“Why is the government coming after us, if this is what we’ve done our entire lives?” he asked. “If they really don’t want us doing this then they should give us some other job to feed our family.”
Colombia’s Pacific is one of the most environmentally rich areas of the hemisphere. Teeming with animal and plant life, its thick mangroves have long been a haven for smugglers running drugs to Central America and the United States. Despite the riches, about 77 percent of the population lives in poverty, making it among the most destitute and violent regions in the country.
As Ayala talks about the swath of coastline he oversees, he often sounds more like a development specialist than a military man.
At the heart of the Pacific’s problem is crushing poverty and the lack of opportunity, he said. Many people throw their lot in with criminal gangs because there’s little else to do.
“If we shut down an organization of 30 people supporting terrorists, I would bet that the next day there would be 30 more ready to work,” he said. “This is like a stew, and it’s far too easy for [armed groups] to recruit people who are willing to do whatever is necessary.”
Earlier this month, 10 bodies, some stuffed into the trunk of a car, turned up on the outskirts of Buenaventura. Authorities believe they were gang members hunted down by a rival organization.
At the peace talks in Havana, land reform and agricultural development are the current topic of debate. The guerrillas are asking the government to support small farmers by reviewing free trade agreements with the United States and others, setting limits on foreign ownership of land and breaking apart large unproductive tracts, among other proposals.
Amaya also sees agriculture as the hope for the region.
“The country has to be creative enough to help communities do what they did in the past,” Amaya said. “These were communities that farmed and fished in the sea. We need to help them market those products so they can have some dignity and a future.”
Creating a sense of hope will be key to the long-term prospects for peace.
In 2005, more than 25,000 right-wing paramilitary gunmen put down their arms and confessed their crimes in exchange for reduced sentences under what was called the “Justice and Peace” program. But thousands of the fighters were lured back into crime and now form the backbone of powerful new gangs known as the Bacrim. Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris estimates that former paramilitary fighters make up 80 percent of the Bacrim ranks.
In the FARC’s case, commanders have tighter control over the ranks and have been known to execute officers who step out of line, which should prevent massive dissent, said Valencia. But in any peace process, there will be holdouts.
At The Bahía Malaga Naval base, Amaya oversees some 8,000 troops that patrol a swath of the Pacific as large as Germany and a stretch of coastline that runs from Ecuador to Panama.
Like the rest of the armed forces, the Navy has been dragged into the war against the FARC and the Bacrim, but Amaya says the organization’s future will be fighting environmental crimes and protecting the high seas.
“History led us into the internal conflict, but we were created to defend the country and protect its resources,” he said. “We’ll get back to doing that.”