by James Patton
We take a hard left turn just shy of an hour away from the airport in Cali and the driver applies the brakes, drifting to a stop. We are in a bulletproof SUV. Contrary to stereotypes, however, it does not have the UN or a foreign government logo on the side, not even that of an international or local NGO. This vehicle belongs to the local Evangelical Pastor, and the driver is a taciturn man in his sixties who smiles wistfully during the ride, but has only uttered a pair of words along the route. In front of us sits the Puente de los Esclavos – the “Slave’s Bridge.” This stone span is rumored to have been crossed by Simon Bolivar (the ‘Great Liberator’ of the Andes) with his armies at the turn of the 19th Century, into the heart of these strategic and verdant hills of what is now central Cauca, Colombia.
The bridge barely leaves room for a vehicle to pass without scraping the side-view mirrors along the 100 ft. span. This has made it an extremely strategic point, as whomever takes control of it easily cuts off this river valley from outside forces, as the FARC had done for many years. This is still a FARC stronghold, and the Pastor tells me that three months ago he would have been crazy to take an American up into these hills, where at night the heat lamps warming the heart of the illicit drug trade – coca, marijuana, and amapola plants – are as visible on the hillsides as an amusement park might be, and less than a 30 minute hike from the town. The driver releases the brake, and we inch over the bridge.
As we skirt the open plaza at the center of town where the historic laying down of arms by the M-19 guerrillas in the 80s took place – the only successful collective disarmament of a guerrilla group in Colombia’s modern history – the Pastor explains to me that the danger right now is relatively low. We round the bend in front of the construction site for a new police barracks, a “Level 5” security building to replace the one that was razed by a car bomb last year. “No one is moving their ‘fichas’ awaiting the outcome of talks in Havana,” he explains using the metaphor of chess pieces on a game board. A tank sits at the end of the next dirt road, alongside a row of humble homes, its firing barrel pointed directly into the cultivated hills.
Bouncing up into the hillside communities, the weight of the bulletproofing giving the suspension a thorough challenge as the driver navigates rocks and rain washouts, we pass half a dozen young boys idly sitting on new motorbikes. They cast a mildly haughty look our way, considering whether or not to call and let the commander know that the Pastor is taking guests up the hill. The new cell phones, motorcycles, and their “play money” all come from the drug traffickers – in this case most likely the FARC and its affiliates. This is life here, and not a single family sits outside of the web of political and identity conflict, the history of direct violence, and the illicit economy. Many claim that Corinto has become synonymous with drug violence, and they even lie when answering “place of origin” on job applications in Cali or Bogota, because employers will reject them simply because they come from here.
Last week an agreement on controlling drug trafficking and illicit crops was signed in Havana, and these are the communities that will face the challenge of building a new way of life. That is, if the local FARC leaders here (and military, paramilitary, ELN and criminal gang leaders elsewhere) do not simply ignore the Peace Process and its results, and finally openly declare that their ideology and allegiance lies not to any particular political platform – but to the easy wealth that drugs represenIn the next few days ICRD convenes religious and lay leaders, community members, male and female heads of households, Indigenous leaders from a similarly-stricken adjacent valley, and the elected Municipal Council. Despite the messages being put into the mainstream by national-level politicians and the media, there is a great deal of hope in these communities, where the violence is perhaps more real than in the halls of power and propaganda, that Colombia will finally begin a new chapter, one that is not based on relationships of violence.
These families are the face of a new Colombia. Many of them left their children tending to the drug plantations in order to join our discussions. Many of them have had to bury other children – collateral damage in the ongoing conflict. Many have simply not seen disappeared family members for years and do not know what their fate is: as fighter or prisoner, alive or dead. And yet, they came. They came and identified their challenges: drugs, youth recruitment, lack of sustaining social values, fear and ignorance about reintegrating fighters, the need for new livelihoods and better education. They formed Working Groups and they signed a Pact to Build a Laboratory for Postconflict and Peacebuilding in the valley of Corinto.
If the valley of Corinto believes that stability and collaboration are shared Colombian values that can pave the way forward to a restored society, after the history that they have lived, then there may be hope for all of Colombia. Perhaps learning how to turn these ideals into a process of healing and reconciliation will give Corinto a new history – as a model for a nation rent apart by violence, and as a place that rejects the continued politics of polarization and vengeance. Everyone here agrees that a deal in Havana is not the same as building peace – that peace will be built through the heavy lifting of restoring Colombia in these communities. This is where sustainable peace will be won or lost, in among the coca plantations and the weapons, when something new grows out of the verdant valleys, like this one in Cauca. New crops, new relationships, and a new Colombia.