A farewell to arms?
“I went to Colombia for the first time in 2002 to visit a friend. It was just after the third set of peace talks between the Colombian government and Farc had failed, and everything was a mess. There was a lot of fighting, the paramilitary organisations were very strong and kidnappings by Farc of civilians and politicians for ransom were commonplace.
During that first trip, I went to one of the country’s many forgotten areas, a remote spot near the Atrato river in the western Chocó region. Nobody in Colombia has ever known peace in their lifetimes, and I was really struck by how in the Chocó region they saw conflict as normality and at how they could lead seemingly normal lives amid so much violence. Sometimes you fall in love with someone at first sight – something like that happened to me with the Colombian people.”
“The Colombian conflict is the world’s oldest continuously-running civil war. Its roots go back to ten years of violence from 1948 to 1958 between conservatives and liberals. A power-sharing agreement between these two sides excluded any other political parties and left-wing groups started forming armed guerrilla units – including Farc – in the 1960s. In the 1980s, landowners wanting to defend themselves from the guerrillas organised into paramilitaries and joined the fighting.
Farc – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – is the biggest guerrilla army in Colombia. At its peak in the late 1990s, it controlled a third of the country’s territory. After spending a lot of time in regions under their control, in 2006 I decided I wanted to start documenting Farc. I wrote a message on a piece of paper saying, ‘This is Alvaro. I’d like to meet you,’ and gave it to a friend of mine who was a member of a Farc militia. At first he said ‘What are you doing?’ But he went and three days later I had a meeting with Walter Mendoza, one of the top commanders of the rebels’ Occidental Bloc. The meeting was surprisingly nice. Mendoza is a very interesting guy who has read a lot. He’s someone you can sit down with for a rum and a good conversation, even if you disagree with most of the things he says.
I spent the next six months documenting Farc in the San Juan river area and discovered a completely different side to Colombia. In those remote areas, the only face of the state that people knew was one of aggression: helicopters, the army, bombs. They didn’t have any other idea of what ‘government’ means. These areas are very underdeveloped – with no hospitals, no roads. So groups like Farc and ELN, the National Liberation Army, the second biggest left-wing guerrilla group, acted like a sort of government, ensuring law and order.
Local people freaked out every time they saw soldiers from the Colombian army, or heard a helicopter. They knew that because of where they lived they carried a stigma which made them suspected of being guerrilla supporters. The late 2000s were the time of the ‘false positives’, a scandal in which state soldiers abducted more than 3,000 poor or mentally disabled young men, executed them, put them in guerrilla uniforms and showed them to their superiors to raise their body counts – allegedly in exchange for promotions or extra holidays.”
“I’m not a Farc member or supporter. I’m not left-wing, I’m a liberal. But my experience in the jungle showed a completely different face of the conflict. The biggest threats in those regions are not Farc but the army and the paramilitaries. What is the ‘truth’ to middle-class people in Bogotá is very different from that perceived by people in rural regions. Everybody has their own parallel stories and there is no dialogue between these viewpoints, just monologues of fear and hate.
Between 1958 and 2012, 218,094 people died in the civil war. The paramilitaries were especially known for their brutality. Of the 1,982 massacres documented between 1980 and 2012, 1,166 were at their hands. While the paramilitaries started out as self-defence armies, they were often used to do the government’s dirty work, and over the decades they have evolved into criminal gangs with very strong military access. I was always nervous spending time with paramilitaries. During 15 years of covering Colombia, the moment I felt the most threatened is when I was photographing a cemetery in 2015. Shortly after arriving, I got my camera out and two paramilitary guys came up to me saying, ‘You have five minutes to leave’. In Colombia that means ‘It’s up to you’ – you choose to leave, or you choose death.
That cemetery was in Puerto Berrío, Antioquia. It’s the biggest cemetery in the country for so-called ‘NNs’. NN stands for ningún nombre, no name. About 28,000 bodies which have been found across the country, dumped in mass graves or floating along the river Magdalena, have yet to be identified.
Besides the horrendous death toll, another effect of the conflict has been that millions of people have had to leave their homes to flee the violence. One government report claimed that there were 4.7 million people displaced between 1996 and 2012 – about ten percent of the country’s entire population.”
“The peace agreement struck between Farc and the Colombian government was hugely important. Farc agreed to demobilise in exchange for amnesty or reduced sentences for its rank-and-file soldiers and ten guaranteed seats in Congress in the first two upcoming elections.
Getting Farc to pursue their goals through political means rather than through fighting is a great step forward. It was the culmination of four years of negotiations in Havana, with a ceasefire signed on 23rd June and the peace deal signed at a ceremony in Cartagena, Colombia on 26th September. Stopping the violence will help, but what Colombia really needs is a social peace.
That means providing real solutions for the regions which, in terms of development, have been completely forgotten.
In places like these, the only real business opportunity for many families is to grow coca. Getting by on raising cows or growing cassava just isn’t possible – and if you own a small coca plantation you know that all your produce will sell for a fair price to the armed groups. Many of these groups, especially the paramilitaries, are completely tied up with narcotrafficking – they no longer have a political agenda at all. Because of the armed groups’ involvement in the drug trade, there are a lot of people who have an interest in perpetuating the conflict. For peace to work, investments need to be made in regions such as these and alternative economic opportunities need to be given to the people who live there.”
“Despite the fact that it was strictly about attaining armed peace, the signing of the peace deal was still a great opportunity for the country and I never expected that it would be voted down in the referendum on 2nd October 2016. The Colombian people got the opportunity to ratify the peace deal but 50.2 percent voted against it – a margin of only 55,000 votes.
I’m not very optimistic. One of the scariest things to me is that only 38 percent of Colombians voted in the referendum – the most important decision they’ve had to make in more than half a century. How will they ever get social peace when there is so little commitment to it? What was striking is that the regions which have been affected most by the violence voted most overwhelmingly in favour of the peace deal. In some municipalities in the Chocó region which have endured the most violence, as much as 95 percent of people voted ‘Yes’. So it’s as though the people who never physically suffered from the conflict said no to ending it now.
The war has not resumed since the referendum. Farc is in a very complicated situation. They had already started taking steps to implement the deal, so they’re exposed. I don’t know how they will handle this situation, but my impression is that they really are all for peace. After what happened in Venezuela where Chávez’s Bolivarian revolution has now led to shortages of basic products such as medicine and toilet paper, they believe they could be the last chance to create social change in Latin America through leftist politics. I think they have discovered that after 52 years of armed conflict, weapons haven’t won them anything. But with every day that passes without a solution, there’s more and more pressure on the peace process and a single spark – an attack by the paramilitaries or a dissident army faction – could set the country on fire again.”
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