Main image: Community leaders, military and San Pablo municipal delegates meet. Photo: Jaskiran Kaur Chohan


Just over a year ago many Colombians and observers around the world were perplexed as to how a country could vote against peace. After that night of short-lived highs and interminable lows the ‘Yes’ camp, in tears and despair, looked for ways to keep the peace process alive. Fast forward a year and the controversial fast-track system was put in place to pass the accords through Congress and establish a legal framework to back them. If these moments seemed challenging, the country now finds itself in a much more problematic phase: implementation.

Map showing the sites of 56 killings between 1 December 2016 and 26 October 2017. Map: Pacifista.

An interactive version of this map can be viewed on the Pacifista website, here.

Serious cracks are already beginning to show. Marcha Patriotica, the social movement organization representing campesino interests, has denounced the assassination of 120 social leaders since 2017 by a mix of state forces and paramilitary groups. Additionally, 31 FARC-EP ex-combatants and family members have been killed both close to and away from the state monitored Espacio Territorial de Capacitación y Reintegración- territories for the demobilised combatants that are now being converted into ‘rural spaces of education’. The lack of security measures in place to prevent the massacre of both the ex-guerrillas and social leaders speaking out against inequalities, injustices and the rising encroachment of paramilitary groups, is a serious worry not only for the successful implementation of the peace accords but for the historical trajectory of a country that has long been wracked by internal wars.

With no prosecutions or progress in identifying those responsible for the killings, many are pointing to the renewed influence of ‘Dark forces’, or narcoparamilitary groups. The presence of paramilitary organisations, such as the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, is undeniable and manifest in the rise in public threats to social leaders and the incursion of hooded armed groups into rural villages. Whole swathes of the country that were previously occupied by FARC-EP are now up for grabs and armed groups are moving in. The government is ominously silent, with its position and strategy towards these groups unclear.

Crop substitution

The second area of serious contention in the implementation of the accords is substitution of illegal crops. In May, President Santos stated that as part of the peace process, 50,000 hectares of coca crops would be substituted this year. Although many campesino communities across the country have willingly signed up to substitution programmes because of falling rates of profit in drug cultivation and continued violence, forced eradication of illicitly used crops continues. In Tumaco, a region that has one of the highest densities of coca production in the country, as recently as October 5th 7 protesting campesinos were killed by state forces and over 14 injured. Attacks upon this protest underline the heavy handed and still conflictual relationship that state forces have with rural communities.

Proximity of military camp to campesino camp. Photo: Jaskiran Kaur Chohan

This was also a very violent manifestation of the simmering tensions that the government has failed to resolve between coca growers, armed groups with interests in the continuation of the trade, and those tasked with eradicating the crop. Commanders of local military forces argue that until they receive a direct desist order from the executive they will continue with crop eradicatation. This is despite the signing of local level agreements for substitution and the formulation of substitution plans.

Coca: the only source of income

In September, the municipality of San Pablo, Bolivar, also witnessed an encounter between campesinos and the military. In this area, which since the 1980s has been both a big coca producer and a principal victim of the country’s war, the military arrived with the same determination to eradicate the coca crop. In response, the campesinos organized and mobilized, camping close to military outposts. One occupier mentioned that he was there ‘to defend the only source of income there is in the region’.

From early dawn the community was on the alert, trailing the soldiers to protect their crops from eradication. The campesinos were told that any field left unattended would be cleaned out but if individuals intervened against this non-violently, the soldiers would withdraw. The military officers enacted a bizarre farce, asking the community to march down to their fields, taking photos of them holding up machetes and wooden sticks so that ‘evidence’ could be sent to superiors to show how the community was forcefully resisting. The same officers also suggested a simulated burning of the labs used to turn the leaf into coca paste. They said these would be grounds to not uproot their crops.

Although this staged show was less harmful than the violent scenes in Tumaco, one was left wondering how such images could be used in the future and whether they could later justify a tougher approach. Given the military’s past record of ‘false positives’, where they carried out extra-judicial killings of campesinos for supposedly being FARC-EP members and then dressed the bodies in guerrilla uniforms to justify the murders, such questions are not misplaced.

In San Pablo, no one was hurt but campesinos were required to  spend time on a cat and mouse hunt, following the military patrols up and down steep slopes. They found themselves in uncharted terrain, talking civilly with those who had attacked them for decades, sharing space and water with them, knowing that at any given moment these same men could cause them huge economic losses. They were also prevented from working on other crops, such as the cacao planted in anticipation of substitution programmes.

Little dialogue, much sermonising

In San Pablo, delegates from the local municipality and the local human rights ombudsman arrived within a week. However, the response was much the same. There was little dialogue with the community but much sermonising about need to read and understand the peace accords. The irony of these comments was lost on the delegates however. The communities in San Pablo, Tumaco and numerous other sites of protest know their rights and the promises made to them in the peace accord. They are demanding compliance: guarantees of better roads, fulfilment of substitution plans, electricity, schools and other basic needs.

The rural roads of the district of la Union in San Pablo, where the uneasy confrontation took place, are unpaved and become ‘like soap’ after rain – dangerous and impassable. There are no other viable economic alternatives to drug production in this area. Those attempting to set up campesino markets in the closest urban centre of San Pablo are being sabotaged by municipal authorities, who enforce lower prices in the main market square on the day the campesinos bring in their produce. If campesino communities are not being attacked or threatened by bullets, they are being subjected to economic coercion.

No one thought making peace would be easy but the state is displaying a distinct lack of coordination and effort to implement the accords.

Uneasy exchanges: campesinos sitting with military. Photo: Jaskiran Kaur Chohan

The campesinos of San Pablo did not just talk peace; they are the ones building it. They communicated peacefully and willingly entered into dialogue with an armed actor they previously hid from. Yet, as one of them said, ‘the state is not complying with what they agreed and offered us.’ Those on the frontline of conflict, at most risk of being marginalised or worse, are doing their part. However, they are standing firm and demanding that the government now do theirs. If the country is ever to free itself from cycles of violence and the continued ostracism of the same rural communities, the time to step up is now.


Interesting articles on crop substitution have appeared in the New York Times. Another, from WOLA, can be read here.

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