I had been forewarned that our driver might utter some anti FARC commentary along the two-hour journey from San Jose del Guaviare to the temporary zone of concentration at Las Colinas. Bouncing along the rutted trail, passing tiny farming settlements and long rolling vistas of grazing land for cattle, there was an apprehension present in the vehicle, perhaps due to the fact that I had groveled ignominiously and finally secured some face time with a couple of top-ranking commanders for the demobilizing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
So far, the Paisa, our driver had only muttered a few unrepeatable comments. He may not have been in agreement with the peace deal signed – finally after some stutters such as a victorious No campaign in the September referendum – but he did not seem to mind the driving work.
A coffee was served. Sweetened but good. Why shouldn’t it be, Colombia is coffee country, what had I been expecting? We had been advised to make eye contact with everyone, definitely shake hands and always be courteous. The advice was needed, each guerrillero was attentive to a fault, provoking nothing but a similar response from those of us around the rustic table, the Paisa included.
While the majority of guerrillas were grouped around the central soccer pitch, after all it was Sunday and they were enjoying a mini tournament, there must have been more back in their cambuches beneath the jungle trees. While I was permitted back into jungle where the tarp-roofed camps had been set up some weeks previously when the guerrillas had moved en masse to 26 different zones of concentration around the country, I could make out the tell-tale black plastic. Here at Las Colinas the Colombian government had promised reasonable infrastructure for when the FARC arrived in February. From what I could see, that promise was far from being fulfilled. The frames of 250 homes across 18 hectares destined for the estimated 600 FARC members here gave a skeletal image to the open field. Don’t leave your jungle refuge just yet, I thought.
Another coffee was served. Mauricio El Medico emerged alongside Ivan Ali and they came to join us at the table. In keeping with Colombian tradition, small talk was made and maintained. Chit chat covered a variety of topics including the lack of a metro in Bogotá, the success of the metro in Caracas (a hat tip to the Chavez-led Bolivarian revolution which the FARC openly admires), drains in London and then the UK’s free health service. It was idle opening chat, engaging and familiar, but all with a distinctly socially inspired theme.
Out of the corner of my eye beyond the ubiquitous laundry drying on the line, I could make out the Paisa in conversation with a guerrillera. So far so good, he was gesticulating and she was smiling.
Showing a ripple of impatience, Mauricio El Medico, ushered members of the UN away telling them to come back with photographic evidence of the flight of 60 FARC members from this camp overnight. “Smoke screens,” said El Medico. “Today it’s this, yesterday it was something else and tomorrow,” his voice tailed off. Ivan Ali spoke: “Each of the five columns here has a commanding officer and a roll call is taken at 5am every day. We would know if anyone had gone missing.”
Talk surrounds the government’s failure to meet their promises, the camp’s delay being the most obvious. I ask after the disarmament and handing over of weapons to the UN and receive a well-rehearsed response from El Medico.
“We have handed over 130 weapons nationwide.”
Clearly this is not good enough and not what the long-suffering Colombian pubic want. There is a tangible urgency across the country with the state of affairs here – paramilitary groups massing in strategic territories left by the FARC, corruption scandals abound, the natural disaster in Mocoa, coca production is up – and every foot put wrong by the waning government of President Santos provides more campaign fuel and vitriol to the opposition for the elections in 2018.
In Las Colinas, in the private section where no civilians are meant to have access, I saw AK47’s slung over supporting poles on guerrilla shelters and lent against beds, providing an incongruous contrast with newly acquired yet gaudy looking bedspreads. Presumably, during the years of conflict, dating back to 1964, the rebels never had beds, let alone a quilt to put on top.
“The civilian contractor, had to move here to the camp after he started receiving threats in the nearby town of El Capricho from paramilitaries,” said Mauricio el Medico. The engineer in question, brought in by a firm from Bogotá is overseeing the construction of the new homes with guerrillas in his employ, “they work like ants”, the sewage system and the electrical cabling. In theory, this is a temporary camp for the FARC, but one suspects that after the investment made here, no one will want to leave. I cannot say if the same can be said of the other 26 camps across Colombia, but one expects that there must be similarities.
The fear of paramilitary groups is all too real. El Medico informs me that they have had threats from nearby in El Capricho and beyond. I am told by a local journalist in the provincial capital of San Jose del Guaviare that only last week, the paramilitary group the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (AGC) had left chilling pamphlets around the town identify people who were to be “disappeared” for their roles in dealing, drugs, prostitution and robberies. I reached out to the AGC through back channels and they denied any activity in the area, so this may confirm worries that new criminal gangs are springing up and using the nomenclature of profoundly feared pre-existing groups. Or, potentially I was fed lies. In this game of journalism, it’s not an unusual occurrence.
And speaking of half-truths, while El Medico and Ivan Ali were gracious hosts almost to a fault where I was in danger of overlooking their role in this brutal conflict including kidnapping, assassinations, forced recruitment, mass displacement, massacres and left Colombia strafed with landmines to name just a few of their crimes.
It would be glib to say that Colombia for the immediate future is facing some of her most challenging moments with elections around the corner and a lack of socialization of what the peace agreement really means therefore generating a huge lack of confidence in the President and his team. Colombia is a country which has seen decades of conflict and has adapted her social, political and cultural imagery – often to her detriment with untouchable businesses owners adapting to benefit economically from so many years of unrest – to accommodate the problems.
These thoughts racing through my mind and more, it became clear, while not explicitly confirmed by the guerrilla themselves. The FARC will not leave their “temporary” zones on day 180 at the end of May and this will fuel the opposition’s vitriol towards what have been described as “FARC-run republics”. More fuel to the fire in an already dangerously polarized society.
The language employed by the opposition led by former President Alvaro Uribe is hateful and denigrating and his ample groundswell of support devour it as was on display on April 1 when the Uribe led anticorruption marches across the nation but they better resembled anti Santos, anti FARC campaign rallies. The dehumanization of those in the countryside continued.
My time with the FARC was up. The message had been leaked that a civilian was in the private sector of the FARC camp and this was wholly prohibited. There was plenty to reflect on I thought to myself as I looked for the Paisa and my ride back to San Jose del Guaviare. After all this time, he was still locked in conversation with the guerrillera, smiles all round. I could see that she handed him a bag of powdered milk with which to make his morning cafe con leche.
“What a gracious young lady,” said the Paisa. “I never expected to be so well-attended by the guerrillas,” he continued.
We smiled. One person at least, today had his eyes opened to a possible Colombia.