MEDELLIN, Colombia — “There is conflict in every single country in the world,” a 16-year-old former combatant from the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC, rebel group said at a rehabilitation center for demobilized child soldiers here in Colombia’s third-largest city.
Yet when it was pointed out that there was no conflict in Australia and other countries, the boy looked surprised. In fact, numerous former child soldiers of the FARC at the center seemed shocked that other people had not grown up amid war and bullets. For nearly two generations, many children in Colombia have endured an environment shaped around fighting, with some bearing bullet wounds and scars from shrapnel and many having joined the FARC or smaller armed groups at 13 or 14 years old.
Although the long-running conflict in Colombia — about 50 years — may be finally winding down, Colombia’s children and adults will be dealing for the rest of their lives with the lingering effects of the war, which pitted the FARC against the various governments across decades. Most of the conflict has taken place beyond the capital, in regional capitals and the countryside.
Since the peace talks between the current government of Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC began in Havana in November 2012, the parties have agreed on three main topics so far: clearing land mines from the country, releasing child soldiers and creating a commission for “clarifying and making known the truth about what happened in the conflict.”
The FARC has also agreed to an indefinite cease-fire and possible monitoring by the United Nations in the de-escalation of fighting by both sides. (The UN has kept the conflict at arm’s length for the most part but is now participating in the peace talks, with the recent appointment of Jean Arnault of France as a delegate.)
According to Colombia’s National Center for Historical Memory, more than 220,000 people have been killed in the armed conflict. In 2006, research found that women suffered the most casualties from the war, with a woman dying daily from the violence. Afro, indigenous and farming women, the poorest members of society, have been the ones most directly affected by the conflict.
After nearly a year of conducting cultural anthropology fieldwork in Colombia, including dozens of interviews held in villages and cities throughout the country, the resonating message I heard was that the violence would never end. Pessimism prevails.
Part of the negativity stems from the roots of the civil war — entrenched income inequality — which still exist: as of 2010, Colombia’s richest 10 percent earned 46 percent of the country’s income, and nearly 50 percent of the people lived below the poverty line. Negotiators in the peace talks have signed accords on rural development and political participation for the opposition, but addressing income inequality does not seem to be a big priority right now. (Ending coca production in return for land reform and government investment in other livelihoods is also being negotiated.)
The decades of violence have left much of the population shattered, though improvements in everyday life have occurred and the levels of violence are down. Nevertheless, the FARC still has about 7,000 members and 15,000 “support personnel,” said Colombia Peace, a blog sponsored by the Washington Office on Latin America, an advocacy group for human rights in the region.
Diana Burbano, a teacher who grew up in a small town near Villavicencio, just southeast of Bogotá, the capital, said that 15 years ago, no one could travel from her hometown to the capital because of the risk of kidnapping by the FARC for extortion or other purposes. Safe traveling is now possible.
Throughout towns and villages, it is the FARC that people talk about the most. One ex-guerrilla who lived in Villavicencio said he was in the jungle with the FARC for 11 years; the guerrillas often recruited people into their ranks by going into their homes and forcing them to join. If people said no, they were killed. He, too, has no faith in the FARC’s ending its fighting. (He was recruited into the FARC because he thought they were going to pay him.)
Fear of the FARC remains palpable in regions where the group holds sway, primarily in areas where the coca plant, the source of cocaine, is grown. A young woman in an interview in Popayán, a mountainous provincial capital in Cauca, refused to give her name out of concern that the FARC would kill her for speaking against it.
The FARC has been responsible for widespread abuses since its emergence in 1964 in the countryside to promote a society based on agrarian reform and other Marxist policies; documentation of FARC’s crimes over the decades include murders, disappearances, torture, sexual violence, forced displacement, the recruitment of children, extortion and death threats. The ELN (Ejercito de Liberación Nacional), a smaller rebel group, has been responsible for similar abuses, Human Rights Watch has said.
Although incidences of kidnapping have declined in recent years, they remain rampant. Marc Gonsalves, an American contractor who was kidnapped in 2003 for five and a half years by the FARC, said in an interview with me in his home in the United States that he had little hope that the FARC would stop its criminality.
“I don’t think that the FARC have any will to turn themselves in, to seriously quit their armed movement, and I don’t think that they will be willing to serve any jail time or pay for their crimes,” Gonsalves said. He recalled seeing older FARC members in their 40s and 50s who had underage girlfriends. “They are child molesters.” Gonsalves, who was doing reconnaissance as a contractor for the American government, wrote a book, “Out of Captivity,” about his kidnapping with two other Americans who were abducted.
Right-wing paramilitary groups that the government relied on to counter abuses by the guerrillas have also been responsible for far-ranging abuses, including killings, disappearances and heinous acts of sexual violence. From 2003 to 2006, the paramilitaries underwent demobilization, yet many have stayed active and reorganized into new groups.
All parties to the conflict have sowed violence throughout most of the country, but clarity on who committed the crimes is unclear to civilians, at least. Pamela Nuñez Basante, a geographer living in Cali, the second-largest city in Colombia, noted the confusing situation of “falsos positivos,” or “false positives.”
It is estimated that more than a thousand civilians were executed and presented as guerrillas during the time that President Santos was defense minister and the current peace commissioner, Sergio Jaramillo, was vice minister of defense.
“This happened to a family friend,” Basante said. “He was a farmer, with no links to the guerrilla, but he was found dead dressed in a guerrilla uniform. It is difficult to know what is really happening in Colombia.” Human Rights Watch has said that the Santos administration has promoted several bills that undercut accountability for such killings.
Javier Rodríguez Porras, a Colombian police officer who was held hostage by the FARC for nearly 10 years, said in an interview that for the peace process to work, children who have been part of the FARC ranks must be rehabilitated. (The FARC has begun to slowly release its soldiers under age 15.) Sitting in his home in Villavicencio, Porras said: “They are going to return to society as violent people. It is a huge job to teach these children not to be violent. For them killing people is normal.”
Child assassins, or sicarios, are also a problem in villages and cities because of the lethal mix of no jobs for young people and drug traffickers’ exploitation of the situation, hiring youngsters to kill. Killing is considered “easy money,” Emmanuel Cordoba, a student in Cali, said. “Life isn’t worth much in Colombia; it costs less than $100 to kill someone.”
Rubesindo Yonda and John Javier Yonda, a father and son from the Nasa, or Páez, indigenous group in Santander de Quilichao, a city in the Cauca region, where drug traffickers operate, said that it was easy to lure children into armed groups in Colombia.
“Many young people look for easy money, and the narco industry offers easy money,” John Yonda said. “Many kids who become involved with the armed groups or the narco traffickers come from homes where there isn’t enough food. The armed groups offer them money and food, and so they go.”
John Yonda said that when you meet someone who is involved in the narco industry, you know that the person will die. “The kids don’t think about how they’re going to die, they think about how they have a gun and how they are like gods,” he said.
Pamela Basante, the geographer from Cali, also thinks that drug trafficking causes much of the violence in Colombia; it is a business the FARC has become heavily dependent on. The armed groups, she said, are fighting over land so that they can grow the coca plants that produce cocaine. Many poor people grow it because it is more lucrative than growing fruits and vegetables. For those who refuse to cooperate with the drug traffickers, they are forcibly displaced from their land. Last year, 122,000 people were uprooted from their land, roughly half of them by drug-running gangs.
Jairo, who did not want to use his last name, is from the small city of Armenia. He said that his son had joined the paramilitaries but that he escaped when he was ordered to kill his friend. Jairo, too, doubts the value of the peace process.
“The guerrilla are in Havana on vacation,” he said.