It was here, on steep green hillsides reachable by mule train, that peasants armed with old bolt-action rifles became the FARC, a rebel group that would use the bounties of the drug trade to wage decades of war against the U.S.-supported government.
But today, the FARC’s commanders and old guard say they are ready to begin official peace talks with Colombia’s government, the fourth time since the 1980s that the two sides will negotiate.
That has given the people of this region, who have lived since 1964 in the midst of one of the world’s oldest conflicts, a faint hope that the violence they have known all their lives could at last come to an end.
It is a glimmer that is felt particularly, if ever so cautiously, by those whose families have spilled blood, such as Noemi Caicedo’s. In January, her 18-year-old son, Jhoan Lenin, a FARC fighter who she said had been forcibly recruited, was killed in a firefight with the army.
“I think it’s time for things to calm down,” said Caicedo, 36, who lives here on the edge of a mountain where local lore holds that a determined band of farmers formed the FARC, or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. “There’s been so much violence, so much blood spilled. It’s time.”
As President Juan Manuel Santos’s government prepares for negotiations to begin next month, polls show that most people in this country of about 47 million have embraced the possibility that talks could lead the FARC to lay down its weapons. But it is not in the big, modern cities of Colombia where a brutal conflict still burns these days — albeit slowly.
It is in places such as Marquetalia, where counterinsurgency troops chase guerrillas and where people feel forced to choose sides: selling beans and chickens to the rebels and being branded as support staff to the guerrillas, or siding with the state and winding up as targets of rebel assassins.
“You have to stay put — don’t go with one side or the other,” said Carlos Julio Mendez, 33, who worries about the safety of his wife and their four daughters. “That’s our life. You have to take care of yourself, your life and what you have.”
In interviews across these rugged mountains, and in the hamlets where guerrillas and soldiers have long battled, people said they want peace. But they also said that they are suspicious of both sides and their promises.
Many spoke in hushed tones about past army abuses, such as the killings of peasants by rogue military units.
Others bitterly recalled the previous negotiations between the state and the FARC that broke down, the latest in 2002: Then-President Andres Pastrana accused the rebel group of using a Switzerland-size demilitarized zone ceded to them for negotiations to stockpile weapons and orchestrate military strikes.
“Could this be the same as before?” asked Carlos Andres Cardenas, 28, a town official in the nearby county seat, Planadas. “We’re afraid. We’re afraid that this will be like it was before. We want them to do this peace process right and that they don’t forget about the people.”
In these mountains of southern Tolima state in the 1950s, communist guerrillas and their allies, self-defense groups from the Liberal Party, began organizing to fight against the army and hired pistoleros from the Conservative Party. That sectarian bloodletting, known as “La Violencia” and resulting in an estimated 200,000 deaths nationwide, spawned an insurgency that broadened its fight for land into a revolutionary war for power.
The terrain here, where coffee farms carpet rolling hills that rise into peaks topping 16,000 feet, proved perfect for the guerrillas: easy to defend, with trails that offered a clear escape to lowland jungles to the south.
When the army deployed 1,500 soldiers on May 27, 1964, to corral a few dozen fighters led by Pedro Antonio Marin, the battered band escaped and the FARC was born. Marin, who took the nom de guerre Manuel Marulanda and led the FARC until his death in 2008, once described the guerrillas’ emergence as coming about “spontaneously, nebulously, as the peasants became protagonists of their own history.”
By the late 1990s, the FARC was more an army, with an estimated 18,000 fighters and thousands of civilian supporters, or militiamen. Funding its operations from the cocaine trade that thrives in regions where it holds sway, the FARC spread nationwide and had the capacity to overrun army bases and whole towns.
The momentum has shifted over the past 12 years, as nearly $9 billion in U.S. aid — 70 percent of it geared toward the military — began to flow in. That helped Colombia improve its counterinsurgency efforts, from intelligence gathering to providing transport helicopters and better training, giving the advantage back to the state. Seasoned FARC commanders have been killed or captured, and the rebel group’s influence is now confined to remote rural regions.
Some of the government’s success is apparent even here.
“We have security. It’s not perfect — this is Planadas, after all,” said the local army commander, Col. Jairo Leguizamon, who is 42 and has been in the service since he was 15. “But people can do their work, get their products to market.”
Guerrillas once patrolled the streets of Planadas, the only state presence being a small police outpost that was constantly under attack. Today, the military is here, roads are being built by army engineers, the prosecutor’s office is active, and social programs are being introduced.
The government says that new reality is found across the country and is prompting a new generation of FARC commanders — the youngest of whom are in their late 50s — to engage Santos.
Even the FARC’s supreme leader, Rodrigo Londono, who is better known as Timochenko, acknowledged in a video shown in Cuba last week that the rebels “arrive at this new attempt at reconciliation besieged.” The military pressure is expected to continue during the talks, with Santos telling reporters last week that there will be no cease-fire.
Still, the FARC is far from gone, and the low-intensity violence in this region underscores the challenges facing a state that until recently never held much authority here.
The rebels have been an especially stubborn presence along the wall-like mountains that rise from rapids in and around Marquetalia. Here, life has always been hard. Farmers grow beans and raise cattle along what appear to be impossibly steep hillsides where one false step can mean a 1,000-foot plunge.
It is a region begging for the state’s attention, locals say. Mario Medina, 50, who raises dairy cows, noted that the state has been pledging roads and other services for years.
“Development would be good, and we’d also like peace,” he said. “In this place, we’re forgotten. In these corners, very forgotten, as you can see.”
Among the most forgotten is Marquetalia.
Noemi Caicedo’s rambling wooden house is on an abandoned army base. Old trenches, some several feet deep, are a stone’s throw from her porch, overlooking a valley where the guerrillas made their escape from troops 48 years ago.
It was here that Marulanda — dreaming of revolution with his compatriots — plotted his next move.
Now, Caicedo said, she hopes that the negotiations lead to peace and that the two sides make the symbolic decision to sign an armistice here.
“I hope it happens, because there’s been so much war,” she said. “It would be so nice if it would happen here.”