LA GABARRA, Colombia — Nearly two years after a historic peace accord ended Latin America’s longest-running insurgency and garnered a Nobel Prize, an old scourge is again spreading across the rural valleys and jungle towns of Colombia’s northeast — guerrilla warfare.
Here in the Catatumbo region — a rugged terrain dotted with streams, oil fields and palm plantations — guerrilla groups have been fighting for three months to take over a former domain of the FARC, the Marxist force disbanded under the peace deal. The violence has generated the largest wave of displaced people since 2007, according to the United Nations’ Refugee Agency.
Fighting is intensifying as the cultivation of the coca leaf, the building block of cocaine, has soared to record highs, topping even levels seen when the FARC — the Spanish acronym for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — ruled large swaths of the region. Since March, more than 9,000 people have been at least temporarily forced to flee their homes. During the same period, according to a leading human rights group, dozens of people have been kidnapped, assassinated or wounded — either by land mines or by armed forces operating in the region, which include the Colombian military.
The peace accords were reached after a years-long offensive by Colombian security forces and a $10 billion security aid package from the United States, which regards this South American country as a top ally. Now, with violence rising in numerous former guerrilla strongholds, the peace process is at a crossroads. Colombians on Sunday will chose between two starkly different presidential candidates — a right-wing senator critical of the peace deal, and a leftist former mayor and ex-guerrilla who backs it.
Whoever wins will be forced to confront a troubling truth: From the Pacific coast in the west to the Venezuelan border in the east, Colombia’s new era of peace is already fraying.
“We had hope after the peace accord but now we see its limitations,” said Maria Carvajal, a 47-year-old merchant forced to flee to this isolated town in April after receiving threats from a resurgent guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN).
At a shelter where she lives with 31 families, she pointed at the old mattresses lined up against a wall and shook her head. “This is no life, and we are tired of living in fear,” she said, rubbing her eyes. “We’re tired of it all.”
As recently as a year ago, the future of the peace deal seemed bright. Outgoing President Juan Manuel Santos struck the deal in August 2016, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. After Colombia’s Congress ratified the peace deal in December 2016, thousands of members of the FARC turned in their arms in an operation heralded by the United Nations as a textbook case of conflict resolution. The impact was felt nationwide. In a country with a history of extreme violence, 2017 was the least deadly on record since the 1970s.
Yet by late last year, Congress was struggling to implement key parts of the deal. Lawmakers ultimately passed legislation on only half of the accord’s provisions under a fast-track authority associated with the deal that ran out in December.
Some have returned to the forests with the intention of forming their own armed bands or joining others, according to the Rev. Victor Peña, a Catholic priest in the regional hub of Tibu who has regular dealings with former FARC fighters.
“We’re going to find ourselves in the same situation as before,” Peña said. “Why? Because the government has not done enough to secure peace.”
The peace deal was always envisioned as a long-haul mission, one that could take decades to fully implement. But as a result of a slow-moving process, critics say, violence has started to spike again. During the first four months of the year, killings jumped 32.4 percent in 170 municipalities in post-conflict zones and 45 percent in areas where the government is seeking to supplant coca cultivation, according to Ideas for Peace, a Bogota-based think tank.
The violence has surged as the Colombian government has struggled to reassert itself in areas formerly controlled by the FARC. When the rebels ruled parts of Catatumbo, for instance, they brought a ruthless kind of law and order to a land known for minerals, oil and, especially, coca crops. Their departure left a power vacuum. The ELN, now Colombia’s largest guerrilla outfit, with bases of operation in Venezuela, and a smaller leftist force known as EPL — the Popular Liberation Army — have clashed for control of smuggling routes in the region.
“We’re throwing away peace,” Humberto de la Calle, one of the architects of the peace deal, wrote in an appeal to the nation in April.
The front-runner in Sunday’s vote — the conservative, U.S.-
educated Iván Duque — has called for alterations to the peace deal that his opponents say could renew tensions, and perhaps conflict, with former FARC fighters. Duque is the protege of former president Álvaro Uribe, who aggressively targeted the FARC and ELN in the first decade of the century. The 41-year-old candidate of the Democratic Center party is calling for a far more potent effort to forcibly eradicate coca and confront the Colombian and Mexican narco-traffickers operating within Colombia’s borders.
Duque’s opponent is Gustavo Petro, 58, of the Progressive Movement. He is a former member of the M-19 urban guerrilla movement who later became a senator and mayor of Bogota. He is accused by opponents of being cut from the same cloth as leftists Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro, the late presidents of Venezuela and Cuba. Petro has indeed lauded those leaders in the past, but he has more recently sought to moderate his line.
In a highly charged, polarized campaign, Petro’s camp has labeled Duque a warmonger whose proposals risk destroying the peace deal. Yet many observers see Duque as fundamentally more moderate than Uribe, and he may be careful to avoid steps that would doom the deal.
“Duque is going to gamble that most former FARC won’t go back to the jungles over the changes he wants,” said Adam Isacson, director of defense oversight for the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank.
“But the FARC could also call his bluff,” he said. “We already see that after a period of time when vast areas of the country became newly safe, the hot spots are getting hot again.”
In Tibu — a city of 36,000 with deep memories of six decades of civil war — the Colombian military was trying its best on a recent afternoon to win hearts and minds. Two soldiers in clown outfits made squeaky balloon animals for children, while a team of army engineers was fixing a nearby road, part of several infrastructure improvements.
The army is also trying to carry out the promises of the peace deal by paving a 35-mile stretch of road between Tibu and the northern town of La Gabarra, hoping to make it easier for farmers to get legal crops to market.
“We know it took a long time,” Col. Edison Arisa said. “But we’re here now.”
The military is not just engaged in civic work, however. In recent weeks, it has staged 25 operations in the area, killing or capturing 30 fighters and destroying 200 cocaine labs.
In La Gabarra, Carvajal, the displaced merchant, characterized the government’s response as too little, too late.
In April, her family of four was one of 31 families forced from their dwellings in a village two hours away by threats from ELN members. The families had settled there in January, after being pushed off their land in another area by armed indigenous tribes.
“We’ve been displaced twice in five months,” she said. “Our children aren’t going to school. We don’t even know how long we can stay here. We want peace. We believe in peace. But we’ve been abandoned — abandoned by the state.”
Dylan Baddour in Bogota, Colombia, and Rachelle Krygier in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.