Six years ago Adolfo López, 57, returned to the provincial town of Madrigales, in the Andean mountains of southwestern Colombia, to pick up the remains of his son.
David López had been killed in a bomb attack carried out by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a Marxist insurgency that was at war with the state for over half a century until agreeing to lay down its arms in a historic peace deal last year.
The commander responsible for his son’s death now lives just a mile up the hill from this cloud-covered mountain town in the FARC’s disarmament zone.
Accepting that fact has not been easy for López, an influential peasant leader in Madrigales who until recently made a living growing coca plants, the raw material for making cocaine. But he maintains that for Colombia to heal its wounds, it needs to look to the future. “I’ll learn to forgive [the commander] one day,” he says with a solemn expression.
For a town with only around 2,000 inhabitants, Madrigales suffered directly from the violence of Colombia’s long civil war, in which more than 300,000 people were killed and a further seven million displaced over the last 52 years. Locally, 69 people were murdered in little over a decade, almost entirely at the hands of paramilitary groups backed by the state.
The state has never existed in any meaningful way here, and its residents live exclusively from the export of coca, the base ingredient that goes into cocaine, a multi-billion dollar industry that Colombia has been trying to wipe out for the past three decades. So far, efforts have had little lasting success.
In photos: Peace in Colombia rests on finding an alternative to cocaine production
Half of the world's supply of cocaine comes out of Colombia. Of that 80 percent currently comes out of Nariño, the province where Madrigales is located – the bonafide cocaine capital of the world.
This is a pivotal moment for Colombia, as the FARC fighters have begun to hand over their arsenal of weapons, part of the disarmament process in last year's peace agreement.
An essential part of the peace accord is also to end the illegal drug trade, on which the FARC also relied to sustain itself. But that requires the state to pour money into the countryside and provide a viable alternative to the booming coca market, worth $88 billion worldwide.
In November, the government announced an ambitious plan to eradicate 250,000 acres of coca, up from just 45,000 last year; half through forced eradication and half through a voluntary substitution scheme.
This is not the first time the government has attempted crop substitution, but it is a unique window of opportunity, say experts. If the government can provide a viable alternative to coca crops, it can stem the flow of money that has fueled the intractable conflict for decades. If not, it risks plunging the country into further bloodshed, leaving criminal groups to battle over control of the lucrative drug trade.
There is already resistance to the scheme. Dissident FARC groups have protested the peace process and various criminal gangs have left pamphlets and Whatsapp messages threatening coca growers across the country if they quit the business.
Meanwhile, social leaders across the country are being assassinated by armed criminal groups. The U.N. estimates that 42 have been killed since January, although the government disputes that number. Two former FARC members have also been murdered, calling into question the state’s ability to deliver on its promise of safety for all.
Despite these setbacks, Colombia expert Bruce Bagley, at the University of Miami, remains hopeful. “The peace process hasn’t yet failed – though it’s been rocky … commodity prices are down, and revenues are not sufficient, and international funding has been relatively limited," he said.
What the country desperately needs, he believes, is something like a Marshall Plan in the countryside, referring to the American initiative to help Europe recover economically after World War II.
Funding from the European Union is dwindling as its member states deal with growing refugee crises and terrorist threats. The U.S. pledged $450 million under the Obama administration for "Peace Colombia," but it remains unclear if Trump will honor that agreement.
"We want to be like the U.S."
Arnulfo Velazquez, a local commander of the FARC’s 8th Front, is concerned about economic support for the peace process. During a recent meeting in the camp's "reception" – a neutral spot where official guests can talk to the guerrillas – he wears a colorful scarf and leather brimmed hat. He says that the government is not providing enough guarantees for coca growers.
"We want to be like the U.S. ... The farmers there have the best deal in the world," he says with a smile, referring to the billion-dollar U.S. government farm subsidies.
Until last year, the coca business in this region was dominated by the FARC, who imposed a "revolutionary tax" on coca growers' profits, but since November, its 7,000 guerrilla fighters have retreated to disarmament camps.
Even though there are close to 1,000 security personnel patrolling Madrigales, as well as a delegation from the U.N., the atmosphere is tense.
There have been unconfirmed sightings of camouflaged men in the area, which could indicate the presence of paramilitaries, or armed criminal gangs involved in the drug trade.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding the peace process, the FARC fighters have stayed in their precarious make-shift camps, awaiting disarmament. And there have been almost no ceasefire violations.
A third of the country – which was previously either under FARC control or in no-man’s land – is now officially under Colombian government control, except for small areas disputed by the country’s other insurgent group known as the ELN.
An estimated 34 percent of the coca growers across the country have signed onto the initiative. The state plans to involve over 80,000 and invest over $600 million into the crop substitution program.
However, one of the perverse side-effects of this is that many coca growers have planted more crops in the hope that they will be compensated proportionally. This partially explains Colombia’s current coca boom, which has jumped 80 percent over the last two years.
In its infancy
The program to substitute coca crops is in its infancy, and has not yet begun in Madrigales. A separate U.N.-backed eradication program around the FARC’s disarmament zone, has produced some partial results; 105 families were compensated, with an initial $1,200 each, and they have been promised the same amount to launch alternative projects.
However, not all the growers are content with the results, and are still distrustful that the government will deliver on its promises. “It’s enough to subsist on,” says López, whose crop was eradicated, “but I haven’t received the second payment – no one has,” he adds.
López explains how the town's infrastructure was built by the community with the proceeds of coca farming. Everything that the government has built, he says – such as the local school and the medical center – is “half finished.”
Around Madrigales, there is little infrastructure in evidence. Except for the state highway that runs through the area, almost all the dirt roads are pot-holed, accessible only with a 4x4 or a motorbike. The few that are paved were built by the townspeople, with coca money.
López believes that if the government doesn’t deliver on its crop substitution promises, people will move down the nearby Patia River that runs through these valleys to mine gold.
Sebastian Sanchez from the state Land Agency, the government body responsible for implementing the crop substitution program in the area, says that the plan is to strengthen the crops that are already grown locally, such as coffee and cacao.
The big challenges have to do with economics: a coca grower can make much more a day with an acre of coca, compared to a farmer who plants coffee. Farmers are not currently exporting any of these products, but with the help of the program, which will pour in over $600 million over two years, they hope to have the farmers ready.
Sanchez admits that it won’t produce quick results – the agency will be implementing the project over the next 15 years.
Nariño and other coca growing regions of Colombia shifted from food crops to coca in the 1980s, as drug cartels like Pablo Escobar’s Medellin-based cartel expanded and forced small-scale growers into the cocaine business, or else bought them out.
Repeated failures at agrarian reform in the countryside have made it almost impossible for small scale farmers to produce any other product than coca, with lack of farm-to-market roads, or access to credits.
The U.S. invested $10 billion over the last 16 years in an initiative known as Plan Colombia, ostensibly to end the coca trade and bring development to the countryside, but the money was used largely used for military purposes to wipe out the FARC guerillas.
While it was a success in military terms, modernizing Colombia's military infrastructure and lowering homicides and kidnapping rates across the country, it barely scratched the surface of rebuilding the rural economy.
“Colombia needs to catch up on all the stuff it hasn’t done in the last 500 years," says Bagley. "With no change in that pattern, then Colombia could resort to the wild west violence that has characterized areas of the country in the recent past.”
López is skeptical that the government will deliver on the peace deal, and he recalls the result of a previous disarmament process with the paramilitary AUC a decade ago. After formally disbanding, some of the local paramilitary stashed their weapons and came back to the region as a criminal gang known as the “New Generation.”
Nevertheless, he wants things to change. “We are happy that Nariño is in the news even if for a bad reason – that means the government can’t ignore us anymore,” he says.