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Inside Colombia’s jungles, how FARC rebels are preparing for peace

After decades of evading the Colombian military, FARC rebels are emerging from the jungle. Special correspondents Nadja Drost and Bruno Federico offer an exclusive look at the FARC perspective amid peace talks to end the world's longest-running conflict.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But, first, we return to Latin America, and efforts to end the world's longest-running conflict, in Colombia.

    In Havana today, Secretary of State John Kerry met with negotiators ahead of a Wednesday deadline for Colombia's peace talks. It included a meeting with the main rebel faction, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

    Last month, I sat down with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to discuss his peace initiative.

    Tonight, the view from the rebel side, in Putumayo, deep in Colombia's south.

    Special correspondents Bruno Federico and Nadja Drost recently traveled there for this exclusive report before the Colombian government banned reporters from events like what you're about to see.

    The story is narrated by Ms. Drost.

  • NADJA DROST:

    Beyond the end of the road, the Caqueta River winds deep into Putumayo. There's endless jungle and the FARC.

    After decades of cloaking their movements to evade the military, these rebels are emerging from the jungle. It's for no small reason: In light of an expected peace deal, the government of President Juan Manuel Santos has pulled back its forces temporarily from the area to allow FARC commanders in Havana to travel here to talk peace directly with their troops.

  • “RAMIRO,” Commander, FARC (through interpreter):

    We had the idea to do this out of a necessity, so that people, the guerrilla and our communities, can learn what is happening, so that people have a hand in the peace process.

  • NADJA DROST:

    Hundreds of guerrillas gather for a landmark event on the road towards peace. The FARC have also invited the people they have lived among for decades, and us, the only foreign TV crew, to witness the biggest gathering of rebels and civilians in over a decade.

    We have been following units of the FARC over the last year, traveling to their camps camouflaged in the jungle. Now it's the first time seeing them outside of their clandestine life. After years of discreetly moving through villages, it's a rare and exceptional sight to see dozens of them walking in town alongside civilians, as everyone prepares for the events.

  • WOMAN (through interpreter):

    It's important because it might help clarify doubts that many people have.

  • NADJA DROST:

    It's no wonder people have doubts; 50 years of conflict have killed nearly a quarter-million people, and displaced some six million. Another 40,000 are the disappeared.

    Crimes have been committed by all parties: guerrilla groups, government forces, and right-wing paramilitary groups who often acted as a proxy for the state. The FARC started out in the 1960s as small groups of armed peasants defending the rights of the poor. It became a Marxist insurgency that later bolstered its forces using the drug trade, kidnappings and extortion to finance its their fight.

    Since 2000, the Colombian military, backed by billions of U.S. dollars, has decimated the FARC, and their ranks have dropped to an estimated 7,000 rebels today. It was a weakened, but undefeated FARC that came to the negotiating table.

    Joaquin Gomez, the nom de guerre for the commander of the FARC's powerful southern bloc, got safe passage from Havana to visit home. Alexandra Narino, also an alias, has returned with him.

    A Dutch woman famous for being a foreign rebel, she's wanted in the U.S. for her role in the kidnapping of three American military contractors in 2003. They're big names here, and across Colombia, but rarely have they shown their faces in the territory they call home.

    People gather to ask the FARC if what they hear about the peace process is true.

  • MAN (through interpreter):

    Will there really be a peace agreement signed by March 23?

    "JOAQUIN GOMEZ," Commander, Southern Bloc, FARC (through interpreter): This is not possible. It's not possible because the government has to fulfill a series of commitments that, until now, it hasn't.

  • NADJA DROST:

    Despite more than three years of negotiations, Gomez says there are many sticking points that have yet to be resolved, like how the FARC would disarm and concentrate their troops in rural areas, and one of them is a key demand by the FARC:

  • “JOAQUIN GOMEZ” (through interpreter):

    That paramilitarism ends as a state policy. That's it, that they get rid of it. It's the only obstacle that exists, because, while it exists, it's like walking with one foot in the grave.

  • NADJA DROST:

    Gomez and other rebels worry that if the FARC become a purely political organization, they will meet the same fate as thousands of activists, social and political leaders who have been assassinated.

    If the FARC are to disarm, Gomez says the state should stop using its weapons as a tool of political repression.

  • “JOAQUIN GOMEZ” (through interpreter):

    That would mean that weapons of the state aren't used in assassinations of political leaders, trade unionists, or leftists. And our weapons would be kept at a distance from us. We propose that a third country hold on to them.

  • NADJA DROST:

    While the presence of the guerrilla is feared in various regions, the vacuum of their absence worries many locals.

  • LILIANA, Shopkeeper (through interpreter):

    At the point of signing a peace agreement, which we support, we will feel very worried, because, with living in a conflict zone, paramilitaries may come in and disappear us, one by one, or kill us, and who will protect us? With the FARC here, one feels a security that that won't happen.

  • “JOAQUIN GOMEZ” (through interpreter):

    What is being sought is reconciliation., not impunity, but reconciliation.

  • NADJA DROST:

    Commander Joaquin Gomez faces narco-trafficking charges in the U.S. and a $2.5 million reward for his capture. In Colombia, he's wanted for the kidnapping and assassination of a governor.

  • “JOAQUIN GOMEZ” (through interpreter):

    There has to be a general amnesty, except for crimes against humanity. And there has to be a form of justice that isn't punitive, but restorative.

  • NADJA DROST:

    A peace agreement will call all parties to the conflict, the FARC, as much as members of the state and military, to face a special justice system that offers alternative sentences. Most of the FARC's rank-and-file will receive amnesties, and for when they do, some are being trained to use new tools for political communication.

  • “BORIS,” Instructor, FARC (through interpreter):

    We're preparing ourselves here for political battle, to get ready for a new environment. We will pick up cameras and drop our arms.

  • NADJA DROST:

    Welcoming the prospect of peace, but wary of the uncertainties to come.

    "ALEXANDRA NARINO," Delegate to Peace Talks, FARC (through interpreter): When a peace accord is signed, that doesn't mean that peace starts. The silencing of weapons isn't peace. I think it's afterwards that the difficult part starts. And the most interesting part, the construction of peace with social justice, I want to be there.

  • NADJA DROST:

    For tonight, an air of optimism and hope takes over, as one step of many is taken on the long and difficult road to peace.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," reporting with Bruno Federico, I'm Nadja Drost in Putumayo, Colombia.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Extraordinary reporting.

    And later this week, we will look at how Colombia's massive cocaine trade could be affected by a peace agreement.

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