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.
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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.
In 2006, Salgado entered the government’s Justice and Peace program, which offered him the chance to put down his arms and confess his crimes in exchange for supervised parole and financial assistance.
With the help of the U.N. and the government, he and other former paramilitary members now run a rubber-tree cooperative.
“I would have never joined the paramilitaries if this kind of opportunity existed before,” he said. “When I was growing up there were no jobs and no opportunities; and when you’re an adolescent you have a desire to make money.”
With his first rubber harvest a few years off, Salgado said he’s learning to live on far less money than in the past. And when he’s not on the farm, he’s often at school, a condition of his government subsidy. But the hardship has been worth it, he said.
“This has been a dramatic change for us,” he said. “The guerrillas used to always attack us and there were so many displaced people. Now, you see tourists around here. We’re all breathing peace.”
That hasn’t always been the case. Alternative development programs have been targeted in the past by guerrillas and criminal groups hoping to extort members. In early January, a powerful criminal gang called the Urabeños paralyzed the entire region for a day to mark the death of their leader Giovanni.
Last year, guerrillas attacked another U.N. rubber-tree farm operating in the northern Chocó region. Two former paramilitary members turned farmers died in the raid.
“It really shook us up,” said UNODC Regional Coordinator Fernando Ramirez. “These people were targeted because of their past.”
The programs have had some issues. A 2010 Office of Inspector General audit of USAID programs in Colombia found that many were not sustainable.
A heart of palm processing plant in Putumayo didn’t have the resources to sell its products on the local or international markets; hostel owners near Santa Marta were finding it hard to compete with nearby commercial operations; and cacao producers in Santander were struggling to get their health certificates, the audit found.
In other regions, coca eradication efforts were hurting nearby farmers participating in crop-substitution programs.
In the early years of the projects there was little coordination, said Ariel Ávila, a researcher at the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, a Colombian think-tank.
“They were trying to do post-conflict programs in regions that were still seeing active conflict,” he said. “The projects are important, but many of them have failed.”
Globally, crop substitution programs date back as far as the 1970s — and are still a common part of the drug-fighting arsenal. The U.S. and its allies have plowed millions into such programs in Afghanistan to wean farmers off of the poppy trade — with limited success.
And while the programs have often been criticized for being ineffective, they make a huge difference to the families involved in the projects.
The village of Puerto Cesar sits on a spit of land that juts out into the Gulf of Urabá. It has no running water, no paved roads and it floods a few times a year. The villagers built their tin-and-wood shacks in 1997 after 153 of them were chased out of their village of Rio Sucio by paramilitaries.
For years they eked out a living fishing from rowboats and selling their catch to neighbors. The U.N. provided them with four boats and motors, fishing nets and a distribution network. On a good day, a fisherman can make about $100 a day.
The problem in Puerto Cesar is that there is only room in the fishing cooperative for 27 people — and many others want to join.
“They are making good money and have new nets but I can’t get into the cooperative,” said Alejandro Segura, who sat on the stoop of his porch with some of his seven children. He said he could make about $5 to $10 per day fishing on his own. “They always talk about community projects but not the entire community is represented.”
Room for ‘Hope’
Back at the El Carlos eco-lodge, the project has seen its participation numbers fall over the years as community members moved away or lost interest. Of the 48 families that started off with the project, only 17 remain.
As Naidith Blankicet offered visitors a tour of the facility, with its small archeological museum and lookout point, she said every room had a name of some significance.
In one cabin the rooms are called “Remnants” and “Hope.”
“We’re the remnants,” of the community still working here, she explained. “And we hope we can make a living off this someday.”