In FARC birthplace, prospect of peace after 52 years brings hope — and worry

A look at Marquetalia, birthplace of Colombia’s rebel movement

There hasn't been active combat In Marquetalia, birthplace of Colombia’s FARC guerrillas, for years, yet the rebels' presence is still felt. As the government and rebels hash out a peace deal in Havana, Cuba, villagers hope peace will bring progress.
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There hasn't been active combat In Marquetalia, birthplace of Colombia’s FARC guerrillas, for years, yet the rebels' presence is still felt. As the government and rebels hash out a peace deal in Havana, Cuba, villagers hope peace will bring progress.

With its rolling hills, meandering rivers and colorful wooden huts, this hamlet nestled in the Andes looks like the stuff of travel brochures, not the birthplace of nightmares.

Yet it was here, in 1964, that the country’s most notorious guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, began.

Even today, the villagers of Marquetalia have a hard time comprehending that what started here as a ragtag rural militia would metastasize into a formidable guerrilla army and lead to the hemisphere’s bloodiest and longest civil conflict.

FARC leaders and government negotiators returned to Havana last week for what might be the final round of peace talks before a deal is signed. But in Marquetalia, the prospect of peace comes with edged with anxiety: Who will replace the guerillas who laid down the law for a generation?

In many ways, Marquetalia — about a dozen far-flung houses — is a village that’s been robbed of its historical memory. The hamlet lies atop Colombia’s Cordillera Central, or central mountain range, at the end of a steep dirt trail. It’s a hard three-hour saddle ride from the nearest settlement. It’s about five hours from the nearest electrical socket, clinic or grocery store.

It’s not terrain for the weak or aged. There’s nobody old enough here to remember the events of 1964.

“When people get old they have to leave, they move close to the road,” said Jaime Muñoz, one of the village elders at just 54. “I still have some work left in me, but I don’t know for how long.”

The president of the village, Miguel Angel Largo, 24, doesn’t know much about the town’s past. But he does know why anyone who might remember it is long gone.

“Marquetalia may have history but there’s nothing here,” he said. The only visible sign of a central government is a cinderblock school house, where there’s one teacher for a dozen students. “We’ve been completely abandoned.”

Creation Myth

Even so, Marquetalia looms large in Colombia’s imagination as a wild guerrilla redoubt. And it’s at the core of FARC lore.

When Fidel Castro overthrew the Batista dictatorship in Cuba in 1959, it inspired leftist guerrilla movements in almost every country in the region. But the FARC’s roots can be traced back to the 1940s when Manuel Marulanda, whose real name was Pedro Antonio Marín, took up arms amid the assassination of Liberal presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán.

Fleeing harassment from the military and conservative thugs, Marulanda — who was better known as “Tiro Fijo“ or “Sure Shot” — led a group of families into these hills, and declared the enclave the independent “Republic of Marquetalia.”

It didn’t last long. On May 27, 1964, the Colombian army and air force — backed by U.S. military advisers and equipment — began bombing and raiding the region.

Washington Role

Outnumbered and outgunned, Marulanda managed to lead his troops to safety through a ravine. And although the band didn’t adopt its iconic acronym until 1966, it always considered the Marquetalia attack its symbolic birth. And in that sense, Washington was the catalyst.

“The Plan Lazo, which launched the attack on Marquetalia, was dictated by the Pentagon, and it forced the FARC to be created as a response,” Marco León Calarcá, a guerrilla negotiator in Havana said. “The United States is also responsible for the war in Colombia.”

The U.S. government has been a key player in Colombia’s guerrilla fight. In the past 15 years alone, the U.S. has provided more than $10 billion in military and anti-drug aid — much of which has gone toward hammering the FARC and other rebels.

Long gone are the days when the FARC — labeled terrorists by Colombia and the United States — could muster almost 20,000 men and women and credibly threaten to overrun the capital. Now the group is thought to have about 7,000 fighters.

Right now, justice is concentrated in populated areas, and rural zones are left in the hands of illegal armed groups and delinquents — it’s the law of the strongman.

Wilmar Vargas, Gaitania

And yet they were never completely run out of their first home.

Villagers in Marquetalia said they remember seeing Marulanda in the 1980s and 1990s on horseback and escorted by 180 men. Despite being in the cross-hairs of U.S. and Colombian authorities, and having a $5 million bounty on his head, Marulanda died of a heart attack in 2008 at 78.

And although there hasn’t been active combat in the village for several years, the FARC’s presence is still felt. Locals say the ridge lines remain seeded with anti-personnel mines laid by the guerrillas.

What Next?

Muñoz, who runs a small dairy farm where he makes cheese, said the community still lives under FARC law. He said he often leaves his house for days at a time, open and unlocked, and nothing ever goes missing because guerrillas punish theft severely.

“They’re the ones who set down the rules here,” he said. And he worries about what might come after they leave.

“If they’re gone who’s going to do it?” he said of keeping the peace. “There’s no other authority here.”

The power vacuum left behind by the guerrillas might be the biggest threat to lasting peace, said Wilmar Vargas, the corregidor, or the local mayor, in Gaitania, the nearest town to Marquetalia about five hours away.

“Justice, real justice, needs to reach the most remote of spots,” he said. “Right now, justice is concentrated in populated areas, and rural zones are left in the hands of illegal armed groups and delinquents — it’s the law of the strongman.”

Even in Gaitania — a virtual metropolis compared to Marquetalia — residents have to travel four hours to the town of Chaparral to lodge a complaint with a judge.

Popular Support

“That there’s popular support for the [guerrillas] cannot be denied,” Vargas said. “They’ve been the authority at the local and village level; they’ve been the face of justice.”

The government argues that the peace deal is designed to change just that. With a pact in place, officials will be able to travel to once-hostile areas and public services will follow.

Negotiators have been trying to hammer out a deal for almost four years, and there are hopes that a final deal could come within weeks.

The first item of the six-point peace pact addresses rural development and includes everything from agricultural loans to helping farmers get land titles. Under the terms of the deal, the FARC will become political players and they’ll undoubtedly have a strong pro-rural platform.

Aldemar Maldonado, another Marquetalia old-timer at 40, said the only way to guarantee peace in the region is to bring prosperity. The area needs roads, bridges and basic infrastructure so that farmers can get their crops to market, he said.

“Peace comes with development,” he said. “Peace comes when people aren’t hungry; how are you going to have peace with hunger?”

Humberto Tafur, a 73-year-old farmer in Gaitania, remembers a time before the FARC, when Liberal and Conservative-party gunmen slaughtered each other during a period known as “La Violencia.”

He also remembers the military marching through Gaitania in 1964 on their way up to fight Marulanda in Marquetalia. And he remembers how they brought bodies back down the hill on mules.

“Even back then, you could tell the situation was difficult,” he said. “But nobody imagined the rivers of blood that were going to run from there on forward.”

And while he’s never known Colombia without conflict, he said he trusts this peace deal will be a new page.

“How sad it is to kill people over politics, when we know that we all have the same red blood,” he said. “I hope this peace will benefit Colombia and the whole world.”

Peace for Colombia’s FARC?

▪ May 27, 1964: The FARC is “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 groups 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.

▪ 1998: The FARC stage large scale attacks, taking over the towns of Mitú and Miraflores.

▪ 1998: The Andrés Pastrana administration clears military 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.

▪ March 26, 2008: FARC founder Manuel Marulanda dies of a heart attack at 78.

▪ July 2008: A daring military operation called “Check” frees 15 FARC hostages, including Ingrid Betancourt and the three U.S. contractors.

▪ Sept. 2010: The military kills FARC military strategist “Mono Jojoy.”

▪ Nov. 2011: The military kills FARC Commander Alfonso Cano.

▪ Nov. 2012: The government and the FARC begin peace talks in Havana.

▪ May 27, 2014: The FARC marks its 50-year anniversary.

▪ Dec 20, 2014: The FARC declares a unilateral ceasefire.

▪ March 10, 2105: The government orders a halt to aerial bombardment of the guerrillas.

▪ April 15, 2015: The FARC ambushes a military patrol killing 10. The president renews bombing.

▪ May 21, 2015: The military kills 26 FARC members in Guapi, Cauca.

▪ May 27, 2015: The FARC ends its unilateral ceasefire.

▪ Dec 20, 2015: The FARC announces new ceasefire; this one sticks.

▪ March 23, 2016: Peace negotiators miss self-imposed deadline to reach agreement.

▪ June 23, 2016: Negotiators in Havana agree to disarmament road-map.

▪ July 10, 2016: The FARC and military clash near La Uribe. Both sides blame it on miscomunication.

▪ July 18, 2016: Supreme Court approves a peace referendum to ratify an eventual deal.