In 2000, Commander Wilson Ramirez, a senior explosives expert for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known as FARC, left his infant daughter on a stranger’s doorstep for them to look after. Ramirez, commonly referred to by his nom de guerre Teofilo, has seen her only a handful of times as he continues the armed struggle against the state. Today, his daughter, Laura, now 16, still lives with Orfany Neira, the woman who raised her as her own in this small village in the remote mountains of central Colombia, where Communist peasants inspired by the Cuban revolution took up arms 52 years ago.
But Laura and her father could soon be reunited for good. Despite missing a March 23 deadline, the guerrilla group and the government are closing in on a historic peace agreement that would end the FARC’s historic insurgency. Ever since the government entered negotiations with the guerrillas in 2013, a tense but steadfast truce has kept hostilities under control, giving way to a growing police and government contingent in previously impenetrable FARC strongholds like Gaitania. But the agreement has detractors as well as proponents on all sides.
Two years ago, military police stormed Neira’s home, detained her for alleged FARC ties and sent Laura to a home for children in Bogotá. Neira was held in prison on terrorism charges that were eventually dropped, but not before both her physical and mental health critically declined. Fighting back tears, Neira tells us: “The FARC never once harmed me. It was the state who kidnapped me, humiliated me, and destroyed my life on a lie. I want justice, but even then I don’t know if I’ll ever find peace.”
Orfany, 68, Laura’s mother, recalls her time in prison with despair. She was imprisoned on terrorist charges, which were later dropped. Photo: Tomas Ayuso
The FARC’s insurgency spread across the country as the group fought a half-century-long war against the government, the military, drug cartels, and state-sponsored paramilitaries. From mountain encampments the FARC governed vast swaths of rural Colombia. But years of successful military offensives and desertion wore down the guerillas, paving the way for negotiations. Although recent polls suggest most Colombians support a peace agreement, the violence carried out by both the FARC and the state has been difficult to forgive.
The state’s presence in Gaitania could allow for demobilization areas for FARC soldiers transitioning into civilian life—after they hand in their weapons and formally abandon armed struggle. But as the government and the FARC debate the fine print of their accord, targeted population centers remain leery. Many locals wonder: Can the guerillas, who imposed their will with impunity for a half-century, be trusted?
The peace agreement wouldn’t change just the political landscape; it would also disrupt the status quo of the criminal underworld if FARC is compelled to renounce the production of coca paste. The FARC has long been financed by criminal enterprises, notably kidnappings and extortions, which the group justified as “contributions” to the struggle. It was in the late 1980s that the guerrillas entered the drug trade it once fought, leading to a financial windfall that persists to this day.
Gaitania, the city named after Eliezer Gaitan, the Liberal martyr whose death triggered Colombia’s armed conflict, also became the city where FARC founder Manuel Marulanda first organized his militia fifty years ago. Photo: Tomas Ayuso
“The FARC are thugs,” says Octavio Varon, a rural day laborer from Gaitania. Last December, Varon and his wife and children were forced to flee their home after a FARC militiaman threatened to kill them if they remained in the village. Wilmer Geraldo, a local FARC officer, attempted to extort Varon, demanding a sudden payment of $600 for his protection. When Varon refused, Geraldo stabbed him repeatedly in the neck and left him for dead. Varon survived and paid the extortion money to save his family’s life. The family pawned their car, paid FARC, and fled with whatever they could carry.
Three months later, they’ve returned to Gaitania looking for reparations at the behest of a state-appointed conflict resolution attorney who set up a meeting with Geraldo. Varon was left significantly mentally impaired by his injuries, leaving his wife, Yuliana, to support the family. “We’re terrified to even be here, but if we don’t get our money or our car back we won’t be able to afford food for our kids,” Yuliana says as she cradles her youngest boy.
Geraldo never showed up for the meeting.
The Varon family on the way to Gaitania to attend a reconciliation meeting with a FARC militiaman who threatened to kill the children if Octavio did not pay $600 to the guerrillas. Photo: Tomas Ayuso
In Matallana, a crime-addled slum in the central Colombian city of Ibague, some 125 miles from Gaitania’s winding mountain passes, Sgt. Acevedo of the Colombian Army, who refused to give his first name, denounces a peace agreement with the guerrillas. “They’re narco-terrorists!” he cries. “It’s a disgrace that the president even shakes their hand.” His outburst comes during a community outreach program offering access to state-sponsored lawyers and health-care providers guarded by the Army’s Sixth Brigade. Their goal is to improve the state’s standing in a neighborhood better known for prostitution and drug-running gangs.
The end of five decades of fighting has left the military at an existential fork in the road. “Some of us are ready to support a coup if necessary against Santos,” says Acevedo, referring to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. “It starts with a peace deal and political power. Then we have a FARC government. Eight years later we’re the next Venezuela.”
Prominent conservative voices, some of whom describe President Santos as naïve, share Sgt. Acevedo’s view on the peace process. They support what’s called Uribismo—the militant right wing, anti-guerrilla ideology inspired by former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez. In Medellín, Colombia’s second city, Uribismo thrives. “It’s not a peace accord, it’s a surrender,” says Alejandro, a prominent real estate developer who withheld his last name out of security concerns, during Sunday brunch with his family at an upscale creperie.
“I grew up in a country where atrocities were the norm. The FARC put a whole village into a church and blew everyone up,” Alejandro says, referring to a massacre in Bojayá where 119 civilians were killed. “For those people to cruise into politics without spending a single day in prison is maddening.”