‘Colombia’s is the Rolls Royce of programs. That’s why we’re all here,” says a keen American as we join the rest of the participants boarding the bus that will take us from our hotel to Bogotá’s El Dorado airport from where we will fly 150 miles west to the town of Armenia in Colombia’s coffee region in the hilly center of the country.
Some 60 peacekeepers, academics, generals, and bureaucrats from 20 countries are all congregating in Colombia for a week to inspect its process of Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) of former guerrillas and paramilitaries into civilian society. It’s said to be the envy of other countries trying to extract themselves from civil wars.
This vast conference crisscrossing Colombia (a country almost as big as France and Spain put together) is part international strategic cooperation and part propaganda, intended both to show off and to get input from the other countries on Colombia’s work to wind down the low-level war that has ravaged the country for more than 40 years. It’s left tens of thousands dead and over 3 million displaced.
Our international delegation is clearly a tempting target for any FARC commander with his back to the wall, and the government’s military might is on constant display. When we land in Armenia, our buses are joined by police escorts: two police officers on each of about three motorcycles is all we can see from the windows. It’s only when we alight at the Disneyish Hotel Las Camelias that the full security contingent is apparent. On either side of the imposing gates and amongst the miniature golf, tennis courts, swimming pools, and children’s playground are about 20 grim and earnest soldiers, clutching what I take to be M-16s. Their eyes follow us steadily; when someone tries to photograph them, they turn their backs to the camera.
The isolation, faux luxury, and heavy security of our location makes it seem like a wannabe G20, a feeling only exaggerated by the array of simultaneous interpreters: one for Spanish into English, another for English into Spanish. No one can quite manage Portuguese for the Angolans and Mozambiqueans, and French is done spontaneously by the participants themselves.
During our preliminary two-day conference, the inevitable government apparatchik had stood up and told us there is no longer any armed conflict in Colombia, simply a few thugs with absolutely no popular support—a fact that may well come as a surprise to the thousands of kidnap victims still in FARC hands or to the U.S. government, which gives Colombia roughly $750 million a year in financial and military assistance—or even members of the Uribe administration, most of whom have suffered the violence from the leftist guerrillas (FARC, ELN, M-19, EPL, the Socialist Renovation Current, etc.) or the several dozen right-wing paramilitary groups under the umbrella of the AUC (the Spanish acronym for “the United Colombian Self-Defense,” private armies fighting the guerrillas) or both. Some of their families have had as many as 20 relatives kidnapped. Though Colombia is tired of the right-versus-left fighting that has shredded the country continuously since the civil war of 1946–64 and has enacted various piecemeal laws to enable demobilization, there is no overarching peace accord.
Throughout the eight-day trip, it’s the extent that forgiveness has been wrought from exhaustion that’s most striking. From the president’s office to the poorest communities, victims and victimizers are building together. It’s not that they have forgotten the horror of having their relatives delivered in body bags or watching them be hacked to pieces by chainsaw in the town square—starting from the ankles and working up, so the victim lives (and screams) as long as possible, a preferred AUC tactic.
“We’re tired of the violence. We just want it to end,” says a weather-worn coffee farmer clinging to the back of our jeep as it heads up the dirt road from the small Risaralda town of Santuario to a cliff promontory called La Linda, a FARC stronghold from 1999 until 2003, when it was taken over by a paramilitary front known as the Heroes and Martyrs of Guática of the Central Bolivar Bloc of the AUC, who then demobilized here in December 2005. Now it is the site of a reintegration project: In 2009 the government funded a playing field and a schoolhouse in exchange for the community accepting the former fighters back into their fold, living and building the school alongside their former torturers. Our self-appointed guide refers to the AUC as los muchachos (“the boys”), still afraid to call them paramilitaries. He witnessed AUC chainsaw executions, yet speaks of the paramilitaries as cleansing the village of the FARC and of their brutally imposed curfews— anyone out at night was killed—as being for the villagers’ protection.