Kids Dodge Bullets as Colombian Candidates Debate Peace DealMatthew Bristow
School children dived for cover in Toribio, in western Colombia, when Marxist rebels attacked the town’s police station in March. During 15 days of fighting, teachers waving white flags evacuated pupils three times, as stray rounds smacked into their classrooms.
The school, 300 meters (about 1,000 feet) from a fortified police base, is on the front line of a 50-year fight between the state and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, that is shaping Colombia’s June 15 run-off presidential vote. The candidates, who advocate similar economic policies, disagree on the best way to end a conflict that has left 200,000 dead.
Incumbent Juan Manuel Santos pledges to continue peace talks with the guerrillas and doesn’t rule out offering them congressional seats as part of a deal. Opposition candidate Oscar Ivan Zuluaga promises a “full-frontal assault on terrorism,” arguing that the FARC should not be rewarded with political power for murdering soldiers and civilians.
“All Colombians want the war to end, the difference is in the path to get there,” said Laura Wills, director of Visible Congress, a Bogota-based group that promotes political transparency. “Zuluaga wants to end the conflict in a way that’s less pacifist than Santos.”
No one at the school was injured in the recent fighting, according to principal Maria Elena Santacruz. Two students needed surgery after receiving bullet wounds during a 2009 firefight, she said.
A Gallup poll published June 5 gave Zuluaga the backing of 48.5 percent in the second round, compared with 47.7 percent for Santos. The poll of 1,200 people has a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
Zuluaga, who served as finance minister from 2007-2010 during the presidency of Alvaro Uribe, beat Santos and three other candidates in the first round of voting on May 25, with 29.3 percent, compared to 25.7 percent for the president. In Cauca province, which includes Toribio, Santos got 45 percent of the vote, compared with 16.3 percent for Zuluaga.
Toribio has suffered more than 600 attacks over the past decade, a greater number than anywhere else in Colombia, according to the town’s Governor Esneyder Gomez, who described the most recent fighting from March 21 to April 5.
“We decided that the lesser of two evils is the candidate who is negotiating peace,” Gomez said in a June 6 interview. “Santos was very hard on this region when he was Defense Minister, but now we see him focused on peace.”
The FARC declared a unilateral cease-fire during the elections, and refrained from interfering with the voting in Toribio, which Gomez says was “unprecedented.” The school, where the FARC once blew a hole in a wall to set up a machine gun post, is Toribio’s polling station.
Zuluaga, 55, who studied at the University of Exeter in England, backs many of economic policies followed by Santos, including support for foreign investment and a rule to curb the government’s ability to run deficits.
Santos, 62, has pursued talks with the FARC in Cuba since 2012. The parties have reached agreements on giving land to poor farmers, political participation and anti-drug policy, and will now discuss reparations to victims, the end of the conflict, and the implementation of the deals. None of the agreements will take effect until a full peace deal is signed that ends hostilities.
In May, government and FARC negotiators said they had agreed to cooperate in the fight against drug-trafficking. In Toribio, illegal crops account for about 40 percent of the local economy, according to Gomez.
At night, the mountains surrounding the town are dotted with the lights of farms growing marijuana, which use lightbulbs to accelerate the plant’s growth. Local farmers also grow coca, the raw material for making cocaine, and opium poppies, as well as fruit and coffee.
Santos has pledged a massive crop-substitution program if peace is signed, paying farmers to replace illegal crops.
The mountains around Toribio are strategic for the FARC as they connect drug-producing regions with the Pacific Ocean, according to Gomez. Drug traffickers must pay the guerrillas protection money to operate in the area, he said.
“I wouldn’t come to an agreement on anti-drug policy with the world’s biggest drug cartel,” Zuluaga said in a May interview.
The rebels often set up checkpoints in the mountain roads around Toribio, while the police and army come in and out on helicopters provided by the U.S.
Security deteriorated in the region after Santos failed to press home the advantage that the army had at the end of the 2002-2010 Uribe presidency, said Alfredo Rangel, a senator-elect who supports Zuluaga.
“During Uribe’s government, the guerrillas in Cauca were very significantly weakened,” Rangel said in a June 10 interview. “If Santos had continued Uribe’s policies, the FARC would have half the strength they had at the end of Uribe’s second term, and we’d be able to impose severe conditions in negotiations with this terrorist group.”
Santos’ government tracked down and killed the FARC’s top two leaders and dozens of its mid-ranking commanders. He rejected the rebels’ offer of a bilateral cease-fire during the talks, saying that would give them a chance to regroup.
“I have been the FARC’s worst enemy, but peace is made between enemies,” Santos said in a May 22 presidential debate.
Uribe, who backed Santos’ run for president four years ago, now attacks his former Defense Minister in interviews and on Twitter, accusing him of backsliding on security. Acts of terrorism jumped to 830 last year, up 76 percent from 2010 when Santos took office, according to the Defense Ministry. Attacks on oil pipelines rose to 259 from 31 over the same period.
A decline in support for Santos in the run-up to the election came even as Colombia’s economy grew 4.3 percent last year, outpacing Brazil, Mexico and Chile, while the inflation rate fell to a six-decade low of 1.8 percent in November.
Colombia’s dollar bonds have returned 25 percent since Santos took office, after receiving investment grade from Standard & Poor’s, Fitch Ratings and Moody’s Investors Service in 2011. The benchmark Colcap index rose 9 percent. Santos says that Colombia can achieve “Asian” rates of growth should the conflict end. Gomez agrees.
“Without war we can do so much more,” Gomez said. “We can have more investment, and a better economy and culture, if we don’t have to waste so much time worrying about defending our lives.”