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Jitters in rebel heartland over peace in Colombia

3 min

Planadas (Colombia) (AFP)

Esperanza Rivera, who grew up in the same mountains that gave birth to the FARC guerrillas, is happy about the Colombian peace deal -- but worries about what comes next.

After nearly four years of negotiations, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the government of President Juan Manuel Santos reached an agreement in Havana on Wednesday to end 52 years of warfare. The deal needs to be ratified in an October 2 popular vote.

"What we want is for the peace deal to be signed and for the plebiscite to win," said Rivera, 41, a farmer interviewed in the town of Planadas, where a 1964 armed peasant uprising gave birth to the FARC.

Rivera warns however that "another conflict, which no one talks about," is emerging, in a country where drug gangs have also fueled the violence.

"As long as the guerrillas were here, criminals were kept away," Rivera said. "But now, since the criminals will have no one to fear, we will be unprotected."

Police "do not come out to the countryside, there is no security force to defend us from common criminals," she said.

- Not even a hen -

In Planadas "the bandits greatly feared the guerrillas, so they wouldn't steal even a hen because there was someone to punish them."

Rivera hopes that with peace they will also get "more help from the government, which has abandoned us."

Another local, 59 year-old Jorge Ardila, said that he also wants peace but has doubts about what was negotiated.

"I don't think that there is anyone in the universe that doesn't want peace," he told AFP. "But before taking a stance I should know what was agreed upon."

Ardila claims that his father, Pedro Antonio Ardila, was a nurse for FARC founder Manuel "Tirofijo" (Sureshot) Marulanda, who died in 2008 of apparent natural causes.

Ardila said that his father became Marulanda's nurse soon after the FARC was formed while working at the same time as an army nurse.

"He would perform his medical services in the army and then, in a clandestine way, also help the guerrillas," Ardila said.

Eustacio Jimenez, 75, is even more skeptical about the peace accord.

"Reaching peace in Colombia is very difficult because there is a lot of poverty and unemployment," he said.

Negotiations are fine, but there will be no peace if those issues are not also included in the bargaining, he said.

Jimenez's prediction: "more blood will be spilled."

According to Jimenez, there are "more people under arms than working in the field."

A life-long farmer, Jimenez knows well the mountains surrounding Planadas, which for decades have been key corridors the FARC to reach other rural areas.

- Power vacuum -

Many locals are silent about their true thoughts about the future, wary of what could happen if they speak out.

The conflict, which has left 260,000 dead and 45,000 missing, has forced them to hone their survival skills.

"Here there are eight, nine sets of laws: those set by the guerrillas, the paramilitary groups, the gangs ... " a local who prefered to not identify himself told AFP.

Experts say the power vacuum that will emerge when the FARC demobilizes might be filled by other illegal groups.

Candidates include the National Liberation Army (ELN), another leftist rebel group, and criminal gangs that emerged from the remnants of right-wing paramilitary forces demobilized between 2003 and 2006.

"That is a risk," Kyle Johnson with the International Crisis Group told AFP.

Colombia does have some experience in this area: in the 1990s the government reached peace agreements with other guerrilla groups, and 10 years later the country's paramilitaries were demobilized.

Both cases showed that power vacuums "can be filled by other illegal armed groups," Johnson said.

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