tourists taking a selfie in front of the entrance to Hacienda Nápoles theme park

After Five Decades of Civil War, Colombia’s Healing Begins

A peace accord has ended the fighting. But the countryside is littered with land mines, and criminal gangs are growing.

An airplane that drug lord Pablo Escobar used for smuggling cocaine adorns the entrance of Hacienda Nápoles. His once lavish estate is now a theme park with animal exhibits, waterslides, and dinosaur statues.
This story appears in the January 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.

‘Run!’ María Magdalena Padilla’s brother yelled to her mother. “This time it’s for real. Get away right now!”

María Magdalena, a 10-year-old known as Mayito, could see the black smoke coming from farther down the hill as the paramilitares, criminals with a right-wing ideological bent, advanced on the town of El Salado, setting fire to her neighbors’ houses as they approached. Mayito’s mother emptied all the corn out of a burlap bag so the chickens would have enough to eat, threw some clothing into it, and climbed on the back of the family donkey with Mayito, as her two older brothers walked alongside. For a full week they hid, with little water and almost no food, in the shacks that campesino families keep in their fields here.

“I remember that we children were always quiet during that time,” she says now. “Not even the babies seemed to cry.”

From a distance the terrified family could not have guessed the full extent of what was taking place in El Salado, a prosperous town by rural standards, at the center of territory disputed between left-wing guerrillas and their paramilitary adversaries. The assault produced one of the most horrifying episodes in Colombia’s five decades of brutal ideological warfare.

Villagers who hadn’t had time to flee were rounded up in front of the church, in a field normally used for pickup soccer games. As their relatives were forced to watch, the victims, accused of sympathizing with guerrillas, were taken into the center of the field one by one, tortured, mocked, knifed, and then strangled or shot. The paramilitaries beat those who cried out at the sight. They raped young women before killing them. They raided the community center, and, in this region of northern Colombia where music and dance are a central part of existence, they took the local band’s instruments and celebrated each murder with loud, drunken playing.

The killing in El Salado and nearby towns lasted six days, from February 16 to 21, 2000. By the end of it, 66 people were dead. Returning home with her family, the child Mayito recoiled from the sight of the charred houses and the lingering smell of death. This time no one in her immediate family was among the dead, but the family had already been traumatized: Mayito’s father had been murdered years earlier, accused of being a guerrilla sympathizer. Her mother packed up the family belongings as other survivors gave their relatives a hasty burial in four mass graves. Within a week, all of El Salado’s 4,000 residents had fled, joining more than two million other internally displaced Colombians at that time who were robbed of their families, their homes, their livelihoods, and their peace.

What makes this story different from other episodes of horror and heartbreak in Colombia is that the people of El Salado came back. In a stubborn return to this most unlikely promised land, the Saladeros took back their town two years after the killings, clearing the tropical vines that had climbed across roads, up walls, and into every empty room, whitewashing the adobe houses, and replanting the tobacco fields that had provided a tolerable income not so long before. There was no school for the children, but Mayito Padilla, by then 12 years old, decided to start one on her own, including literacy drills and the multiplication tables, and a history course in which her 37 students went over their own experiences so as not to forget the terrible events of the recent past.

Today, El Salado and Colombia are transforming their grim heritage. The girl now known as “Miss Mayito” worked her way through a degree in early childhood education and became the head of community relations in her hometown. And after half a century in which the war circled repeatedly in on itself, and after four years of painstaking negotiations, the country’s oldest guerrilla group, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—or FARC, by its Spanish initials—turned over the last of its weapons in June 2017 to a United Nations team. By then the entire country had been reshaped by violence. Now a lasting peace will have to be won, inch by inch. El Salado, with its head start on reconstruction, has given people hope that the country too can heal.

The reality is that in the two centuries since it gained independence from Spain, Colombia has rarely been without violent conflict. Some would argue that the latest cycle of bloodshed began on April 9, 1948, with the assassination of an overwhelmingly popular leader of the traditional Liberal Party, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán. The murder sparked deadly riots in the capital, Bogotá, and a 10-year wave of partisan killings—La Violencia—in the countryside. But long before that, members of the Conservative Party had been slaughtering Liberals, and often enough, vice versa.

In 1957 an agreement to end the violence by rotating power between both parties led to a decade or so of relative peace, and in the cities not many people took notice of a few dozen Liberal campesino families who’d been radicalized by a forceful communist organizer. Among those who did were the army, the sitting president, and an archconservative senator who accused the campesinos of wanting to create “independent republics” inside Colombia. In 1964 a military operation involving thousands of troops overran the Liberal group’s small, precipitous holdings in Colombia’s Andean foothills. Further radicalized by being bombed, the campesinos adopted the FARC name and embarked on a guerrilla war against the state that was to last 52 years.

The small band of radical campesinos with no weapons to speak of and no proper military training little by little recruited neighbors and nearby villagers, until their numbers exceeded the most fantastical expectations. Then the FARC grew again, explosively, in the 1980s, thanks to a war on drugs that began in the United States and was largely fought in Mexico and the Andean countries, where coca is grown. Leaves from the shrubby coca bush are medicinal, sacred to the native populations of the Andes. They’re also the central ingredient in cocaine, a chemical compound first developed in Germany in the mid-19th century. When growing coca was declared a criminal activity more than a hundred years later, Andean peasants simply moved what was by far their sturdiest cash crop to increasingly remote parts of Colombia’s vast hinterland. After all, some bloodthirsty drug mafia or other was always willing to pay top dollar for the otherwise useless plant.

Given the never-ending demand for recreational drugs from New York to Shanghai, the drug war only served to force prices ever upward. The FARC sensed an opportunity and stepped in. In exchange for protecting the campesinos from ruthless traffickers and ensuring standard prices for the coca leaves they harvested, the FARC levied an export tax for every kilo of processed coca paste that left the territories under its control.

Soon FARC troops had standardized uniforms and boots—and standard-issue combat weaponry too. Their numbers swelled to an estimated 20,000. The guerrillas were awash in money, and the leadership inevitably became corrupt, vicious, and hungry for more. Hardly revolutionary, they extorted, kidnapped, and set off bombs. And because FARC guerrillas attracted the attention of paramilitary groups that sprang up to combat them, they inflicted great suffering on the very campesinos they lived among. It was the FARC that the paramilitary killers in El Salado accused the villagers of sympathizing with, and it was the FARC that, backed into a corner militarily, finally signed a peace accord with the Colombian government on November 24, 2016, and turned over its weapons in June of last year.

From the peninsular Guajira Desert to the high Andean páramos, where it’s possible to walk with one’s head literally in the clouds; from the tropical plains along the Atlantic to the deep green jungles of the Pacific, this is a breathtaking country, with only 48 million people occupying a territory almost twice the size of France. Colombia has more varieties of hummingbirds, butterflies, orchids, frogs, and whatever other tropical living thing one can imagine than just about anywhere else on Earth.

Many people here are shockingly poor, which is particularly clear if you travel from the modern cities to, say, the Pacific region of Chocó, whose impoverished Indian and Afro-Colombian populations still navigate numerous broad rivers in canoes because there are so few roads. Visitors to the resort city of Cartagena are rarely told about an outlying barrio named after Nelson Mandela, where some 40,000 people, mostly refugees from the violence in places such as Chocó and El Salado, live in shameful conditions. Flying over the emerald-green country, you can see broad, gleaming rivers everywhere; steep valleys covered in a patchwork of coffee farms; lush pastures spreading like velvet cloaks toward the Amazon.

What you can’t see are the land mines.

When a round of peace talks in the early 2000s broke down, the tide of the war turned against the FARC, which intensified its use of mines—technically, improvised explosive devices, since they’re handmade—to obstruct the army’s hot pursuit. They’re bitter souvenirs of the guerrillas’ fight, and eradicating them is a crucial task faced by the government. Too often a campesino steps on a mine somewhere that was planted long ago, leaving a child blinded by shrapnel or a farmer missing a leg or an arm and no longer able to feed his family. According to the HALO Trust, a worldwide mine-clearing organization, Colombia has consistently ranked behind Afghanistan as the country with the second highest number of mine victims in the world; mines have killed or wounded more than 11,400 Colombians since 1990.

At age 17, after Antonio saw paramilitaries displace his family, he joined the FARC. At 22, he and other guerrillas met to talk about turning in their weapons. Within a year a peace pact was signed, leaving the rebels the task of reintegrating into towns they’d once terrorized.
At age 17, after Antonio saw paramilitaries displace his family, he joined the FARC. At 22, he and other guerrillas met to talk about turning in their weapons. Within a year a peace pact was signed, leaving the rebels the task of reintegrating into towns they’d once terrorized.

“Land mines did more damage to campesinos than to the army,” Álvaro Jiménez, a mine expert, told me. Jiménez is a former guerrilla himself (the organization he belonged to, the M-19, turned over its weapons to the government in 1990). Eighteen years ago he became the head of the Colombian Campaign Against Mines, which creates and sponsors harm-reduction programs in areas mined by the guerrillas. “Mines generate many fears,” he said. “Like the fear of venturing out after dark to look for a doctor if someone is sick, taking children to school. Normally campesinos live in a harmonious relationship with their surroundings. Mines destroyed that.”

Jiménez suggested I travel to the department of Nariño, a land of high rolling hills quilted in a patchwork of soft green fields and then a plunge to the untamed tropics of the Pacific coastline. In the remote town of Ricaurte, which like most urban clusters in Colombia is crowded and graceless and roaring with motorbikes, I was introduced to Cristian Marín, a member of the Awá indigenous people who live in a jungle preserve not far away. Slight, cinnamon skinned, and just a little potbellied, Marín is one of the youngest leaders to be elected by the Awá to solve disputes and deal with the outside world.

Marín speaks in a murmur and relies on understatement, so it’s hard to get a picture of the damage his community suffered without resorting to rude questioning, and it was only in response to one such interrogation that he told me about an army-guerrilla confrontation near his own family’s compound in which, as usual, neither party emerged the winner.

“And as usual,” Marín said, “the guerrillas mined as they retreated. So people decided not to leave their homes. They were afraid.” Besieged by fear, unable to work their fields or travel to market for supplies, they didn’t venture beyond their own yards for months, suffering accordingly. Marín didn’t mention, until I asked, that he himself had lost four relatives to mines. He seemed to me as incapable of optimism as a tree might be of flight.

We spoke under the shade of a leafy ficus in a public square bordered by nondescript municipal buildings. Marín was working in Ricaurte as an Awá representative, recruited to receive training in human rights. “It’s a political thing they want to do,” he said, shrugging. “There’s a budget for it—the Norwegians are giving money.” Nevertheless, he acknowledged, the effort was helping Awá citizens obtain legal documents and file complaints about human rights violations. And as part of the accords signed between the government and the FARC, a joint program with army personnel and demobilized guerrillas is beginning the slow and risky process of mine eradication. The current combat-free era is a great advantage too, he said: It’s easier now for Awá children to get at least the substandard schooling available to them. “In my school I was always behind,” Marín said, “because I spent so much time hiding under a mattress from the fighting.”

In the booming cities, with their sophisticated restaurants and art galleries and designer buildings, people could forget that a war was on. Even now that foreign investment is turning from a trickle to a flow and traffic jams are world-class, it’s hard to remember that this is a modest economy, with a government that runs on a painfully inadequate budget.

In Bogotá I talked with a prominent Colombian senator, Antonio Navarro Wolff, in a shabby office with a crowded waiting room barely large enough for a hermit and a phone system that looked like it was set up in 1980. Navarro Wolff, once a governor of Nariño, is something of an expert in posconflicto, given that he was a leader of the former M-19 guerrilla organization. His group demobilized successfully, and he has kept abreast of the many peace talks that have taken place over the years.

I asked him which post-conflict task the government should take on first, in light of budget and personnel limitations: Land restitution to campesinos evicted from their holdings by paramilitaries? Education and resocialization for some 7,000 demobilized guerrilla troops? Exhumations and identification of Colombia’s tens of thousands of “disappeareds”? Mine clearing?

“The principal, most urgent, question is only one,” Navarro Wolff answered. “Who is going to occupy the land abandoned by the FARC? The government or the new criminal bands?”

Guerrillas and paramilitaries fought for control of remote territories ideal for growing coca and the kind of poppy used for making heroin. “The guerrillas may go, but the land remains,” Navarro Wolff said. And so does the illegal drug trade—and the drug war. “What we need now is police. In the posconflicto the task will no longer be to kill criminals but to make sure that there are no new criminals. For that we need a security force, but right now we have barely 10,000 police” in rural areas, he explained.

In a great irony of this complicated war, the FARC may turn out to be by far the cheaper of two evils, compared with the cost of controlling the savage new drug-trafficking gangs taking over the territories where guerrillas and paramilitaries once fought for control. The government estimates that 5 percent of the guerrilla forces have refused to lay down their weapons and may eventually find their way into the ranks of the so-called bacrim (short for bandas criminales). Today these gangs are mostly involved in the drug trade, but they’re slowly taking over old guerrilla and paramilitary sidelines as well: extortion, kidnapping, and human trafficking.

And as Marín had told me in the little plaza of Ricaurte, “At least with the guerrillas, they had a central command one could negotiate with,” for things such as curfew hours. Not so with the new criminal bands. “They just say ‘plata o plomo,’ ”—silver or lead, meaning bribes or bullets—Navarro said. “And anyone with any brains at all will say, ‘Oh, I’ll take silver, because lead is far too heavy.’ ”

How will the 23 percent of Colombians who live in the countryside fare now that there’s peace? Over the course of half a century, more than seven million people left their homes in the rural areas most afflicted by guerrilla and paramilitary violence. The government’s reconstruction and reparations efforts are focusing on these regions. Seventeen years after the massacre that emptied out the town, El Salado is a good place to look for first results.

Set a couple of hours inland from the Caribbean shore, the town still isn’t much to look at: A gulch runs through the center, and an unrepaired aqueduct made water supply problematic when I visited. And yet for a cohort of its residents in exile, nostalgia for their place of birth proved strong enough for them to band together, 2,000 strong, in defiance of death threats and their own dreadful memories, to reclaim it.

Luis Torres led the return campaign 17 years ago, and when the first 130 people agreed to come back to El Salado, he raised the funds to hire the trucks that brought them home. An articulate 71-year-old with a rugged face and a startling liveliness about him, he was employed when I visited as the primary intermediary between the town and the Semana Foundation, which for many years coordinated the effort to resurrect El Salado.

In the beginning Torres had to negotiate permission for the residents to resettle their town with a FARC detachment that then held sway over the region. He subsequently spent three months in prison, charged with “rebellion,” and then went into a long exile in the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Spain before he felt it was safe to return. Now he glowed with a sense of accomplishment as he showed me the sights of his hometown: a cell phone tower that at last allows Saladeros to communicate with the outside world, a preschool, a hundred new houses for the community’s poorest families, a couple of storefront groceries, an evangelical church, a street lively again with scampering children, neighbors waving hello.

“When people first came back here, their fears were wide awake,” Torres remembered. “And they had a stigma chasing them. In the cities they say about us, ‘They must have done something if they had to leave their homes.’ No one wants to hire a displaced person. And for our part, we have a mistrust and fear that won’t go away. It’s only recently that people have started leaving their doors open.”

Depending on who was taking stock of the improvements—Torres or, say, me—one could see either heroic achievements against all the odds or modest recovery to the tune of millions of donated dollars, without solving many of the town’s most basic problems, including water, jobs, and education. And El Salado is just one small town out of thousands in similar straits. It was only two years ago that it acquired its most significant improvement: a 12-mile stretch of paved road that reduced travel to the nearest major town and highway to 30 minutes, down from as much as four hours, depending on the rain. Perhaps the transformation of El Salado has simply allowed it to become one more community without adequate water, sewage, education, health care services—and where all too many campesinos lack title to lands they may have occupied for generations.

Luis Torres has an ultimate dream: He sees himself standing in the crowd and applauding as the ribbon is cut on a technical school in his hometown, one that will train the kids who now zip around so aimlessly on their motorbikes for something better than a dirt-poor life. “Once I see that ribbon being cut, I’ll die in peace,” he said.

At the center of the new Colombia, the former guerrillas who played such a large role in creating the old one have grander dreams. “I want to help create equality not just for ourselves but for all the Colombian people and—why not?—for the world,” said a young man whose nom de guerre was Alex. We were sitting on an overlook, taking in an expanse of valley, all green fields and golden light. Behind us was a bare-bones communal kitchen, and around us a new settlement—one of 26 built from scratch in the past six months—designed to accommodate 300 or so demobilized guerrillas. The settlements are part of the 297-page agreement so laboriously negotiated between guerrilla leaders and the government. They’re supposed to contribute to a smooth transition into modern-day consumer society for some 7,000 fighters, now that they have laid down their weapons.

Despite the ramshackle quality of the dormitories—one wallboard room per guerrilla or guerrilla couple, toilet and shower stalls across the way—Alex was truly pleased with his new surroundings. All of 25, painfully shy of strangers and completely innocent of the ways of capitalism, he looked and acted more like a teenager, as if his real life had stopped when he ran away from his family to join the FARC at age 15. “No money, no work, no chance to study—my family was poor,” he explained. He said he had never had a moment of regret, but one wonders how much his situation improved: During his 10 years as a guerrilla fighter he never slept under a roof, saw his family, or used money. “Looking back, those were years of suffering and hardship,” he said. Sleeping most often in a hammock protected from the rain by a plastic sheet, bedtime was at six every day lest a conversation, a giggle, a lit cigarette give away the group’s location. Radios weren’t allowed, because an infiltrator might easily place a microchip locator in one. Crisscrossing the country with hundred-pound backpacks, guerrillas relied on rice as their main sustenance. On his first day out of training, Alex said, his group ambushed a military post, and he saw three of his young comrades die.

“One feels the change most in the tranquilidad,” he said. And then there are the dormitories: “Now we each have an opportunity to organize our little room as we like. Our bedtimes have changed, because some like to watch their telenovela, others their soccer game.” He worried that a monthly government subsidy of about $300 per demobilized fighter would be hard to administer properly, but the money was being deposited into a nearby bank. “Now that we’re civilians,” he said, “we have to learn to manage ourselves, and we know that out there you need money for everything.”

If the government had been bolder, or richer, or less hemmed in by loud opposition to the peace agreement in Congress and among Colombians in general, each former combatant would have received a far larger amount of money—enough to set up a curbside arepa stand, or finish school, or in other ways help ensure that a person reentering society from the equivalent of Mars, with only the clothes on his or her back, would find legality more attractive than a job with one of the criminal bands now hiring. The monthly subsidy will end in July of 2019, as will the demobilization territories, where the United Nations verification mission and the national police are ensuring safety and protection. It was almost unfair to ask Alex, still adjusting to the basics of his new life, how he saw the future after this transition period, but clearly it was something he and his mates discussed constantly.

“What I worry most about is security,” he said immediately. In the mid-1980s failed negotiations with the FARC included a truce, an amnesty, and the opportunity to create a political party, which was called the Unión Patriótica. Within the decade more than a thousand party militants had been assassinated, mostly in broad daylight and, instructively, in public spaces. Now the FARC is transforming itself into a new party, which is supposed to guide the ex-fighters, win elections, and lead Colombia into the new world Alex thinks his years of struggle have made possible. When he’s speaking in what might be considered his heroic voice, Alex muses about a future of collective effort and collective joy, but caught off guard, he dreams aloud about the little farm he hopes FARC leaders will arrange for him and the nursing degree or baking certificate to which others in his group aspire. He’d like to study too, finish elementary school and get his high school diploma. On the farm? He hesitates. Life is complicated and uncertain for everyone these days, but who knows? It might all work out in the end.

Alma Guillermoprieto, who lives in Bogotá, writes often about Latin America for the magazine. Photographer Juan Arredondo, formerly a chemist, is also based in Bogotá. This is his first National Geographic story.

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