FARC drops its weapons, but Colombia’s deadly conflict goes on

JUDY WOODRUFF: This Sunday, in Colombia, voters
will elect a new president to replace Juan Manuel Santos, who forged a controversial
peace accord 18 months ago that ended more than 50 years of war. He struck that deal with the largest rebel
group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC. As part of the deal, FARC members have given
up their guns to pursue politics. They are still known as the FARC, but that
now means Common Alternative Revolutionary Force, and they have chosen a new symbol,
a rose. However, as special correspondent Nadja Drost
and videographer Bruno Federico report, with the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis
Reporting, the hard road to peace in Colombia is having deadly side effects. NADJA DROST: In southern Bogota, a scene in
March that was unthinkable until recently, former FARC rebels running for legislative
office. VICTORIA SANDINO, Rebel Negotiator (through
translator): We are at a historic moment, and we can’t let it go. But that victory is what we need for the peace
agreement to be fulfilled. NADJA DROST: One of the rebel negotiators
of the fraught peace deal with Colombia’s government, Victoria Sandino, has kept her
nom de guerre as she enters a new political battle. The FARC agreed to lay down arms in exchange
for being able to participate in politics. Their campaign was a test of the peace process,
and also a real-time barometer of just how ready the Colombian public is to accept them
as legal political actors. On Election Day, when the FARC made its first
appearance on the ballot, it was a historic moment, but not necessarily celebrated by
voters. LUZ MIRIAN MESA, Voter (through translator):
It’s the cost of peace, to have them there doing politics, instead of them being in the
mountains killing people. NADJA DROST: The FARC ended up getting a mere
0.35 percent of the vote, and even though the peace deal guarantees the FARC 10 seats
in Congress, Sandino was, regardless, disappointed their poor results didn’t help legitimize
that presence. VICTORIA SANDINO (through translator): Of
course, we would have liked to have gotten more votes, but we knew we were starting with
nothing. NADJA DROST: Despite their poor showing, the
FARC’s transformation from armed group to political party has been one of the most evident
results of the peace process. But many of the legislative reforms called
for by the peace accords have not materialized, obstructed by a congress largely hostile to
the deal, and which has blocked or delayed the required legislative changes. Jean Arnault is head of the U.N. Verification
Mission in Colombia, tasked with monitoring the peace deal. JEAN ARNAULT, U.N. Verification Mission: The
process was too unpopular, in a way, to allow the president that drove it to at the same
time drive that enormous effort that is investing major resources, money, efforts, into changing
the situation. NADJA DROST: The peace accords are designed
to address deep-seated problems and inequalities in the countryside and within marginalized
communities that drove and perpetuated the conflict. They aim to resolve land issues, bring rural
development, and fight narco-trafficking with promises of subsidies and training programs
for farmers to switch from growing coca, the raw material in cocaine, to alternative crops. Colombia’s high commissioner for peace, Rodrigo
Rivera, says the government has already fulfilled nearly 20 percent of its peace commitments. RODRIGO RIVERA, Colombian High Commissioner
for Peace: We are trying to go faster and better in this process. It is not an easy task, but the first year
has been dedicated almost totally to lay down the foundation of this building. NADJA DROST: Ariel Avila of the Peace and
Reconciliation Foundation says slow progress could jeopardize the possibility of peace. ARIEL AVILA, Peace and Reconciliation Foundation
(through translator): The problem is that if we don’t build rural roads for peasants,
if we don’t formalize property, if we don’t create productive projects for the people,
that population will have no other option than the illegal economy, cultivating coca
leaves to make cocaine or illegal mining. So, in 10 years, we’re going to see a new
wave of violence. NADJA DROST: But it would seem that deadly
future is now. Many areas of the country, mostly those once
under FARC control, have been hit with new waves of violence. And in a morbid irony, it’s affecting those
the peace deal was supposed to make safer. Activists and social leaders have historically
been targets in Colombia’s violence, but since the peace deal signing, they’re suffering
a surge of threats and murders. According to the United Nations, 121 were
murdered last year, double from the year before. Almost half of those killed were working on
implementing the peace accords. The numbers continue to climb, especially
in coca-growing areas, like the northern state of Cordoba, a longtime drug-trafficking corridor
used by guerrillas, paramilitary groups and drug gangs. Luis Suarez, a leader of a peasant association,
took us to his hometown of about 10,000 inhabitants, San Jose de Ure. LUIS SUAREZ, Peasants Association (through
translator): There’s been at least six assassinations reported this year. NADJA DROST: Suarez has two bodyguards assigned
to him by a government protection program, following a death threat a year ago. Suarez’s group had been organizing families
ready to abandon their coca bushes and join the government program to grow alternative
crops, when one member was warned by an armed group to stop his work. Then he was murdered. Then Suarez got a call with instructions to
drop his work. LUIS SUAREZ (through translator): They used
very heavy words: We’re going to fill you with bullets. We’re going to kill you. Then they asked me if they had made themselves
clear, and I said yes. They hung up. NADJA DROST: Violence has dropped in many
parts of Colombia following the peace process, but where the FARC once ruled, paramilitary
and drug-trafficking groups have rushed in to fill the power vacuum. LUIS SUAREZ (through translator): The FARC
dropped their arms and the conflict hasn’t ended here. That’s why we don’t call this post-conflict. We call it post-accord. NADJA DROST: Upriver from here, fighting between
armed groups over territory and vast coca crops has intensified over the last few months. Locals from some of the more isolated hamlets
have told us of almost daily combat. Violence from outlying hamlets has displaced
hundreds of people to San Jose de Ure. Many have moved in with town residents, like
Belarmino Miguel Vargas, who is living with his pregnant wife in a plastic-sheeted extension
of a home. Vargas and his brother Antonio had joined
the government’s program to substitute illicit crops. His brother was eradicating the last of his
coca plants when two men appeared in the field. BELARMINO MIGUEL VARGAS, Brother Was Killed
(through translator): One took out a revolver and shot at my brother. And my brother, down on his knees, opened
up his arms and prayed to God, gave himself up to God. They finished him off with seven bullets. NADJA DROST: Vargas says the message of the
drug gangs is clear: BELARMINO MIGUEL VARGAS (through translator):
If you eradicate, we will kill you. Nobody pulls out even one bush, because they
will die. NADJA DROST: The U.N.’s Arnault says the cartels
saw an opportunity when the FARC left. JEAN ARNAULT: Those cartels got busy very
quickly, trying to make sure that the fact — the exit of FARC from the battlefield wouldn’t
entail a decrease in the quality, quantity and timing of the coca business. NADJA DROST: If peace will inhabit land vacated
by the FARC largely depends on who will ultimately occupy them, the state or criminal groups. Following decades of absence, Rivera, the
peace commissioner, knows the state needs to replace the authority of armed groups,
and bring in roads, schools, health and rural development, but says that’s a big challenge
right now. RODRIGO RIVERA: Because in those areas, we
are still fighting, and the priority is still a national security priority. So, the experience of the people in those
areas are kind of, we don’t see any peace here. Even we have had very — very high challenges
in terms of protecting social leaders in those areas. NADJA DROST: As we were leaving the river,
peasant leader Suarez received a message on his cell phone about a community leader and
coca farmer in the neighboring state. LUIS SUAREZ (through translator): He disappeared
in Puerto Valdivia on Tuesday, and there’s the possibility he’s been killed. NADJA DROST: A couple days later, his body
was found. Later that week, another two nearby community
leaders were killed, raising the number of social leaders, like these, killed across
the country this year to at least a chilling 50. From San Jose de Ure in Cordoba, Colombia,
reporting with Bruno Federico, I’m Nadja Drost for the “PBS NewsHour.”

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