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

Despite the peace deal, new waves of deadly violence are hitting many areas of Colombia, especially those once under FARC-rebel control. And it's targeting the very people -- activists and social leaders -- for whom the peace deal was supposed to make life safer. Special correspondent Nadja Drost and videographer Bruno Federico report in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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  • 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 (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 (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:

    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:

    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 (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 (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 (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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