While Colombian peace negotiations stir hope that a five-decade long insurgency will come to an end — in a strange twist — they have also put the leaders of a small village on the Pacific Coast in peril.
Less than two years ago, when I did my thesis research on this Afro-Colombian village or comunidad negra , it seemed a haven from the violence and drug trafficking that had engulfed the region. Its elected leaders and a cadre of activists had mobilized the community to eradicate coca, the plant used to make cocaine. They had worked to restore the community’s social ties and secure economic opportunities for the villagers. Their hope was palpable, if marred by the extreme poverty that families once again found themselves in after forswearing income from coca. The replacement crop, cacao or cocoa, was not yet generating a profit.
About a month ago, two of the most influential village leaders were forced to flee to Bogotá when their lives were threatened by a commander of the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC). The names of the village and the leaders are not revealed for their safety.
What makes this development bizarre is its link to the current peace negotiations between the FARC and the Colombian state. The FARC commander told the community leaders that they were being targeted because of a report connected to the community that was mentioned during the peace talks. The village leaders don’t know anything about a report and can’t make sense of the reasoning behind the threat. They now live under government protection hundreds of miles from home, unsure when they will be able to return.
At one time, the FARC was a guerilla force so powerful it seemed capable of toppling the government in the name of a Marxist state. Today, a half-century since its founding, the FARC is better known for kidnappings and its role in the drug trade than defending the rights of the poor.
That the peace talks are triggering threats against a community that has worked hard to extricate itself from violence and the drug trade seems to bode ill for a resolution to the civil war. Still, the negotiations may yet yield results. The FARC’s leadership has been decimated in the past few years by a U.S.-backed counterinsurgency, and Colombian President Manuel Santos appears willing to compromise. But the FARC’s demands include substantial socioeconomic change and, in particular, land reform to redistribute the lopsided nature of land ownership, which the elite would fervently resist. Yet, in this instance, the FARC is right.
Not only is socioeconomic reform the ethical course, but without it, the FARC’s demilitarization will have little impact on crime and violence. After all, gangs and narco-traffickers are much more dangerous to ordinary citizens than the guerrillas, who generally pose a greater threat to state security forces. Young people are motivated to join criminal groups largely because they lack other opportunities and crave social status. Until there is better schooling, a more equal distribution of land, and economic development in Colombia’s poorest regions, criminal organizations will continue to attract youth. Whether or not the FARC will continue to be one of them is yet to be seen.
In the meantime, members of a community under threat struggle to protect their hard-won gains and their children’s chance for a better life.
Sarah Krupp is a grad student associated with the Center for Latin American Studies. See the CLAS Blog for related posts.