Colombia's new conflict as war with Farc ends

Last year’s deal with the guerrilla group left a power vacuum, putting authorities and residents on edge amid new violence: ‘Everyone’s nervous’

The guerrillas of the Farc occupied the territory around Argelia long enough to gain the support of some residents, and the loathing of others.

So when local people watched a contingent of 140 rebels file through the town on their way to demobilization camps as part of a peace deal, it was with a sense of ambivalence: some bade farewell – others good riddance.

But since the rebels abandoned the area in late January, supporters and critics have shared the same fears.

Townspeople, police and the military are on high alert as other criminal groups attempt to fill the power vacuum. Robberies, murders and petty crime are soaring and unidentified citizens appear to be trying to establish private vigilante groups.

“No one has taken over here yet, but there is a lot buzz, a lot of rumours,” says Manzur Silva, a community leader in El Encanto, a nearby village, and a spokesman for local farmers who grow coca, the raw material for cocaine. “Everyone’s nervous,” he says.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia fought the Colombian state for more than half a century before last year’s historic deal with the government, which put an end to a conflict that has left more than 230,000 dead and millions displaced from their homes.

But in a country whose violent history consists of cycle upon cycle of conflict, it was perhaps inevitable that the end of one war would contain the seeds of another.

Across Colombia, new armed groups – and some long-established ones – are violently occupying the regions left behind by the Farc, all hoping to wrest control of the cocaine trade, illegal gold mines and other criminal enterprises which once financed the rebels.

The military promised to send out 65,000 of its soldiers to occupy and secure the regions and President Juan Manuel Santos announced last month that 960 new police agents would be assigned to rural areas.

But criminal groups have moved faster.

Fighting between a smaller rebel faction, the National Liberation Army, ELN, and the military branch of a criminal group known as the Urabeños has led to the forced displacement of nearly 1,000 people since the start of the year in the western region of Chocó. On 25 March, five community members of one town in that area were gunned down, though it is unclear by which side.

And even before the Farc began its retreat, dozens of social activists and leftist political leaders have been murdered across the country; hundreds have been threatened. In Argelia, a member of a local farmers’ association was gunned down on Christmas day.

The town and its surrounding area makes a tempting prospect for criminals. For the years the coca business has boomed in valley of the Micay river, which begins high in the mountains of Argelia and cuts through hills covered by fields of bright green coca plants.

The river runs past rustic kitchens where coca leaves are turned to paste and continues toward cocaine labs where the paste is turned into white powder for shipping to market by boats on the Pacific Ocean.

Coca crops in this valley nearly doubled from 2013 to 2014, from over 3,300 hectares (8,100 acres) to more than 6,300 (15,600 acres), according the army. Today, farmers calculate there could be as much as 10,000 hectares of coca planted in the area.

The crop is harvested every two months, meaning the region produces 70 tons a year – just under one-tenth of all of Colombia’s estimated annual cocaine output.

Under the peace agreement signed in November, the Farc and government agreed to promote crop substitution programs through voluntary eradication pacts: the farmers pull out their coca bushes in exchange for subsidies, land titles and technical assistance to grow something else. Since January, more than 55,000 families throughout the country have signed on.

But farmers in Argelia are dubious. “We would like to grow other things but no other plant is as profitable as coca,” says Alice Rodríguez, a 31-year-old coca farmer, during a recent workshop in a village school to learn about the peace deal. “And how can we know that the government will come through on their promises?” she asks.

Coca farmers here are highly organized and leaders are calling for resistance – against both eradication and the new criminal groups.

While they controlled the valley, Farc took a cut of all the coca base that moved through the area, until about six or eight months ago, according to Silva, the community leader.

Then the ELN started trying to demand payments, even as it engaged in its own peace talks with the government. Coca growers met with the leaders of the smaller rebel group and told them outright they would not pay. Other unidentified groups have also appeared, trying to set up shop.

“Coca farmers spent decades paying the Farc a tax. Now that they’re gone, they’re not just going to let someone else come in,” says Silva.

But despite the danger, residents whose livelihoods depend on illegal economies don’t want a state security forces to replace the rebels.

“We don’t trust the police and army,” says Silva.

That comes as no surprise to the authorities. In 2015, the community of the village of El Mango drove out a police contingent that was trying to establish a base there.

“They see us and immediately think: eradication,” says a member of the Argelia police force, which remains holed up in the station on one corner of the town’s main square, behind sandbag barricades.

That doesn’t stop the police and soldiers in Argelia from trying to win over the civilian population. So far the gains are modest.

“At least they say hello to us now. Some of them, at least,” says a member of the security forces stationed here who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak.

But it’s a long way from getting a “hello” to offering real security.

And the numbers are worrisome. Ten people were murdered in Argelia in the first two months of the year, more than double the number of homicides from the same time last year, according to security sources.

Some of those killings are believed to be linked to a violent extortion ring that has left many Argelia residents unwilling to answer calls on their mobile phones from unidentified numbers. Such calls begin with a demand for large sums of money – and end with a death threat against the person or a family member. The money is needed, callers say, to establish a “security group” to bring order to the town.

Residents fear that could be the start of the creation of paramilitary groups similar to those that were founded in the 1980s by drug lords and large landholders to fight rebel groups when Colombia’s military was too weak to do so.

By the start of the century, those militia groups had swelled into a vast, brutal army responsible for massacres, torture and murder. The paramilitaries officially demobilized some 30,000 troops between 2003 and 2006 but others, such as the Urabeños, quickly took their place.

It is those groups that human rights organizations fear are behind many of the killings of social activists, which they see as a threat to their illegal activities.

At least 59 rights defenders were killed in Colombia last year, 14 of them in Cauca province alone, according to the UN human rights representative in Colombia, Todd Howland.

“The Farc leaving is complicating the lives of leaders,” Howland told reporters.

According to Colombia’s human rights ombudsman, Carlos Negret, 156 avctivists have been killed in the last 14 months. “One of the main causes is the illegal armed groups’ aspiration to take over the areas where the Farc have left,” Negret says. “They want to control the illegal economies that have fueled Colombia’s war.”

The Guardian | Sibylla Brodzinsky

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