they may be replaced by groups with no such inclinations. There have already been reports of local FARC commanders selling off their coca interests to drug cartels or breaking away from the insurgency to focus on drug trade profits.

Such talk makes Catatumbo residents uneasy. When TF asks ASCAMCAT’s Juan Carlos Quintero about the prospect, he reluctantly admits the danger, but says it depends on how any final peace deal is implemented.

“If they only do it on paper, they don’t carry out these accords together with the Colombian people, then it will be difficult for peace to exist and there might be these things you’re talking about,” he says.

While the points agreed to so far in Havana have been cautiously welcomed in Catatumbo, another reason residents remain unconvinced they will bring a lasting peace is an issue that has remained firmly off the agenda; Colombia’s economic model.

The FARC have consistently called for talks on changing Colombia’s neo-liberal, extractive industries fuelled economy, but the government has argued such changes should only come via the ballot box and not be imposed on the country by an armed minority.

Catatumbo is a key territory for the oil industry, which has been the main motor for Colombia’s recent economic growth. The mark of oil extraction can be seen all around, from the pipelines that flank the roads to the names of communities founded by oil companies; Camp 2, Camp Happy, Camp Rich.

The guerrillas publically rail against the sacking of natural resources but emails from seized FARC computers show how they also profit from the sector by extorting companies. The threats are backed by violence, a message reinforced days before the Tibu summit when snipers from a smaller guerrilla group murdered two oil company workers as they worked on a nearby pipeline. It was a chilling message no one would admit to understanding.

While the guerrillas play both sides with the extractive industries, the campesinos are unequivocal in their condemnation; they have seen riches pour out of the region, and very little come the other way.

“They have been extracting oil here for 84 years but there are still houses made of cardboard or wood, Catatumbo seems like an abandoned region without any resources,” says Carmito.

Community leaders believe there must be a rebalancing of power and profit in regions such as Catatumbo, and a change in Colombia’s economic priorities if any peace is to last.

[If the government] genuinely wants a peace process that is real, then it has to invest less in multinationals and more in public works, less in war and more in education, less police and more health,” says Carmito.

The Catatumbo campesinos are far from alone in Colombia in believing that an accord with the FARC would be the beginning not the end of a true peace process. But their skepticism does not mean they have given up on the dream of peace – just that they do not trust others to deliver it.

“Peace is in our hands,” says Carmito. “We can’t spend our whole lives thinking about war, we must think instead that we are capable [of changing things], we are the ones who need to demand a peace that is dignified, lasting and leads to a change with social justice.”



James Bargent is a freelance journalist based in Medellin, Colombia. He has reported on Colombia and Latin America for various publications including the Independent, the Miami Herald, the Toronto Star, In These Times, the Times Education Supplement, AlterNet, Toward Freedom and Green Left Weekly.