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Paramilitaries Likely to Continue Terrorizing Colombia Even After a Peace Deal

The case of Sixta Campo — a community leader in a small town plagued by paramilitary threats and violence — shows why a government peace deal with FARC guerrillas won't solve all the country's problems.

by Meredith Hoffman
Nov 9 2014, 5:50pm

Photo de Meredith Hoffman

Colombia's government and guerrilla fighters are on the brink of a formal peace treaty that could end one of the longest wars on the planet, the 50-year internal conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

But those talks feel like a cruel farce to everyday Colombians like Sixta Campo, a community leader plagued by death threats from a violent paramilitary faction in Colombia that is not involved in the negotiations.

"You are considered military objectives by our organization, therefore we will kill you if within six days — listen well — six days, if you do not abandon the land of Púa," read a typed death threat letter she received from a paramilitary offshoot called "Caballeros Anti-Tierras," or the Anti-Land Knights.

The group burned her village's houses to the ground this spring, an attack that did not claim any lives. Campo built a makeshift plastic shelter to replace her torched home and then received the letter, adorned with a cartoon skull: "This land is not yours, this land already has its owners."

Even as the government peace talks with the guerrillas move forward in Havana, Campo and many other Colombians have received death threats in recent months. Armed groups — mainly paramilitaries and groups not affiliated with the FARC rebel army — continue displacing around 15,000 citizens from their homes each month, according to a recent report from the United Nations.

'It is a particular situation to Colombia, that we are in the peace process while in the middle of conflict.'

The treaty will require a public vote of approval to become a reality, and a consortium of major companies, pop stars, and publications have unleashed a pro-peace campaign called "Soy Capaz" — "I am capable" — to help muster support for the agreement. No poll results have shown whether the campaign is boosting belief in the peace process, however, and the ongoing violence has seemingly heightened public distrust.

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A letter from a paramilitary successor group threatens community leader Sixta Campo directly. (Photo by Meredith Hoffman)

"It is a particular situation to Colombia, that we are in the peace process while in the middle of conflict," Rosa Jimenez, the University of Cartagena's director of peace and displacement studies, told VICE News. She emphasized that, even though violence had subsided greatly in recent years, a formal treaty process is far from ending the nation's clashes, many of which involve paramilitaries.

The paramilitaries were officially demobilized nearly 10 years ago, but they remain powerful, operating drug and illegal mining trades.

"Our country is totally split over the peace process," Jimenez said. "If the treaty is signed it will be difficult, but if not, it will be much worse."

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When Púa, outside Cartagena, was burned to the ground by a paramilitary group this spring, residents built plastic shelters to replace their homes. (Photo by Meredith Hoffman)

In Púa, a community located along a coastal road and up a gravelly path, about one hour from downtown Cartagena, Campo told VICE News the treaty is unlikely to bring peace to her town. She claimed that the local police helped the paramilitaries burn down their houses down.

"For me this peace process means nothing," Campo said. She and several other residents recounted a recent meeting where police officers ordered them to leave when the paramilitaries entered and torched their houses.

"The police hit and grabbed women… and when we returned to try and collect our crops, they wouldn't let us pass," one farmer in Púa told VICE News. He was too afraid to share his name or be photographed. He said the armed group took their harvest, and the community is now struggling to produce enough food to survive.

"We can't go to the city. There's nothing we know to do there. We're farmers," the man said. "This is what we understand. We just have to ask the man in the sky for help."

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A letter to Campo was marked with an illustrated skull. (Photo by Meredith Hoffman)

A joint investigation by three Cartagena agencies — the land rights office, victims unity office, and the risk management office — found in May that "the police were involved in the eviction." Officers accepted bribes to help the militant group burn houses and kick Púa's citizens off the land, a former Colombian military member with close police ties told VICE News. He said that such corruption was "normal" in the force.

Cartagena's police force did not return calls and emails requesting comment, and Cartagena's interior secretary told VICE News he could not confirm nor deny police involvement. He said his agency was securing a shelter in downtown Cartagena for Púa's residents.

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With rampant police corruption still a problem, many Colombians worry paramilitaries, the FARC rebels, and any other armed groups with enough money will find the means to continue dominating parts of a country that has the second most displaced people in the world.

Independent groups that track death threats in the country reported a possible record-breaking wave of threats. There were 150 death threats reported in September, and, according to the organization Somos Defensores, between June and September there was a 234 percent increase in threats against human rights defenders and others compared to the same period in 2013.

In mid-October, paramilitary successors sent a mass threat letter to 99 individuals. The letter praised former President Alvaro Uribe, who led the initiative to demobilize paramilitaries and is the most high-profile opponent of the current peace talks, but is now under investigation for conspiring with paramilitary members.

"They're trying to create a crisis," Diana Sanchez, director of social justice group Minga, said of the people behind the threats.

Residents of the community Púa discuss how to protect themselves from continued threats from paramilitaries. (Photo by Meredith Hoffman)

Jimenez, the Cartagena academic, said that plenty of paramilitaries continued fighting after the demobilization in 2005, and she argued the same would happen with guerrillas. The government simply renamed the paramilitary combatants "armed groups," but they remain "just as bad" as their predecessors, she said.

This month, victim representatives at the Havana peace talks said they need more protection against such threats.

But Edgar Ruiz, who works to rehabilitate paramilitary members, said the demobilization has been successful, and that guerrillas could also reintegrate into society. Ruiz, a representative for the Colombian Agency for Reparations in the department of Bolivar, boasted that only 10 percent of the 35,000 paramilitaries who demobilized returned to crime. He said the rest have become contributing members of society.

"People want peace. The president was reelected for his program of peace," Ruiz said of the hard-fought re-election of Juan Manuel Santos in June.

Maria Elena Velez, Cartagena's director of housing, told VICE News that reintegrating the guerrillas will be be costly. Government officials have said the treaty would allow every FARC member that lays down arms to qualify for social services and housing benefits. President Santos is visiting a dozen European countries this month to ask for financial help to help cover the eventual costs of reintegration.

"The guerrillas have been living in the country and not producing, and they're used to resorting to violence," Velez said. "Peace is very complicated."

Santos has argued that the benefits of the treaty would be "enormous" for both the country's security and economy, which has already grown more than any other Latin American nation this year. The president emphasized in an interview on CNN that he was also focus on social justice and education, with an aim to make Colombia "the region's most educated nation" by 2025.

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Sixta Campo stands next to the Colombian flag in Púa. (Photo by Meredith Hoffman)

Campo has not given up either. She said the threats have made her "bolder than ever to fight" for her community's rights. She said she is staying put.

"People need to find a new way to treat each other," Campo said, as she shuffled along the dirt trails of her village, and pink eyeshadow shimmering above her dark eyes. "We have to find peace in our hearts."

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Follow Meredith Hoffman on Twitter @merhoffman.