SALENTO: From Violence to Peace in the Heart of Colombia’s Coffee Triangle

By Juliana Guzman,

SALENTO is a beautiful colonial town in the department of Quindio, in the heart of Colombia’s coffee triangle or “Eje Cafetero.” It is now known for its specialty coffee, friendly people, colorful houses, cozy shops, template climate and beautiful sceneries.

To the east of Salento, there is the Cocora Valley. This breathtaking area of Colombia is surrounded in emerald green hills, exotic flora and fauna and dotted with the country’s national tree, the wax palm. This spindly variety can grow up to 200 feet. “Cocora” was the name of a Quimbayan princess from the Quimbaya civilization, which means “estrella de agua” in Spanish or “the star of water.”

Around Salento’s main plaza, there are mostly pedestrian streets with very attractive shops, restaurants and cafes. This is the place where colombians as well as foreigners will come to stroll in the afternoons particularly during the weekends.

Salento is surrounded by many wonderful coffee farms. Over the years, farmers in the area have developed techniques for growing, harvesting and processing coffee through an artisanal and lengthy process. This along the weather and geographic conditions, allowed Salento and surrounding areas to consistently offer an exceptionally high-quality coffee, characterized by its smooth, intense aroma, natural acidity, medium but round bean size, prominent notes of chocolate and fruits such as lemon and apricot.

Salento as well as many other municipalities around Colombia, come from a history of conflict and tragedy that it is imperative to know and remember into the future. During the 1990s, the great expansion of paramilitary groups which were financed by politicians, drug traffickers and wealthy landowners, and the expansion of the lucrative drug business fueled the colombian armed conflict to unprecedented levels. Guerrillas, paramilitaries and drug trafficking groups fiercely battled one another and the colombian state for control of territory and drug supply at the source.

In the department of Quindio, paramilitaries and drug traffickers from the north valley cartel took advantage of the implosion of the global price of coffee and the coffee crisis, and bought large amounts of land at very low prices, so that approximately 75 percent of the lands in the department became under control of these groups. Therefore, paramilitaries and drug trafficking groups exercised control of this territory through the ownership of private property.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC in spanish) not only fought back paramilitaries and drug trafficking groups but also seeked in particular the collapse of the colombian state by constantly sabotaging the country’s economy, infrastructure and institutions. They surrounded some of Colombia’s main cities and municipalities and delivered lethal military attacks to the colombian army and police.

One of the main objectives of FARC through its 50th front in the Department of Quindio was to control a network of roads and trails that allow them to move back and forth from municipalities such as Salento, Genova, Pijao, Filandia, Cordoba and Calarca all the way into the departments of Risaralda, Valle del Cauca and Tolima. They also used this network of roads to make illegal roadblocks and carry out massive kidnappings, extortions and killings of innocent civilians.

Following the significant increase of the drug business, crime and violence, which pushed Colombia into the edge of becoming a failed state. In September of 1999 the governments of Andres Pastrana in Colombia and Bill Clinton in the United States agreed to launch a joint strategy called Plan Colombia, with the main objective of fighting against illegal drug production and organized crime, reactivating the colombian economy, strengthening the institutions and demobilizing, disarming and reintegrating insurgent militants into civil society.

According to official reports by the United States’ Government Accountability Office, the United States’ funding for the military component of Plan Colombia was on average USD 540 million per year between 2000 and 2008. The colombian government, for its part, invested approximately USD 812 million per year in the fight against drugs and drug-related organized crime groups. Taken together, these expenditures represented approximately 1.2 percent of Colombia’s average annual Gross Domestic Product between 2000 and 2008.

Throughout the first decade of this century, the FARC guerrillas lost ground, legitimacy and offensive capacity. The colombian armed forces delivered strategic and devastating attacks to many FARC fronts, including the death of five of its seven historical and leading members. The commander of the FARC’s 50th Front in the Department of Quindio, Ciro Gómez Rayo, alias Enrique Zúñiga, was killed in a joint operation executed by colombian air forces and police on March 30, 2010.

Alias Enrique Zúñiga. Photo by http://www.vanguardia.com

Colombian officials bombed his campsite on the border between the departments of Quindio and Tolima. Alias Enrique Zúñiga, his girlfriend and five other guerilla militants from the FARC’s 50th front were killed during the attack. Seven other guerilla militants survived but were captured. The FARC guerillas became demoralized after multiple setbacks and found themselves with no other option than negotiating a diplomatic solution to the conflict with the colombian state.

In the case of paramilitaries, they sought a political solution out of the conflict as soon as the colombian state strengthened its military capacity and began a relentless war against the FARC guerrillas, since they felt their project was consolidated.

The paramilitaries looked for a negotiation to their disarmament and ways to legalize the assets they accumulated during the war. However, the influences and alliances they carried out with many drug traffickers became increasingly problematic and erupted during the demobilization process they pursued with Colombia’s president Alvaro Uribe Velez at the time. Some paramilitary groups, particularly those with strong alliances with drug traffickers, ended up rearming and maintaining political influence in many parts of the country up until today.

After 16 years of Plan Colombia and an escalating conflict between colombian military forces, and FARC guerrillas, on November 25, 2016, FARC and the Colombia government with President Juan Manuel Santos at the helm, ratified a peace agreement that ended a 52-year internal conflict, the longest in the Western Hemisphere. A conflict that cost the lives of at least 220,000 colombians, displaced nearly 6 million people, produced thousands of kidnappings and filled rural areas with deadly land mines.

This imperfect but meaningful agreement gives us for the first time in our generation, a sense of peace, the greatest weapon for development that any people can have, as Nelson Mandela once said. Peace which is reflected in Salento’s friendly and welcoming people, calm pedestrian streets, dozens of daily national and international visitors strolling the streets and exceptionally high-quality coffee. We believe that specialty coffee will continue to be into the future a powerful motor for Salento’s sustainable development and lasting peace.

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