In the popular imagination, the group of farmers slowly making their way through the pineapple field in eastern Colombia should be killing each other.
Just a few years ago, they belonged to rival armed groups that were a who’s who of the nation’s conflict: The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the National Liberation Army, the United Self Defense Forces, the Self Defense Forces of Casanare.
How 100 former fighters trained to hate each other ended up running a farm together has as much to do with their ability to forgive as it does with society’s unwillingness to turn the page. But the lessons they’re learning on this hot stretch of land could prove valuable as the Andean nation lurches toward a peace deal that might bring as many as 9,000 hardened guerrillas into the fold.
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The origins of the farm, called La Fortuna, or The Fortune, can be traced back to 2005, when more than 1,100 members of the United Self Defense Forces, or AUC, heeded a call to demobilize in the department of Casanare. For more than a decade, the feared paramilitary group had battled guerrillas and right-wing rivals for control of the territory. During the height of the turf war, bodies piled up by the scores in the regional capital of Yopal.
But even as the fighters put down their guns, they found society wasn’t willing to open its doors, said “Juana,” who demobilized from the Bloque Centauros division of the AUC.
“We dared to show our faces and tell the country what we’d done,” said Juana, who asked to remain anonymous because she fears former victims, or armed groups she used to be associated with, might seek retribution. “But society was anxious to identify the guilty — figure out who was responsible for what. … We practically had to hide.”
Many didn’t have the skills to find a job, and those who did discovered companies were wary of employing former soldiers. Many of her colleagues joined criminal gangs because of the lack of options, she said.
The prejudices even spilled over into the public sector, said Marlene Gutiérrez, the head of community development programs for the government of Casanare, which ultimately supported the creation of the farm.
“The stigma and fear of [helping] was so strong,” she explained. “Many public officials preferred not to do anything because they didn’t want to have to tell their neighbors, husbands, wives or brothers that they were helping people who had been part of the war.”
It was amid this isolation that Juana began meeting former guerrillas. Despite their ideological differences and history of hatred, they also had a strong bond: both were outcasts. Juana began holding workshops in a school gym for the demobilized of every stripe.
“Our only condition was that we wouldn’t dredge up the past,” she said. “Right now we have to fight for our own ideals, our own good and our own family because we’d already fought a battle that wasn’t our own.”
That’s when they struck on the idea of asking for government funds to buy the farm.
La Fortuna lies about 80 miles from the department’s capital and is tucked away behind two sets of gates. There, 100 partners — all former fighters — have put down their own money, along with funds from the department, to secure the 635-acre property. They’ve planted 500,000 pineapples, some corn and rice. Those who need money can work the land for a day’s wage, but all the profits are plowed back into the operation.
It’s part survival strategy, part pension plan, Juana says.
ROOTED IN DISCIPLINE
Colombia has been locked in a half-century civil conflict that has killed more than 220,000 and forced millions to flee their homes.
The leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) formed in the 1960s. Starting in the 1980s, paramilitary groups like the AUC and the Self Defense Forces of Casanare (ACC) were established to fight the guerrillas, but became powerful criminal elements in their own right, exacerbating the bloodshed.
Dehiger López, who spent 20 years as a FARC fighter before demobilizing in 2008, took a break from leading a work crew on a recent weekend to talk about his new colleagues.
He said the men were his “family” and that they got along so well that it’s funny.
“We laugh about it because we can’t believe what we’re seeing. I never thought I would be friends with [a paramilitary],” he said. “But here we can talk, think about the future, and work. Here nobody is discriminated against.”
Part of the secret to their success is a past steeped in discipline and respect for hierarchy, members said. Complaints are run up the chain of command and most of the men came from environments where disobedience was a capital offense.
“You never forget your discipline,” López said. In the armed groups, “it was all about discipline, and so we learned to be able to give orders in a way where people are happy to follow.”
“There’s never been a confrontation in the workplace,” said Gutiérrez, with the governor’s office. It’s remarkable “that these three ideological lines that fought each other so savagely for years can organize around the land, and respect each other’s way of thinking,” she added.
The workers at La Fortuna are just a small fraction of the 57,300 people who have demobilized since 2003, according to government figures. And those numbers are expected to rise in coming months if the FARC and the government finalize a much-anticipated peace deal.
Joshua Mitrotti, the head of the Colombian Agency for Reintegration, said La Fortuna is a model for how the agency works. Along the coast, the government has supported mini-markets being run by former guerrillas and paramilitaries. And there are even farms where the armed actors work alongside victims of the violence, he said.
In addition, more than 650 companies have signed agreements with the agency to provide jobs.
“We are always innovating, always looking for the best way to break these cycles of violence once and for all,” he said.
López said he hopes his former FARC comrades might find inspiration in La Fortuna..
“I think that showing them this will give them the idea that ‘Yes, we can make it,’” he said. “We know that not everybody wants to be associated with people like us, and not everybody wants to support people like us, but we’re trying to shed that stigma. All we want to do is work.”
La Fortuna currently sells its pineapples in the nearby city of Yopal, but it has big aspirations. Workers hope to expand the crop and are looking for financing to buy a dehydrator so they can sell the fruit abroad.
Juana said people often say that their “peace pineapples” taste better than other fruit.
“That’s because we’re working with our hands,” she said, “and working on reconciliation.”