Deep in the Andes mountains in southwest Colombia, where Marxist rebels have ruled for decades, school children are issued white flags for evacuation during firefights that break out with the army.
While the country’s military patrols the sugar plantations around the valley city of Cali, the guerrillas hold sway in the farms and villages above, imposing taxes and regulations on the many marijuana growers.
So farmers in the mountains caught in the crossfire might be expected to be rooting for historic peace talks between the state and the rebels as the negotiations enter their final phase.
Instead, they are afraid.
The guerrillas, they say, have served as their authorities all their lives and their removal risks bringing not peace but a power vacuum and chaos.
“Other people will take up arms under new names and things could get even worse,” said Vladimir Bueno, a community leader from near the town of Corinto in Cauca province, as he contemplated what would happen if the state abandons the region after the rebels disband.
Adam Isacson, a Colombia specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America, says his concern is legitimate. “There’ll be a window when the government can move into that zone without having to shoot its way in because there isn’t another armed group really established there,” he said. “That window is going to close quickly all over the country.”
For nearly three years, the government of President Juan Manuel Santos has held talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, seeking an end to its insurgency that began in the 1960s. The talks appear close to conclusion but what happens afterwards will determine whether rebel-held zones like Cauca can function.
The region, which depends heavily on marijuana sold domestically, will clearly be a challenge to govern. Much of it is dominated by the FARC’s sixth front, one of the group’s most active and aggressive fighting units. Guerrilla banners and graffiti deck streets and houses.
“Our ideology keeps us here, defending the people,” said a FARC member with a military-style radio, standing outside a row of shops monitoring passers-by.
Repeated army assaults have failed to dislodge the rebels, and the security forces often come under guerrilla sniper and mortar fire when they enter the area. The guerrillas have lost power since the last peace process broke down in 2002 but they continue to control swathes of territory.
The FARC forbid the marijuana farmers from smoking their own product on pain of expulsion from the region. Some of the money to finance their war with the military comes from taxes levied on the illegal drug production.
Some locals fear a crime wave after the guerrillas disband.
“If they achieve a peace deal, this area could suffer a terrible deterioration because there’ll be people from the guerrillas with nothing to do who could form gangs,” said one marijuana farmer in the area, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
One of the goals of the peace talks is to substitute illegal crops but it is unclear if the government has the means to do so.
Isacson cited the Catatumbo region bordering Venezuela as an example of what could go wrong. After the paramilitary group that controlled the area demobilized in 2003, the region remained largely abandoned by the state, was quickly overrun by the guerrillas, and today remains one of the country’s biggest cocaine-producing regions.
The area planted with coca in Colombia rose 44 percent last year to 69,000 hectares, according to the United Office on Drugs and Crime, which monitors illegal crops by satellite. That’s enough to produce more than 400 tons of cocaine.
The government last year reached an agreement with FARC negotiators to cooperate in the fight against illegal drugs, including through crop substitution. A senior FARC commander known as Carlos Lozada this month proposed that the agreement be implemented immediately, even before a full peace deal is reached with an end to hostilities.
Finance Minister Mauricio Cardenas estimates that a peace accord will boost economic growth by about 1 percentage point per year, making it easier to finance post-conflict programs. But Bank of America puts the figure at only 0.3 percentage point a year, less than the amount the economy lost due to falling oil prices. Oil is Colombia’s biggest export.
The government said in May that it will end aerial spraying of illegal crops because the World Health Organization identified the herbicides as carcinogenic. It plans to send in workers to dig up illegal crops by hand and offer farmers incentives to grow coffee and cacao, used to make chocolate.
“Crop substitution with the permanent support of the state is a solution that is much more sustainable over time,” Justice Minister Yesid Reyes said in a June interview in Bogota. “Mechanisms like spraying with glyphosate aren’t sustainable because they don’t offer any alternative to growing illegal crops. You just kill the crop, then the state moves elsewhere.”
Already more than half of the cacao in Colombia is being grown under crop substitution programs, Reyes said.
Farmers in Cauca, where the state barely exists, say they’ve seen few such programs.
The Colombian state simply may not have the money to implement the land reforms and crop-substitution programs it has negotiated, according to Isacson. Without roads, irrigation programs, credit for farmers and land titles, all of which will cost billions of dollars, much of the countryside will remain dependent on illegal crops and dominated by organized crime, he said.
He added, “We do worry that the negotiators are writing checks they can’t cash.”