Delays, tricky logistics hamper peace process in Colombia

Under a treaty signed last year, about 7,000 battle-hardened rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, have agreed to disarm by May 31, but along the way, there have been numerous glitches and embarrassments for the government.

Worry grows that former guerrillas will turn to drug trafficking: no jobs or development means no peace

Former rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, help to build a settlement in the demobilization zone near Conejo, Colombia in January. (John Otis)

In the foothills of northern Colombia, a construction crew is turning a former war zone into a peace camp.

Bulldozers flatten an area the size of three football fields. Soon, bunk houses, kitchens, shower stalls and a health clinic will go up. When the job is done, about 250 Marxist guerrillas will temporarily move here, as they prepare to hand over their weapons to United Nations inspectors.

This operation is part of Colombia's ongoing peace process. Under a treaty signed last year to end more than 50 years of fighting, about 7,000 battle-hardened rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, have agreed to disarm by May 31.

"We are going to make good on our pledge to lay down our guns," said Alirio Córdoba, a mid-level FARC commander at a nearby guerrilla encampment. "We are very optimistic."

Cpl. Luis Alberto Wilches, left, and Pte. Edwin Romo man a Colombian army checkpoint near Conejo, where former FARC guerrillas are helping to build a settlement. Weapons will be turned over there to the government under UN supervision. (John Otis)

Still, there have been numerous glitches and embarrassments for the government of President Juan Manuel Santos, who won the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the treaty with the FARC.

For one thing, this demobilization zone near the village of Conejo, and about two dozen others now under construction, were supposed to have been finished weeks ago. There have been delays due to problems securing rights to the land.

It's been a tremendous change for us.- Cpl. Luis Alberto Wilches

In addition, access and logistics are tricky, because many of the zones are being built near traditional guerrilla strongholds in remote mountains and jungles.

The integrity of the peace process took another hit on New Year's Eve. At a party near Conejo, several UN inspectors tasked with overseeing an ongoing ceasefire and the demobilization process were caught on video dancing cheek-to-cheek with FARC guerrillas. Critics charged that instead of serving as neutral monitors, UN personnel had grown too close to the rebels.

FARC mid-level commanders Fabio Borges, left, and Alirio Córdoba at rebel camp near Conejo, Colombia, where they are helping to build a settlement. FARC is scheduled to turn over its weapons there under UN supervision. (John Otis)

"This is very serious," said Tatiana Cabello, an opposition lawmaker. "The UN is here to make sure that both sides comply with peace process. But they are generating bad examples. The confidence we Colombians had in the UN has been broken."

Others, like Conejo cattle rancher José Molina, fear that the government is unprepared to help thousands of rebels with little formal education or job skills make a successful transition to civilian life.

Not the 1st time

Molina was hit hard during the war. The guerrillas stole his cattle, demanded that he hand over extortion payments, and kidnapped both his father and father-in-law. So, Molina is pleased that the fighting has now ended and that he can return to his ranch. But he predicts that many demobilized rebels will grow frustrated and turn to crime.

It's happened before.

In the mid-2000s, thousands of right-wing paramilitaries — who fought against the FARC but were also deeply involved in drug trafficking — agreed to disarm. But instead of seeking legitimate jobs, many former fighters used their criminal skills to form a new generation of drug-smuggling organizations that still plague Colombia.

FARC rebel Alexander Herrera, 36, joined the guerrillas at age 18. (John Otis)

"There will be a lot of demobilized guerrillas wandering around here with nothing to do," Molina says. "You can't make peace unless you provide jobs, development and opportunities."

That's what the Colombian government intends to do, says Sergio Jaramillo, the government's peace commissioner who helped negotiate the treaty to end the war. At a recent news conference in Bogotá, Jaramillo said FARC members will receive benefits like job training and health care. But he added: "Rebels who do not take part in the peace process will face the full force of the law."

But at least in this part of Colombia, peace seems to be taking hold.

Working alongside rebels

At the FARC encampment near Conejo, guerrillas kill time playing volleyball, watching TV, and peeling potatoes and plantains for dinner. They wear civilian clothes. Hardly anyone carries a gun. Some of the rebels have been hired to work on the demobilization camp.

Nixon Leguizamón, the construction site foreman, said that due to the danger he never would have ventured into this part of Colombia during the war. But he now enjoys working alongside the rebels. He said: "They are very willing to collaborate."

Just down the road at a military checkpoint, Colombian army troops have also assumed a new role. They are now under orders to protect the guerrillas as they prepare to disarm.

"It's been a tremendous change for us," says Corp. Luis Alberto Wilches, a 15 year veteran who has been involved in numerous combat operations against the FARC. "But we soldiers have the most at stake in bringing the war to an end. This is something that's very good."


John Otis is a U.S. journalist who reports from South America. He is the author of the 2010 book Law of the Jungle about Colombia's guerrilla war.