ALTOS DE LA FLORIDA, Colombia — They killed him on this very road, Liney Maria recalls, pointing to the dusty, unpaved trail that passes her home and continues a quarter mile farther up the mountain. He was shot in broad daylight, right on the main avenue of the barrio deinvasión, as informal settlements like this one are called. His death was the third or fourth targeted killing in July; she lost count. Nor does Maria remember meeting the victim very often in life. But the 37-year-old mother is well-acquainted with the fear these murders are meant to instill.
“The things that are happening here, these deaths,” she said, “are causing a lot of concern in the neighborhood.” Families close to the victims have fled, fearing they could be next. The warnings, like the gunshots, are heard loud and clear.
Maria runs a bakery out of her home, raises her three children, and tries not to think about the troubles outside the padlocked metal door that secures her compound. Built with concrete bricks and lit with single dangling lightbulbs in each of its four rooms, hers is among the more permanent buildings in Altos de la Florida. This invasión and a half-dozen other informal settlements line the hills surrounding the city of Soacha. Like 40 percent of the population here, Maria came to Altos after being displaced in Colombia’s half-century-old internal war. She fled her rural home on the coast for the promise of the city — downtown Bogotá sits just 12 miles from Altos.
In the 20 years since she arrived, it has often felt like the tree that overlooks the invasión — the árbol de amor, or “tree of love” — is the only thing rooted on solid ground. Soacha and its environs have swelled from a quarter-million people to an estimated 1 million inhabitants as internally displaced Colombians have arrived. Altos, a neighborhood of 2,500, has been dominated in turn by nearly every armed actor in the country’s recent history — guerrillas, paramilitaries, and countless criminal bands. The only ones who have never controlled Altos are the police.
On Wednesday night, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos proclaimed his country’s conflict “over.” The government has finalized a peace deal with the largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), for the guerrillas to lay down their arms, give up their drug trade, and reintegrate into civilian life. Negotiated over four years in Havana, Cuba, the agreement must now be ratified in a nonbinding national plebiscite and in Congress, where it faces political opposition. Most expect it to go ahead; a U.N. mission is already on the ground to monitor implementation.
But the jubilation 12 miles away in Bogotá — where banners proclaiming “Sí, a la Paz!” (“Yes, to peace!”) line the main roads — seems very far from Altos, which is still contested ground. There are at least three armed groups fighting to control the invasión’s two unpaved main streets, its drug trafficking corridors, and the recruitment of disaffected local boys and girls as young as 10. If those groups have names, no one knows them; if they have an ideology, they’ve haven’t articulated it. All anyone here knows is that when they kill, like they did on that main road, it means there’s a new tussle to run the neighborhood.
No one expects the peace deal to change anything in Altos — or the many more places like it across Colombia. Of course, in many areas, the agreement could bring some relief. For decades, the FARC has dominated the drug trade and controlled swaths of territory; it has forcibly recruited children, seized illegal mines, and carried out all manner of terrorist attacks. But Colombia’s conflict has a multitude of actors, and the FARC is just one. Even if the guerrillas disband quickly and quietly, their illicit economy — and the bloodshed it generates — is too lucrative and tempting to disappear anytime soon.
The reason is on display in neighborhoods like this one, with no water, no public services, and no formal economy. What Altos has is turf — space with no rule of law, ample cheap recruits, and a thriving drug trafficking network. As the FARC lays down its guns and gives up the illegal narcotics trade, new and old armed organizations are scrambling to take over forfeited ground. Unlike the Marxist guerrillas, the majority of these groups have no clear political aims. They prefer buying allegiance over attacking the state militarily, as the FARC has done since 1964. They would rather lurk on the margins and profit from the spaces like Altos that are easy to forget in Bogotá. Most residents of the capital city have never been to Soacha, let alone its invasións.
“This may be the future of crime in Colombia,” said Adam Isacson, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). “These groups are hard to fight because they don’t want to fight. They would much rather bribe and penetrate.”
The government has promised to shift resources to fight these other armed groups, now that it isn’t targeting the FARC. But as Colombia’s leaders declare peace and move on, building a new national image and economy, the risk is that the ongoing violence sinks into invisibility, where it will grow sharper and more entrenched — forgotten to all but those who live its daily reality.
Dag Nylander, the Norwegian special envoy to the peace process; Ivan Marquez, the chief negotiator for the FARC; Bruno Rodriguez, the Cuban foreign minister; and Humberto de la Calle, the chief negotiator for the Colombian government, celebrate after the signing of the peace deal. (Photo by YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images)
The Promise of Peace
There is a story of successful peace in Colombia, and it’s written in places like Olgar Duque’s country home, in the rural mountains of San Carlos municipality 250 miles from Soacha. For years, the lush crops of coffee, cacao, and citrus trees here withered into disarray, as 80 percent of the population fled and armed groups patrolled the dirt highway. Today, nearly all the displaced have returned, and the countryside is productive again. “The tranquility we have now, I wouldn’t trade for anything,” Duque said over a breakfast of scrambled eggs, laid by chickens raised on his farm.
At 34, Duque wears the high leather boots and cane-fiber hat typical of farmers here. But it’s only recently that he had the luxury of agriculture. When he turned 18, FARC guerrillas recruited him to join, as all his high school friends had done; Duque signed up for a two-year military service instead. By the time he finished, anti-FARC paramilitaries had swept through San Carlos. The paramilitaries, begun as local defense corps meant to chase out guerrillas, had quickly turned to the same violent tactics of the enemy — killing, disappearing, and displacing the civilian community. Duque helped his parents flee. “They couldn’t take anything with them, only the clothes on their back,” he recalls now. The family moved to Santiago de Cali, Colombia’s third-largest city, and scrambled together a living with odd jobs.
By the late 2000s, Colombia’s military had retaken control of much of San Carlos, and former residents like Duque started to trickle back. He found his home near-collapse and the fields gone fallow; he devoted back-breaking hours trying to rebuild. Then, three years ago, Duque got word that he would benefit from a government program meant to help displaced victims return. The Land Restitution Unit (URT) funded Duque’s expansion from coffee into egg and dairy production. “We are where we were before, or maybe even a little better,” he said.
San Carlos is touted by the government as an example of what is possible after a peace deal is signed. The municipality’s population has almost recovered to prewar levels, and the restitution program has helped more than 300 families. The formula that worked here is roughly the same one being negotiated in Havana: Armed actors give way to police; the displaced return home; and state institutions pour in to help.
“If they sign the peace deal, what you’re seeing here in San Carlos will take place in areas of the country where, at the moment, it is not possible” because of armed groups, including the FARC, said Ricardo Sabogal Urrego, URT’s director.
Residents of San Carlos gather for an event sponsored by the Colombian Land Restitution Unit. (Photo by ELIZABETH DICKINSON)
Sabogal says the next success story could come from Colombia’s most complicated departments (similar to U.S. states) — Meta, Cauca, Nariño — which are also FARC strongholds. If the peace deal is ratified, analysts expect the majority of FARC battalions to disarm. The guerrillas’ military structure will give way to a political party, with the right to participate in elections and some guaranteed seats in Congress. Most members will get amnesty if they speak before a truth commission, and maximum sentences are capped at 20 years.
So alluring are the terms that other armed groups are queuing up for negotiations. The largest of these is the National Liberation Army (ELN), which, at several thousand fighters, is the only other major leftist guerrilla movement with a clear ideology and military structure. The group’s leadership has said it wants talks, though it has shown little willingness to halt activities like kidnapping, which the government insists would be a precondition.
But with the FARC agreeing to a historic peace deal, the ELN may have more to gain by holding onto its guns. It and a range of other nonstate groups are now vying for control of former FARC dominions.
“What happens when you alter the balance of power where organized crime is very strong? When you take out whoever was in charge, there’s a free-for-all to determine who the next [one in charge] will be,” said Isacson of WOLA. “You can see that competition happening where the FARC [was] the big dog before.”
An array of criminal bands — known colloquially as the Bacrim — is now pushing toward guerrilla strongholds, murdering and displacing civilians along the way. Just days before the peace agreement was finalized, María Emilsen Angulo Guevara, the mayor of Tumaco, a municipality with a long guerrilla presence, wrote to President Santos in a plea for help combating a new armed group, “which aspires to continue the extortions and drug trafficking.” Absent help from Bogotá, Emilsen described a “cruel, bleak outlook” for her town.
A soldier stands next to packages of cocaine seized from the Clan de Usuga during a press conference at a military base in Chocó. (Photo by LUIS ROBAYO/AFP/Getty Images)
The Invisible War
Most Bacrim groups emerged from Colombia’s last attempt to negotiate a measure of peace. In 2003, paramilitary groups agreed to demobilize in exchange for limited immunity. The leaders of the so-called United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) were jailed, and many combatants demobilized. But bits of their lower-tiered networks focused on drug trafficking and illegal mining remained intact. In the lawless pockets of this resource-wealthy country, those armed networks stripped away their political ideologies and doubled down on business.
Today, large groups with names such as the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (also called Clan Úsuga or Clan del Golfo), the Rastrojos, and the Popular Liberation Army (EPL) boast several thousands of members and hold territorial control over key trafficking corridors. Others, like the groups in Altos, are mere bit players in an illicit organized crime network that few can disentangle.
Bacrim groups have been present in roughly 10 percent of Colombia’s municipalities since 2009. Today, they see growth opportunities in the FARC peace talks — for one, the chance to claim pieces of the illicit economy that the guerrillas have long controlled.
Of prime interest are drug trafficking corridors. The FARC has long been one of the largest movers of cocaine through Colombia. Along the country’s nearly 1,400-mile border with Venezuela, rivalries between armed actors have escalated, said Yadira Galeano, the head of the Norwegian Refugee Council’s office in the border town of Cúcuta. “With the conversations in Havana, it has reconfigured the conflict,” she said.
Her office tries to keep tabs on who runs what territory. These days, control is so fluid it’s impossible. “The routes that were controlled by the FARC have started to be co-opted by other groups,” Galeano said. “What they say is that the FARC is selling their routes to all these [Bacrim] groups.”
That may not be all the guerrillas are selling. Weapons, too, may be slipping onto the black market, said Eduardo Álvarez Vanegas, the coordinator for the study of conflict dynamics and peace talks at the Bogotá-based Ideas for Peace Foundation (FIP). The FARC is estimated to hold some 45,000 arms, including 20,000 large munitions. At least some combatants may prefer to sell their best pieces and give up rusted guns through the official demilitarization process, meant to take place in the first 180 days of the agreement.
And drugs? Fumigation has slowed for half a decade and was formally halted last year. Cultivation of coca — the raw material of cocaine — rose 39 percent in 2015, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. The FARC controlled 70 percent of those crops in the past, and competition to replace the group is fierce. “Everything is dominion and control,” said Rev. Francesco Bortignon, a Catholic missionary priest who has lived and worked along the border with Venezuela for 37 years. “When you’re producing so much, it has to move.”
But perhaps the most urgent hustle in any post-conflict state may be for bodies. Critics of the agreement say other groups are already trying to poach the best, most knowledgeable FARC combatants for their own operations. “There are going to be members of FARC who change to ELN. Others will be recruited to other groups such as the Clan del Golfo,” said Iván Duque, an opposition senator who fears the agreement will be the “midwife of new forms of violence” for years to come.
One possible source of leakage in the demobilization process would come from the thousands of urban militiamen the FARC relies upon to provide support. Some are armed; others have innocuous tasks such as buying supplies. Although the guerrillas have promised to demobilize the militias, many are outside the organization’s disciplined military hierarchy and may not comply. Even among the rank and file, some FARC members will inevitably slip back into crime. A successful demobilization program here will be expected to have a reincidence rate of between 25 and 35 percent, said Sergio Guarín, the coordinator for post-conflict affairs and peace building at FIP. With the FARC’s estimated 7,500 members and 10,000 militia operatives, that could mean thousands of dropouts.
Then there are the FARC battalions that don’t comply. The organization’s “First Front,” which infamously held politician Ingrid Betancourt hostage for more than six years, said this summer that it would continue an armed struggle against the state. Though just 200 fighters strong, the First Front is a giant in the drug trade and has become one of the group’s largest revenue generators.
This isn’t the way the government tells it. Since peace talks began in Havana, Colombia appears quieter than ever. In 2015, homicides, kidnappings, and large-scale acts of terrorism — hallmarks of the conflict in the past — dropped to their lowest levels since 2007, according to Defense Ministry statistics. If a deal is signed, Colombia’s security forces hope they could focus all their strength on organized crime. “We would be left only with the fight against the Bacrim, which is a better situation,” said Victor Bautista, the Foreign Ministry official responsible for border issues, including the illicit economy.
Yet, by the Defense Ministry’s own analysis, many Bacrim aren’t just criminal gangs anymore. On April 22, the ministry issued Directive 15, transferring the fight from the police to the military because, in many cases, Bacrim groups “meet the standards of an organized armed group,” according to the document.
Human rights groups say Directive 15 effectively admits that the Bacrim are party to the armed conflict. Other institutions of the state are now acting on the same assumption. Victims of Bacrim groups are now eligible for government reparations just as those of the FARC are. Child recruits who leave Bacrim groups are able to participate in the same reintegration program.
All the levers of the state seem to be saying that the closer to peace Colombia has gotten, the more powerful the criminal bands have become. “We are in a transition in the armed conflict. One armed group that has always had its dominion today is reducing its actions because of the peace process,” said one human rights lawyer working with the government, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to speak to the press. “That means that other groups are gaining force.”
Even in quiet San Carlos, there are whispers of trouble. At a recent government colloquium in the town center, citizens spoke of small-time molestations. One had received phone calls from an unknown person demanding money — an attempt at extortion. Several coffee farmers said armed individuals had stopped their trucks on the highway, stealing the crops inside.
“We are afraid,” said Edwin Lopez, a 31-year-old coffee farmer in San Carlos, whose beans were looted en route to market last November. “In order for Colombia to advance peace, it’s not just what they sign in Havana but with everyone.”
Residents of Altos de la Florida who were previously displaced by violence. (Photo by LUIS ACOSTA/AFP/Getty Images)
This is the pitch Lyda Becerra has seen work time and time again in Altos: You’ve just been displaced from your home, and you’re new here; you’re not studying; you’re traumatized by the conflict. Come with us and you’ll feel better, the armed groups say. You can sell drugs, use them, or why not both?
“These spaces are very easy to convince children and youth to consume,” Becerra said from the Soacha office where she leads Kairós, a local nonprofit. The handful of teenage boys who scurry about offering coffee to guests are former drug-addicted youth from the invasións.
Altos is just one of the hundreds of neighborhoods across this country that are ripe for armed groups. Young men wander aimlessly amid the scattered shacks and cluster in a few dilapidated pubs. Officially, unemployment is around 22 percent, but some 70 percent of the population lives on the informal economy. The “ni ni generation” — ni escuela ni trabajo (neither school nor work) — makes for perfect recruits. Starting from as young as 10, Bacrim groups have today overtaken the FARC and ELN as the largest recruiters of children. Recently, some groups have also moved into the business of child prostitution, according to the government ombudsman.
Once in the ranks of an organization, killing is cheap and careless. Maybe someone refused to let their son join; maybe someone complained to the police, some of whom are on the armed groups’ payrolls, according to Becerra. None of the five targeted killings that took place in Altos in the month leading up to Foreign Policy’s visit on Aug. 2 was reported in the newspapers or is likely to show up in homicide statistics.
A man stands outside in Altos de la Florida, where five targeted killings took place this July. (Photo by ELIZABETH DICKINSON)
Instead, the whispers of trouble are visible on the margins of the conflict. Across Colombia, there were roughly five times more cases of extortion in 2015, at 5,480, compared with 2007, Defense Ministry statistics show. Internal displacement is down, but 1,500 people still flee their homes every month, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council. That may accelerate if Bacrim groups and the ELN push into former FARC areas.
“[Bacrim-style groups] are already responsible for almost 50 percent of human rights violations, and that will further increase,” said Martin Gottwald, the U.N. refugee agency’s country representative for Colombia. “Their modus operandi is different. It’s not that they’re arriving with big operations and armies and flags; they are actually operating in an invisible manner.”
The Bacrim are at times so indecipherable that even residents under their dominion struggle to understand what’s happening. In 2015, for example, targeted killings of human rights activists rose 13 percent from 2014. Of the 63 total deaths, 51 were attributed to “unknown” actors. Analysts say many of those killed ran up against the economic interests of organized armed groups, for example, by advocating for indigenous land rights or community security.
Their error was simple: They got in the way.
A woman walks up a dirt road in Soacha. (Photo by ELIZABETH DICKINSON)
A Failure to Step In
As she walked down Altos’s main dirt road recounting the latest murder, Liney Maria spoke quickly. She wanted to excuse herself, she explained: The water truck was coming. If she missed it, another 20 days might pass before it returned. “I have to be ready,” she said as she slipped back home.
The residents here have a joke to explain their lack and poor quality of services. Bogotá’s neighborhoods are divided into six “strata” based on their wealth; higher strata pay more for utilities to help subsidize the lower ranks. Altos, they say, pays strata six (the highest) prices while on the strata map it doesn’t even exist. Maria’s barrel of water would cost 1,800 pesos (63 cents) — nearly three times the price someone with running water in the lowest income strata would pay.
Even if the armed groups here fade away, the second half of Colombia’s peace formula may be out of reach: The state is meant to step up. Much has to be done before the process can even begin. The government faces significant political opposition and divided public opinion over the deal — obstacles that could derail implementation or at least slow down passage of the tax reform needed to fund it. Plus, in the vast majority of areas where the conflict with the FARC and other armed groups persists, it’s not that the government was chased out; it never existed.
Soacha should be a low-hanging fruit. If you left the presidential palace, Casa de Nariño, before morning traffic, Altos would be just a 30-minute drive away. And yet, since it first mushroomed with newly displaced arrivals in the 1990s, no administration has bothered to provide even the most basic public goods, let alone security.
“Altos is a place where the municipality only goes when there is an inauguration or an opening of a new school,” Becerra said. “It’s an act of show.”
How much farther away are the places most affected by this country’s ongoing conflict — the far-flung corners of the impoverished Pacific coast where Maria grew up, the Amazon jungle where armed groups expel indigenous people from their lands, or the chaotic border region where cocaine slips into a transnational pipeline to Europe and the United States. There is Chocó, a neglected coastal department, where more than 6,000 mostly Afro-indigenous people fled in May amid fighting between armed groups. Or Catatumbo, near the Venezuelan border, where two Bacrim groups are fighting to control contraband trade and one in five inhabitants is a victim of armed conflict.
One analysis of the government’s thinking is realism: “They know that there are certain areas where it will be very difficult to implement” the peace agreement, said Álvarez, of the Bogotá-based FIP. “But there are other zones where it can work.”
Yet if the “start somewhere” logic finds footing in places like San Carlos, it stumbles on the unpaved roads of so many places elsewhere, where residents wonder if the state will ever remember — once it has proclaimed peace — to come back for them.
Top photo credit: RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images
Elizabeth Dickinson is a Gulf-based member of the journalism collective Deca.
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