After 18 years of fighting in the jungles and mountains of Colombia, Tomas Acero now talks with quiet enthusiasm about peace and the prospect of a new life.
But the site around him in the tiny village of Carrizal belies his optimism. What was meant to be a government-built camp for 300 guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to hand over weapons and receive preparation for their return to civilian life, is nothing more than a muddy field.
The scene plays on the guerrillas’ worst fears: that the government will not deliver on the promises it made to convince them to end half a century of Marxist insurgency. Mr. Acero admits he’s starting to have doubts about the historic peace agreement struck late last year.
“It’s not clear if this [slowness by the state] is bureaucracy or if it is because there’s not a real interest in continuing with all parts of the agreement,” he says. “What it seems like is that they don’t care, they don’t think it’s important.”
Carrizal is one of 26 sites around Colombia where the demobilizing FARC are supposed to begin this peaceful era by spending six months handing over their weapons and receiving training and education about their options for a new life. But although 7,000 guerrillas have arrived in the demobilization zones, the demobilization and disarmament process still hasn’t started for most of the former fighters, two months after the initial deadline to begin the process.
The government’s failure to deliver on the first and arguably easiest step of its peace-process commitments is now breeding doubts it can fulfill the more than 700 pledges it made to transform Colombia and facilitate the FARC’s transition into an unarmed political movement.
It’s dangerously rocky footing on which to kick off a peace process that took decades to clinch. The agreement with the FARC, which earned Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos a Nobel Peace Prize, promises Colombians not only an end to a protracted fight, but a new post-conflict era with improved security, development for neglected regions, curbed drug production, and a reduction in political violence.
“[There is this] lack of capacity or inability to make government happen anywhere outside of the big cities,” says Adam Isacson, senior associate for regional security policy at the Washington Office on Latin America. This is visible via “the sad state of the [demobilization] zones, the explosion in growing coca [for cocaine production], the wave of killings of social leaders, and the increasing presence of armed groups,” Mr. Isacson says. “These phenomena are all the same thing, it’s the Bogota government not seizing this opportunity.”
‘How do you do this?’
On the hill overlooking Carrizal village, government contractors direct guerrilla laborers, many still in their combat fatigues but with their weapons stashed out of sight, as they work furiously in the sweltering heat to turn a patch of wasteland into the living quarters, bathrooms, kitchens, and classrooms they had been promised. Their comrades, meanwhile, have nothing to do except watch and wait in the makeshift campsite they have pitched among the trees at the side of the road.
Tucked into the mountains of northwest Colombia, Carrizal was selected as a FARC demobilization zone because it is deep in guerrilla territory. It is only 40 miles from the closest town, but the journey along the muddy, rutted dirt track that is Carrizal’s only connection to the outside world can take anywhere from four hours to several days. The village has no water, electricity, or sewage system, and there are no public schools or health facilities here.
This kind of rural poverty represents a root cause of Colombia’s conflict, which the peace agreement is supposed to address. In the accords, the state promises to bring infrastructure, investment, and law and order to these territories, and, in regions economically dependent on farming coca for cocaine production, an alternative to the booming drug trade.
In the most recent government press conference on the demobilization process, Colombia’s High Commissioner for Peace Sergio Jaramillo said the government has taken on an impossible mission.
“No government has ever faced such a logistical challenge. How do you do this? Who has the logistical capacity to construct [26 camps]?” Mr. Jaramillo asked.
In Carrizal, such excuses hold little weight. Many residents are even encouraging the FARC to be prepared to return to war if the government’s promises don’t arrive.
“Some say [the FARC] should leave some weapons somewhere in case all this breaks down, then at least they have something to respond with,” says Wilson Vega, a Carrizal resident and community leader with the Peasant Farmer Association of the Cimitarra River Valley.
While there is little chance of this happening on a national scale, such pleas may find a receptive audience among the FARC ranks. There is a high risk of dissension among foot soldiers and mid-level commanders, many of whom were already suspicious of the accord agreed to by distant FARC leaders.
“It is undermining confidence in a process where there is precious little confidence to start with,” says Jeremy McDermott, director of Colombia-based investigative think tank InSight Crime.
In addition, the demobilization process is excluding more than 10,000 members of militias, essentially FARC cells embedded in communities.
FARC splinter groups are already starting to emerge, formed by both guerrilla fighters and militia militants. Rival armed groups, such as the criminalized paramilitary network known as the Urabeños, are recruiting battle-hardened ex-FARC fighters to strengthen their ranks, according to authorities.
The risk of new conflicts over the lucrative criminal interests left behind by the FARC, including the coca trade, illegal mining, and extortion, is supposed to be mitigated by a military occupation of former FARC territories. But guerrilla leaders and local communities in many of the country’s worst conflict zones say this has yet to happen.
In Carrizal, residents’ main concern is that one guerrilla war will simply be swapped for another, as Colombia’s second largest guerrilla movement, the National Liberation Army (ELN), is also present in the region.
If the government continues to fail to deliver on its promises to the FARC, it will almost certainly undermine the ELN’s faith in their own peace talks, which launched Feb. 7.
The path ahead
The FARC fighters gathered in Carrizal insist the key to the long-term success of the peace process will not be government programs, but the FARC’s transition to an unarmed political movement.
However, transitioning from an armed movement to a strictly political one could be at risk as well. Throughout the final stages of the peace process, in 2016, some 93 social leaders, allied ideologically with the FARC, were murdered, according to Colombia’s Peace and Reconciliation Foundation. Since the conflict officially ended, the death toll appears to be accelerating, with 12 killed in the first month of 2017 alone.
The violence against what the FARC sees as its political base is a concern. But they also feel the murders are evidence of a government that isn’t following through on promises to keep former FARC members safe as they enter politics.
“We are very afraid that as members of a revolutionary movement we will face the same as what has historically happened in this country to those that have put down their arms – they end up dead,” says Acero.
However, in Carrizal and regions like it, those most affected by war say they refuse to give up on their dreams for peace, and they will not be waiting on the government to fulfill them.
“The way out is … everybody has to build this peace process together,” says Mr. Vega. “Today, all there is is an agreement between the guerrillas and the government. We’re the ones who have to actually build peace.”
Camilo Mejia contributed reporting.