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Colombia's FARC Rebels Laid Down Their Weapons, But A Growing Number Are Being Killed

Juan de Diós Quintero is a former rebel commander turned farmer. The killings "have generated a lot of anxiety," he says. "We are very worried."
John Otis for NPR
Juan de Diós Quintero is a former rebel commander turned farmer. The killings "have generated a lot of anxiety," he says. "We are very worried."

On the green slopes of the Andes Mountains in northern Colombia, farmers are raising chickens, goats and cows and tending to corn crops. It's a striking change from their previous occupation: battling government troops as members of a Marxist guerrilla group known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the FARC.

Thousands of guerrillas laid down their weapons under an historic 2016 peace agreement that ended 52 years of fighting. Among its many provisions is one requiring that the government provide protection from reprisals to ex-FARC fighters.

But many former rebels say their postwar lives are anything but peaceful.

Over the past three years, 181 demobilized FARC guerrillas have been killed in suspected reprisals or other score-settling attacks, as drug gangs and others jostle for territory and influence. Twelve of them were farmers who worked at this agricultural cooperative near the Andes town of Santa Lucía, set up by the government to help about 100 former rebels transition to civilian life.

An agricultural cooperative near the Andes town of Santa Lucía was set up by the Colombian government to help about 100 former rebels transition to civilian life.
/ John Otis for NPR
John Otis for NPR
An agricultural cooperative near the Andes town of Santa Lucía was set up by the Colombian government to help about 100 former rebels transition to civilian life.

Juan de Diós Quintero is a former rebel commander turned farmer with a body and face pocked with bullet scars after 30 years of fighting. Even he is scared.

The killings "have generated a lot of anxiety," Quintero says as he leans on a wooden fence while inspecting a herd of goats. "We are very worried."

The death toll so far in Colombia amounts to a tiny fraction of the 13,000 FARC guerrillas who disarmed, and analysts point out that in countries transitioning from war to peace, former fighters are often targeted in revenge killings.

But Carlos Ruíz, who heads a United Nations team monitoring Colombia's peace process, warns that such attacks are on the rise and says the government "need[s] to do a better job."

In 2017, the first year after the peace treaty was signed, 31 former rebels were killed. That number more than doubled to 65 in 2018 and jumped to 77 last year.

"2019 was the worst year in terms of violence against ex-combatants," Ruíz tells NPR. "And unfortunately, 2020 is not starting differently." Eight ex-FARC rebels have been killed so far this year.

Some killings have been blamed on Colombians bitter about the many kidnappings and massacres carried out by FARC guerrillas during a half-century of civil war.

Last month, Colombian authorities arrested a retired army colonel and four soldiers for their alleged participation in the 2019 shooting death of Dimar Torres, a former FARC guerrilla. The Defense Ministry initially called the shooting an accident, but evidence emerged that before the shooting, the soldiers had been digging a clandestine grave for Torres.

In other cases, authorities blame drug trafficking gangs that have gained control over rural areas that were once dominated by guerrillas. These groups try to recruit former rebels and sometimes kill those who refuse to join.

"There are old scores to settle. There is competition for territorial control. There may be refusals to be recruited," said Adam Isacson, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America think tank. "The killings don't really follow a pattern, except that they happen in places strategic for the drug trade."

María Victoria Llorente, who heads the Bogotá-based Ideas for Peace Foundation think tank, says since the peace treaty was signed, Colombian army and police have provided only a token presence in former war zones where former guerrillas have resettled. Security, she says, is deteriorating.

Divisions among the former guerrillas are also driving the violence. Analysts say that about 1,500 who initially laid down their weapons have rearmed and are trying to sabotage the peace process.

Last month, Colombian security forces said they killed two suspects linked to a rearmed FARC faction who were plotting to assassinate Rodrigo Londoño, the FARC's former top commander. Londoño now heads the FARC's left-wing political party, founded after the peace accord was signed. He briefly ran for president last year and continues to strongly support the peace process.

In an interview with NPR, Londoño referred to the failed plot against him by his former comrades as "sad" and "unfortunate." Still, he pins most of the blame for the rising death toll on the government for failing to protect former rebels.

"We need a government that is willing to comply with its promises in the peace accord," he says. "As long as they don't do that, things will be very difficult."

Indeed, critics contend that Colombian President Iván Duque has shown little interest in the peace treaty signed by his predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos, who was awarded the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize.

But the government insists otherwise. At a recent news conference, Emilio Archila, the main government official overseeing the return of former guerrillas to civilian life, said there should be "no doubt" that their safety is a top Duque administration priority.

Army and police units guard the 24 government-sponsored sites around Colombia, including the co-op near Santa Lucia, where former guerrillas are reintegrating into civilian life. The government also provides bodyguards for high-ranking former rebels. But most have no official protection and many have been killed after they ventured outside the resettlement zones.

At the farm co-op near Santa Lucía, there is a growing sense of dread. After one of its members, former guerrilla Darío Herrera, was shot dead late last month, the FARC political party and the government agreed to evacuate most of the people living here — ex-guerrillas and family members — to a safer area.

Among them is Yerlis Ballesteros. After spending 18 years as a FARC guerrilla fighter, she has been raising her two children at the co-op. Now she's anxious to get out.

"It's really tough for our family to go to bed at night," she says, "fearing that some armed group could come after us."

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