Peace After 60 Years of Armed Conflict: The Greatest Weapon for Development

Visit to the Arhuaco Community from Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Photo by Peace Farm Coffee

Despite the multiple challenges and opportunities we Colombians and Hispanics currently face in the state of Rhode Island and in this country, my message today is a call for action to continue strengthening our ties with our home country. As Colombian Americans, who had the opportunity to be educated at some of the great American institutions, who have become business, cultural and political leaders here in the United States, we have tremendously powerful tools to contribute to and positively influence the future of our home country. 

Colombia’s development was paralyzed for more than half a century due to its catastrophic civil armed conflict, the longest in the western hemisphere. A conflict that cost the lives of at least 220,000 Colombians, including 180,000 civilians, displaced nearly 6 million people, produced thousands of kidnappings, and filled rural areas with deadly land mines. 

The Colombian armed conflict was the result of countless heterogeneous factors, including the persistence of land inequalities, the emergence and spread of drug trafficking, lack of political representation and participation, the influences and pressures of an agitated international community, and the institutional and territorial fragmentation of the Colombian state.

Coffee field in Chinchina, Caldas, in the heart of Colombia’s coffee triangle. Photo by Peace Farm Coffee.

The conflict went through four periods of evolution. The first period (1958-1982) marked the transition from la violencia, a period known for the escalating conflict between Colombia’s traditional political parties, rooted by the assasination of liberal leader Jorge Eliecer Gaitan on April 9, 1948, into subversive violence, characterized by the proliferation of radicalized leftist guerrilla groups. These were inspired by the Cuban and Chinese revolutions, which were determined to provide a foundation for rural communities abandoned by the state’s institutions.

The second period (1982-1996) was defined by the territorial expansion and military buildup of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC in Spanish) guerrillas, the emergence of paramilitary groups, the crisis and partial collapse of the Colombian state, the end of the Cold War, and the irruption and propagation of the drug trafficking business, including the appearance of drug lords such as Pablo Escobar, and Miguel and Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela. 

The third period (1996-2005) marked the cruel escalation of the armed conflict, which brought Colombia to the brink of becoming a failed state. This period was distinguished by the simultaneous expansion of guerrilla and paramilitary groups, the crisis and recomposition of the Colombian state in the middle of the conflict, the exodus of Colombians moving abroad, and the public’s desperate call for a military solution to the conflict. 

Lastly, the fourth period (2005-2012) was known for the rearrangement of the armed conflict as a result of Plan Colombia and the state’s military counterattack, which reached a maximum degree of efficiency and drastically weakened the guerrilla fronts. Simultaneously, there was the state’s failure to reach a comprehensive political negotiation out of the conflict with paramilitary groups. This fragmented negotiation resulted in the rearmament and resurgence of violence by fragmented, and volatile, paramilitary structures, which became strongly permeated by drug traffickers and were very challenging to defeat.

At the beginning of the 1990sColombia was undergoing a deep economic transformation at the time, from a coffee country into a mining and coca country. These kind of resources that fueled the armed conflict to unprecedented levels. From that point on, guerrillas, paramilitaries and drug trafficking groups battled one another and the Colombian state for control of territory, mining and drug supplies at the source.

On the one hand, as soon as guerrilla groups began their territorial expansion, legal and military self-defense groups were created and supported by the state’s army to defend large landowners from extorsions and kidnappings. For instance, the state’s army battalions in the Magdalena Medio, a subregion in the Department of Antioquia in the central northwestern part of Colombia, provided paramilitary groups with logistical support, weapons and ammunitions, and key information about operations by guerrilla groups.

This military support for the paramilitary groups coincided with the arrival of several drug lords into the Magdalena Medio, including Pablo Escobar, Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, and Jairo Ortega, who bought large farms to set up clandestine cocaine laboratories. The narco-traffickers arrived into the region with their own militants. However, over time the paramilitary groups became so entangled with drug traffickers that it became difficult to distinguish one from the other. The paramilitaries became known for carrying out the largest number of massacres and selective assassinations in the country’s history.

Peaceful coffee farm in Apia Risaralda, a coffee town that suffered through dreadful violence for many years. Photo by Peace Farm Coffee.

On the other hand, the FARC guerrillas went from 48 fronts and 5,800 militants in 1991 to 62 fronts and 28,000 militants in 2002, with a presence in 622 municipalities across the country. They not only fought back paramilitaries and drug trafficking groups, but also sought in particular the collapse of the Colombian state by constantly obstructing the country’s economy, infrastructure and institutions. They surrounded some of Colombia’s main cities and municipalities and delivered powerful military attacks to the Colombian army and police. 

They used a network of roads to make illegal roadblocks, carried out massive kidnappings, the extortion and killing of innocent civilians, and vandalized local and regional elections. The rapid expansion of coca cultivation in Colombia by the late 1990s led to a rapid expansion of crime and violence. Coca cultivation in Colombia increased from 50,000 hectares in 1995 to 160,000 hectares by 2000, turning Colombia into the largest coca producing country in the world. The great evolution of the insurgent armed groups affected hundreds of municipalities throughout the country by the late 1990s. The armed conflict significantly deepened and eroded the legitimacy and capacity of the state to convincingly lead a political negotiation out of the conflict with any of the insurgent groups. 

In September 1999, following the significant increase of drug business, crime and violence, which pushed Colombia to the edge of becoming a failed state, the governments of Colombia and the United States agreed to launch a joint strategy called Plan Colombia, with the exclusive objective of fighting against illicit drug production and narcotrafficking, reactivating the Colombian economy, strengthening the institutions and demobilizing, disarming and reintegrating insurgent militants into civil society.

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 in the United States, where militants associated with the Islamic extremist group al-Qaida hijacked four commercial airplanes and carried out massive suicide attacks, the United States with President George W. Bush at the helm immediately launched major initiatives to combat terrorism around the world. Funds from Plan Colombia, which were exclusively allocated for the war on drugs, were approved by the United States to target guerrilla groups as part of the fight against terrorism.

Throughout the first decade of this century, the FARC guerrillas lost ground, legitimacy and offensive capacity. The Colombian armed forces delivered strategic and lethal attacks to many FARC fronts, including the death of Manuel Marulanda Velez, Alfonso Cano, Jorge Briceno Suarez, Raul Reyes and Ivan Rios, five of the seven historical and leading FARC commanders.

In the case of the paramilitaries, they pursued a political solution out of the conflict as soon as the Colombian state strengthened its military capacity and began a devastating war against the FARC guerrillas, as they felt their project was being consolidated. The paramilitaries looked for a negotiation for 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 the issue 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 their 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 Colombian state ratified a peace agreement that officially ended the armed conflict.

Nevertheless, there are many questions that still come to mind after this peace agreement. How do we continue tackling coca production effectively? How do we offer support to our community leaders? How do we contribute to peace and development in Colombia into the future? 

Last year, at a meeting in Boston with former President of Colombia Juan Manuel Santos, I remembered he said that the solution to illicit crops in Colombia, which has fueled the Colombian armed conflict for many years, is structural and does not depend on whether the Colombian state fumigates with glyphosate from aircrafts or manually eradicates but instead depends on the ability to provide farmers with licit crops, real economic opportunities for progress. 

Lazaro Valencia is one of the coffee producers from Chinchina, Caldas, we had the pleasure to visit, try his specialty coffee and speak about the challenges and opportunities of the coffee industry. Photo by Peace Farm Coffee.

As I traveled throughout Colombia a few months ago, I visited several coffee communities and spoke to many community leaders, including leaders from the Arhuaco community in Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta; Chinchina, Caldas; Bella Vista, Quindio; Tulua, Valle del Cauca; Apia, Risaralda to the Inga community from El Tablón de Gómez in the department of Nariño. 

Some of these community leaders are making incredible efforts, even risking their own lives, to voluntarily substitute poppy and coca crops for coffee trees or other licit crops. Many of them have cultivated coca for many years, and they know first-hand the repercussions that come from it, from sterilizing the land and destroying ecosystems, to dealing with insurgent groups. 

However, those leaders and their communities need our support. The government has not been able to monetarily compensate them for voluntarily substituting illicit crops as it was originally agreed. They also need a marketplace that pays them fairly for their products and technical assistance in the midst of a climate crisis. 

If we allow the status quo to continue, it would mean that more community leaders will continue to be threatened by unresolved social and land disputes, more coca will continue to flourish across the country, new insurgent groups will continue to fight for territory and drug supplies at the source. Soon enough we will see the return of spraying campaigns with glyphosate, which has been scientifically proven to increase the likelihood of cancer, and the Colombian military will escalate the conflict and possibly even accept higher civilian casualties in the process. Falsos Positivos.

My fellow Colombian Americans, this imperfect but meaningful peace agreement we recently ratified, which has been under recent public scrutiny, gives us for the first time in our generation the greatest weapon for development that any people can have. It is critical that we now embrace our community leaders and provide farmers with licit crops the opportunity to connect with viable economic opportunity for progress. 

We come from six decades of a devastating conflict and as a family member of a victim of the Colombian armed conflict, we simply cannot afford to go back to those days of dreadful violence. As Colombian Americans, we have a fundamental responsibility to protect our peace process and we can start by offering more support to our farmers with licit crops. This is what has inspired Peace Farm Coffee in the first place. Thank you!

Peaceful coffee farm in Chinchina, Caldas, owned by Carlos Roldan, who we had the great pleasure to visit and speak with. Photo by Peace Farm Coffee.
Recognition by Rhode Island Colombian Elected Officials, Senator Sandra Cano, House Representatives Karen Alzate and Carlos Tobon during the Colombian Independence Day Celebration at the Rhode Island State House in Providence on July 18th, 2019.

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