QUIBDÓ, Colombia - Our goal was to reach an area under the control of fighters from the National Liberation Army in western Colombia to hear from the guerrillas themselves how they felt about recently announced peace talks with the government.
Leaving Bogotá, the outlook is grim. A paramilitary group has decreed an armed work stoppage that paralyzes the entire Pacific region of western Colombia, and several police agents have been killed. People are afraid. Streets are deserted. We have to wait one day in the city of Quibdó, capital of the Chocó province, because there's no transportation to take us to the jungle.
Finally a truck driver decides to take the risk, and we start our trek to the south. He speeds down a deserted road and we reach a mining town controlled by the paramilitaries. We slip past them unnoticed, board a river boat and head to the deepest jungle, toward the meeting with the ELN guerrillas.
The ELN's Eastern Front, which operates in the Pacific region, agreed to talk to us about the current situation in the war and the peace process. After several hours on the boat, and already in the dark of night, we finally reach our destination: a hamlet on the edge of a river where we await further instructions.
The sun rises and we see clearly where we are: a forgotten village in “the other Colombia,” a tiny black dot on the deep green of our maps, stuck in the past – no electricity or piped water.
Many houses are abandoned, and are losing the war against the jungle. People still living in the hamlet say that many others left in search of a better future somewhere else. The place has the look and smell of abandonment. Everything, including its people, seems to have suffered the effects of bad weather for centuries.
Don Pedro, owner of the one store, just returned from Cali. His wife suffered a stroke and was taken to the nearest hospital, an expensive trip of nearly 100 miles by river and road. The emergency steals all the savings of Don Pedro and his brothers. He's back to reopen the store while his wife recovers with relatives in the city. “Now we have to start from zero again. What else can we do?” he says, with a smile of resignation that reveals the flawless white of his teeth.
" Elenos"... and warm beer
Time goes by slowly. A boat arrives in the afternoon, carrying a group of "Elenos," as the ELN fighters are known. Uriel, a tall and thin comandante with gentle gestures, greets us and sends out for Gatorade before we sit down to talk. There's no Gatorade in the hamlet, or bottled water. Only beer, and it's not cold. We settle.
I tell Uriel that I have read about Colombian Air Force bombings of ELN camps in the region. I ask if any of the guerrillas I met on a previous reporting trip have been killed. Apparently not, but he tells me that because of an article I wrote after a meeting with the ELN a few months back, Colombian authorities offered a reward for a little dog owned by one of the comandantes. The guerrillas didn't think it was funny, and the dog was given away.
Uriel notices the camera I carry and asks me if it's the new Canon 1Dx, “the one that records 4K.” I tell him it's the new 5D, and I am intrigued by how a guerrilla who has been living in the jungle for decades is up to date on a model that Canon launched only a few days before.
I ask the question I came to ask: How did he and his fighters view the announcement of peace talks between the ELN and the government? Uriel says that in principle it's always good to give negotiations a chance, but that he remains a skeptic. With a firm voice, he argues that nothing has changed in the country.
On top of the resistance of conservative political forces, today there's also the threat of armed paramilitary groups who recently large parts of the country with a work stoppage to protest the peace talks.
Guerrillas v paras ... a little bit of background
Far from the financial centers of Bogotá y Medellín, the “other Colombia” remains mired in the archaic rhythms of a civil war that started in the middle of the last century. After more than five decades of armed conflict, that “other Colombia” suffers daily from backwardness and malnutrition, firefights and aerial bombardments.
In western Colombia, perhaps the most forgotten part of the country, the intensity and geographic extension of the war changes like the tides, with ebbs and flows. A huge region, which ranges from the foothills of the Western Andes to the Pacific coast and from the Darien jungle to the port of Buenaventura, all the different groups fighting in the war compete for territory.
For 52 years the National Liberation Army, known as ELN for its Spanish acronym, has fought the government in different parts of the country. Although its firepower is inferior to the better known Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the government has regarded the ELN as a threat to national security since the mid-1980s, when the group begins to recover from a string of defeats and increases its military muscle.
Since the 1990's, paramilitary groups have been waging their own war in Colombia. In those years, a group of major landowners and drug traffickers founded the United Self Defenses of Colombia (AUC) the second generation of paramilitaries to fight in the country's armed conflict. After a macabre history, full of massacres, selective assassinations and human rights violations of all types, 40,000 AUC demobilized in 2003, during the government of President Alvaro Uribe.
As usually happens in Colombia, however, a new generation inherited not just the war but the criminal activities of the AUC. Urabeños, Águilas Negras, Clan Úsuga and Autodefensas Gaitanistas are the names of some of the new paramilitary groups.
In 2015, according to the United Nations, 105 social and human rights activists were murdered in Colombia. Several organizations that study the conflict – like the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation – say more than 30 have been killed so far this year.
The threat from the paramilitaries looms as an enormous obstacle for the FARC and ELN putting down their weapons, because the guerrillas are acutely aware that their sworn enemies will not hesitate to kill them once they hand in their weapons, just as they did during several previous demobilization processes.
War, natural resources and the environment
Our chat is interrupted several times by people who stop by to greet the guerrillas. It's not surprising. After all, they are the only form of authority in the village. In many cases they ask the comandante for help, fixing their homes or paying their debts in the market.
Family finances in the countryside are very precarious, Uriel says. “The coca boom swept through this region, killing agriculture. The came illegal mining, which killed the rivers and soils. And now people live from day labor, harvesting coca leaves or cutting timber. They survive day by day, without any prospects for the future. The environmental damage is large, the infrastructure is zero and the alternatives are very few.”
Uriel says the guerrillas have several proposals to lessen the impact of human activity on the environment, but acknowledges that “when you hit people in the pocket, things get complicated.” The guerrillas slap a 50,000-peso fine ($70) for dumping garbage on the river, and developed a plan to regulate timber operations. Each family should have a quota, and there should be punishment for those who cut down trees but let them rot, out of laziness or drunkenness.
Uriel adds that the guerrillas also are “putting pressure” on the company that buys the timber to pay better prices, so that peasants don't have to cut down as many trees. A trunk 10 inches in diameter now brings nearly $20.
Gold is a different matter. The rivers in the region have been badly eroded, and dredges are working upstream, sending cloudy water and contamination downstream. It's easy to buy mining equipment, because there are mafias to finance them. Many people have taken bulldozers to their farms and destroyed the soil. The gold is running out and the only things left are the craters, which are never refilled because gasoline is expensive.
Chatting about the poor living conditions of the peasantry brings us back to the issue of the peace negotiations and the future of the ELN fighters. “The key challenge is what to do with the guys,” Uriel says. He says only a small group within the ELN would go into politics. And the rest? “It's not a matter of gracious business people offering minimum salaries to the fighters, but of transforming the way in which the country’s resources and the ownership of the land are distributed – for all Colombians, not just for demobilized guerrillas.
Uriel affirms that the ELN makes decisions in a democratic and consensual manner, and the Central Command then sets the road for the rest of the fighters – which means it can take time for the negotiations with the ELN to move forward. Early last year, for example, the idea of negotiating with the government gained strength during long and complicated debates among all the representatives from the war fronts to the V Congress of the ELN.
For now, as in its ongoing peace talks in Cuba with the FARC, the Colombian government has declared it will not negotiate any substantial changes in the country's political or economic systems with the ELN. That position clashes with the ambitions of both guerrilla groups who are fighting to force deeper reforms onto the national political agenda. Until then, Uriel and his men will remain entrenched in the jungles of western Colombia.
Night falls, and the comandante and his guard must leave. I say goodby to Uriel, with the strange knowledge that the person who spoke about the war and the future of my country for an afternoon – could be blown up by airplane bombs at any time.
An odd dusk highlights the clouds over the "other Colombia." I take out my cell phone and snap a photo for Instagram. As I put it down, I see Uriel doing the same from his boat. I realize I never asked for his Instagram handle.