In Colombia war zone, peace talks raise new fears

Sun Mar 16, 2014 11:39am EDT
 
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By Helen Murphy

TORIBIO, Colombia (Reuters) - For farmers like Angel Escue, Colombia's bid to end half a century of war with Marxist rebels may come at too high a price.

Stripping leaves from an illegal coca bush at his small plot in the mountains of central Cauca department, Escue says a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, could sink him deeper into poverty even if it ends almost daily firefights in the area.

"We pray for an end to the violence, but not at any cost," 61-year-old Escue says as he hunches over the bright green coca scrub in Toribio, a rebel stronghold that processes the leaves into cocaine. "They want us to switch to crops that won't bring enough money to feed a family; we can't do that."

Three months before the presidential election, government envoys and FARC commanders are working through the third item on a five-point peace agenda - the illegal drugs industry, and how to rid Colombia of coca.

Negotiations to end the conflict that has killed more than 200,000 - mostly civilians - since the 1960s is a campaign battleground ahead of the first round of voting on May 25.

President Juan Manuel Santos is favored to win a second term and continue the peace talks that began in 2012, although he will be hard pressed to match his comfortable victory in 2010 given criticism of the talks and his economic policies.

This is the first election held during a peace process, so convincing farmers like Escue and others that an end to the conflict will also bring jobs is key.

The scion of one of Colombia's most powerful families, Santos says investors are awaiting the talks' outcome before pouring cash into the Andean nation.   Continued...

 
Manuel Bonilla, 62, who lost his right arm when rebels detonated a bus bomb in Toribio's central square, works on a motorcycle engine during a Reuters interview in Toribio February 6, 2014. REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga