High in the hills of central Colombia, surrounded by coffee and bean farms, a cluster of eight villages has managed to do what the rest of the nation only aspires to: sign a peace deal with the country’s largest guerrilla group.
Since 1996, these eight isolated indigenous communities have had a peace pact — the country’s only functioning agreement — with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC guerrillas, that locals say has saved, perhaps, hundreds of lives.
As the FARC celebrate its 51st anniversary this week, the hopes for a national peace deal have been battered. FARC raids and military air strikes have left almost 50 dead in recent months, eroding the goodwill built up over more than two years at the negotiating table in Havana.
But the Nasa villagers of this area that they call Nasa We’sx — just a few hours by mule from the birthplace of the FARC — say they’re living proof that an agreement, even between bitter enemies, is possible.
On a recent weekday, Maria del Carmen Pulido, 21, was patrolling her village armed with little more than a tasseled staff that identifies her as a tribal authority.
“When people come here from other areas they always say, ‘Your life is so great because you’re living in peace — we wish we had a peace deal,’” she said.
Her mother tells stories about growing up amid horrific violence. The villagers used to abandon their homes after dark and sleep in the hills to avoid guerrilla reprisals.
“Now we can stay in our houses watching television until very late and life is great,” Pulido said. “I pray to God that our peace deal lasts as long as possible — that it doesn’t get ruined for anything in the world.”
The deal is that much more remarkable because Nasa and FARC enmity can be traced back to the very origins of the guerrilla army.
In 1964, the military punched into the region — with the help of Nasa guides — to stamp out a hilltop communist enclave called Marquetalia. The redoubt was being led by Pedro Antonio Marín Marín, better known by his nom de guerre Manuel “Tiro Fijo” Marulanda.
Marulanda and his men escaped the siege and two years later formally established the FARC. But the May 27 battle for Marquetalia has always been considered the group’s symbolic birth. In that context, the guerrillas saw the Nasa as the enemy’s right-hand; that role was only underscored when the army, capitalizing on the animosity, armed the Nasa and helped them form indigenous self-defense units.
Over the ensuing decades, Nasa loyalties ricocheted between the FARC and the military, depending on who was viewed as the most abusive force. Eventually the tribe grew weary, said Virgilio Lopez, a Nasa elder who helped broker the deal.
“One day we had a large community assembly where all the widows and the orphans said, ‘Why don’t we look for a way out of this problem to stop all this bloodshed,’” he recalls. “We were scared … from being caught between all the violence.”
That began a series of clandestine meetings with FARC commander Gerónimo Galeano.
Ovidio Paya, a former Nasa governor who was a point man for those meetings, said that they had to keep the reunions hidden from the military and local officials for fear of being labeled guerrilla collaborators or sympathizers.
After more than two years of talks, the day came to sign the deal. A group of tribesmen, including Paya and Lopez, wore track suits and carried soccer balls under the guise of playing a grudge match against another village.
The broad outlines of the deal were simple: the FARC wouldn’t kill, recruit or lay landmines in the eight villages that were part of the pact. The Nasa, in turn, agreed not to harass FARC patrols or assist the military.
The deal received mixed reaction. Some saw the Nasa as guerrilla appeasers and said the pact wasn’t legal under Colombian law. Others, however, saw a glimmer of hope in the agreement.
Guillermo Alfonso Jaramillo, the two-time governor of Tolima state, saw wisdom in trying to create a patchwork of regional peace treaties rather than betting on a sweeping national deal. From 1999-2002, as the government sought a peace deal with the FARC in a demilitarized zone called Caguan, Jaramillo promoted Nasa-style micro deals.
“As governor, I proposed regional talks — the problems weren’t in El Caguan and they aren’t in Cuba today — the problems are in the countryside,” he said. “If the people of the countryside aren’t the ones talking then we’re never going to have a peace deal that has a real impact.”
The Caguan talks failed, and Jaramillo’s stance won him enemies. He was prosecuted for being a FARC sympathizer and death threats became so constant that he took refuge in Sweden for a time.
“There are a lot of enemies of peace,” he said. “And there are entrenched interests — even people in the government — who don’t want peace.”
Even those who favor a negotiated solution have their reservations about regional deals.
David Correal, with the Conflict Analysis Resource Center in Bogotá, said piecemeal pacts aren’t applicable on a national level because they’re difficult to monitor and don’t enjoy the international support that’s vital to keep them in place.
On paper, the Nasa pact is modest. The agreement only covers eight villages spread across 77 square miles that are home to about 3,000 people. But the peace seeps beyond the reserve.
Gaitania is a coffee-farming village of several thousand that lies about 4 miles outside of the boundaries of the agreement.
“The non-aggression pact between the indigenous people and the insurgents has brought benefits to the population who are not indigenous because we were practically caught in the crossfire,” said Wilmar Vargas Molina, the town’s corregidor, or local mayor. “The agreement has really reduced the levels of violence that we used to have to live with.”
“Both the insurgents and the indigenous people have respected the deal to the letter of the law,” he added.
In fact, the deal hasn’t been ironclad. Lopez said the agreement has been “about 95 percent effective.” Over the years, villagers have stepped on landmines planted in the territory, and there have been instances of tribe members assisting the army. But not a single villager has been directly attacked and killed by the FARC since the peace deal was signed 19 years ago, he claims.
By comparison, just 41 miles away, in the Nasa-dominated town of Toribio, the FARC have attacked more than 600 times in the last four years, according to local authorities.
There’s no way to know how many lives have been saved by the deal, admits Paya.
“But I think the loss of life could have been massive without the agreement,” he added.
As Lopez showed visitors around his village, he said outsiders often assume that because it’s so close to the birthplace of the FARC that it must be wracked by violence. But he said the peace deal has made Nasa We’sx a privileged place.
“Anything we plant here grows and we have mountains nearby and we have good, pure air,” he said. “It’s like we’re in paradise.”
▪ May 27, 1964: The FARC are “born” after Colombian forces, with U.S. backing, attack the “Independent Republic of Marquetalia” where Manuel Marulanda and his guerrilla band are ensconced.
▪ 1966: Marulanda’s group adopts the name of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
▪ 1982: Having gained ground in rural areas, the FARC become more aggressive, engaging troops closer to cities and populated areas.
▪ 1984: The FARC and the Belisario Betancur administration sign a cease-fire. That same year, the FARC launch the Patriotic Union political party, which wins dozens of local council seats and spots in congress and the senate.
▪ 1987: UP presidential candidate Jaime Pardo is assassinated — one of more than 1,500 UP officials who would be murdered. The cease-fire ends as both sides accuse each other of acting in bad faith and violating the truce.
▪ July 1996: The FARC and members of the Nasa indigenous tribe near Gaitania sign a peace pact — the only existing such agreement in Colombia.
▪ 1998: The FARC stage large scale attacks, taking over the towns of Mitú and Miraflores.
▪ 1998: The Andrés Pastrana administration clears military forces out of a 26,000-square-mile area as a precursor to peace talks.
▪ 1999: Peace talks in the Caguán demilitarized zone begin.
• Feb 20, 2002: Peace talks break down after the FARC hijack a commercial jetliner to kidnap a senator who is aboard. Three days later, they kidnap presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.
▪ April 2002: The FARC kidnap a dozen state legislators from Cali; 11 of them are eventually killed.
▪ July 2003: U.S. contractors Marc Gonsalvez, Keith Stansell and Thomas Howes are taken hostage after their anti-narcotics plane crashes in FARC territory.
▪ March 1, 2008: The military kills FARC leader Raúl Reyes in a controversial cross-border raid into Ecuador.
▪ July 2008: A daring military operation called “Check” frees 15 FARC hostages including Ingrid Betancourt and the three U.S. contractors.
▪ September 2010: The military kills FARC military strategist “Mono Jojoy.”
▪ November 2011: The military kills FARC Commander Alfonso Cano.
▪ November 2012: The government and the FARC begin peace talks in Havana.
▪ May 27, 2014: The FARC mark their 50-year anniversary.
▪ Dec 20, 2014: The FARC declare a unilateral cease-fire.
▪ March 10, 2015: The government orders a halt to aerial bombardment of the guerrillas.
▪ April 15, 2015: The FARC ambush a military patrol killing 10. The president renews bombing.
▪ May 21, 2015: The military kills 26 FARC members in Guapi, Cauca.