NECOCLÍ, Colombia. The hills around Francisco Meneses’ home have given shelter to guerrillas, a paramilitary training camp and the coca plants he harvested in hopes of scratching out a living as a raspachín, a farmer in the narcotics trade.
It was a volatile mix that turned this area of Colombia, around the Gulf of Urabá, into one of the most violent places on the planet and helped make this country synonymous with cocaine and bloodshed.
Today, Meneses, 64, is hoping these same hills will attract tourists to an area that has seen dramatic security gains even as it struggles to shake off its dark past.
Meneses and 17 other families run the El Carlos eco-lodge with the support of the government and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. It’s an economic alternative in an area that had seen its options strangled by the violence and overshadowed by the drug trade.
Keeping heads down
“When the paramilitaries moved in around 2002, they started killing everyone — whether you were a guerrilla or not,” Meneses said. “The only way we survived was by keeping our heads down and our faith in God.”
Once a regional pariah, Colombia is emerging as an economic powerhouse that’s expecting growth of more than 6 percent this year on the back of surging foreign investment and the recently signed free trade agreement with the United States.
While the country’s major cities are flush with investors and tourists, some rural areas are still being battered by guerrilla violence and well-armed criminal gangs.
The alternative development projects are part of a larger effort designed to bring neglected rural areas under state control and wean populations off illicit crops. Over the last nine years, the government and international organizations have pumped $1.8 billion into such programs.
“The government consolidation plan is to arrive with all of its institutions and programs and deal with the full array of problems — lack of access to health, education infrastructure,” said Nadereh Lee, the acting director of the U.S. Agency for International Development, which funds some of the programs. “In concert with that, the communities need access to a licit livelihood. You need to bring all those things together and you have the real potential of pushing out the illegals.”
In Urabá, the government and U.N. programs include bee-keeping, fishing and cacao farming, among others.
Some are designed to give one-time farmers of coca, a precursor to cocaine, an alternative way to make a living. Others are aimed at populations at risk of being dragged into the drug trade — including farmers, former combatants and some of the estimated 3.8 million people who have been forced off their land.
Simey Salgado spent six years as a gunman in the Elmer Cárdenas block of the Autodefensas Unidas De Colombia (AUC) paramilitaries. The group offered him a starting salary of 350,000 pesos a month, or about $194, with the option to triple his wages. “But to make more money you had to do some ugly things,” he said. “You had to show that you had talent.”
The crimes of his former boss, Freddy “El Aleman” Rendón, provide a snapshot of paramilitary “talent.” Rendón is serving an eight-year sentence for homicide, kidnapping and recruiting 309 minors into the group, including a child who was just 10 years old.