2:29am

Wed September 26, 2012
Latin America

After 48 Years Of War, Colombians Plan Peace Talks

Originally published on Wed September 26, 2012 9:36 am

After fighting for power for nearly 50 years, a Colombian rebel group is now opting to negotiate a peace deal with President Juan Manuel Santos' government and bring the country's slow-burning but brutal conflict to an end.

Most of Colombia's 47 million people are supportive of talks, which begin soon in Oslo, Norway, before moving to Havana.

Santos' recent announcement that his government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, would engage in talks also has the support of the United States, which has provided $9 billion in mostly military aid since 2000 to help Colombia battle the rebels and drug-trafficking groups.

But in the heartland of the FARC — a rugged, mountainous swath in southern Tolima state where the insurgency was born in 1964 — many people remain wary. For too many years, war is all they have known, and previous pledges of peace talks have always come up empty.

"For us, it's unclear what can happen," says Edward Fernando Peralta, a town official in the county seat of Planadas, who thinks the FARC may use the talks to buy time from an army offensive. "They were born here, and so we worry whether doing this allows them to take flight again."

One Of The World's Oldest Guerrilla Wars

Amid the sparsely populated coffee, cattle and bean farms of Tolima, guerrillas, hired pistoleros, bandits of all stripes and the army clashed years before Fidel Castro and his bearded guerrillas took power in Cuba in 1959.

Jose Rodriguez was one of those fighters and now runs a modest corner store in Planadas. One of his hobbies is singing folk songs about the conflict he experienced.

During an interview, the 73-year-old goes into a back room of his store, picks up a guitar and starts to sing: "Let me tell you the story, of a people who've been crushed, of towns burned down several times, the last time burned down."

The lyrics don't just reflect what he saw in the mid-1950s, as the first communist guerrillas rose up in a fight over land, but what's been going on in the decades since — a violent internal conflict, one of the world's oldest and the only guerrilla war in Latin America.

Rodriguez says he is not optimistic about a quick end to the fighting.

"This is too hard, I'm seeing this as too hard to fix," Rodriguez says. "There is so much violence in Colombia, more than 50 years of it."

Everyone seems to agree on that — from Santos, the Colombian president, to Rodrigo Londoño, or Timochenko, supreme commander of the FARC.

"It's time to march for peace," Timochenko recently said in a video the FARC released. He spoke about the need for constructing a new country, ending the violence and sidelining violent armed groups.

A Different Outcome This Time?

The talks will be the fourth between the government and the rebels since the 1980s.

All ended in acrimony, the most bitter a series of negotiations that concluded in 2002. Those talks, which had begun in 1999, took place in a vast region of cattle farms and jungles that the government had demilitarized for the rebels in Caqueta state.

The president at the time, Andres Pastrana, accused the FARC of using the zone ceded to them to stockpile weapons and plan offensives while giving short shrift to negotiations.

Both sides now believe these talks may be different.

The agreed-upon, five-point agenda — which includes discussing agrarian reform and incorporating rebels into society — is not unrealistic. And the FARC is weaker, with about 8,000 armed fighters, half of what it had a decade ago, a hard reality for the guerrillas. Analysts say this makes the group more open to negotiating.

Santos has also stressed to the Colombian people that the guerrillas are not getting a demilitarized zone as they did in the past and that the Colombian military will continue to battle them, giving them little chance to regroup.

"I have the conviction that we have a real opportunity to definitively end the internal armed conflict," the president told his countrymen in a recent speech. "It's a difficult road, no doubt very difficult, but it is a road that we have to explore. Any responsible leader knows that you cannot pass up a possibility like this one to end the conflict."

In Tolima, Army Col. Jairo Leguizamon, who commands a mobile brigade of counterinsurgency troops, says his forces are constantly hitting guerrilla bands in the region. And he says the villagers in the region know full well about the stepped-up military presence.

"We're in places we never would have been six or seven years ago, where it would've been unimaginable to be," Leguizamon says. "And the people like that, the people like that their army can be everywhere."

War 'Is Normal For Us'

Still, as Leguizamon acknowledges, the guerrillas fight back and they also launch attacks. On a recent day, they paid a boy to throw a grenade at a police officer. Days later, rebels were believed to have detonated a bomb outside a small store.

That has some locals worried whether the rebels, so accustomed to waging war, are really ready to make peace.

"The people are extremely tired because they've been affected psychologically and economically, and they've lost loved ones," says Dino Aldan Tovar, a local historian in Planadas. "Though people have become used to this, they are worried, they cannot go into the countryside."

Radio announcer Rider Rojas, who covers the news in the region, says the rebels still extort from store owners, recruit children into their ranks and stage small-scale acts of violence.

"We've gotten used to it," he says. "It's sad to say that this is normal for us, to live in the midst of a conflict."

Rojas says even his work at the radio station is affected. He knows he cannot air news that the guerrillas wouldn't like, or even interview high army officials.

"There are things we cannot say because it's not convenient for them," he explains, referring to the rebels.

Tentative Hope In Birthplace Of Rebels

Those who are most wary live in the canyons heading up to Marquetalia — a collection of farms where a ragtag group of peasants fighting for land came together under the leadership of Pedro Antonio Marin to become the FARC.

It is an area that is, in many ways, perfect for guerrilla warfare — mountainous, hard to penetrate, full of rivers and small farms. Marin, who took the nom de guerre Manuel Marulanda and commanded the FARC until his death in 2008, saw the region for what it was.

Now, much as it was like in the early 1960s, the best way to get to Marquetalia is by mule train, along narrow paths that curve this way and that over deep canyons. A false step — by either man or beast — can mean a 1,000-foot plunge into oblivion.

At the top of one mountain the wind howls past Nohemi Caicedo's house. Her home has stunning views and is a perfect lookout post.

The army certainly thought so years back, using the spot for a base. The evidence is still there: deep protective trenches dug by soldiers all around the house where Caicedo now lives with her children.

Local lore also holds that it was on this mountain where the FARC first formed.

"There was combat here," Caicedo says, "and many people died."

Caicedo is all smiles as she shows visitors her property and the startlingly beautiful views of a deep green valley.

But then, suddenly, she begins to cry and struggles to explain that she had an 18-year-old son who was forcibly recruited by the FARC. In January, in a firefight with the army, he was killed.

So she says she'd like to give peace a chance, for the sake of her other children.

"There's been so much violence, so much blood spilled. It's time," she says. "I hope it happens because there's been so much war."

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