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Thursday, 16 November, 2000, 15:26 GMT
Colombia's peace laboratory

By Jeremy McDermott in Colombia

San Vicente del Caguan looks like any other ranching town in southern Colombia, until you see the heavily armed guerrillas patrolling the streets, and the murals announcing you are in a "Laboratory for Peace".

The safe haven of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has reached its second anniversary.

But nobody is celebrating. Not the government, which granted the 42,000 sq km demilitarised zone to the rebels, nor the FARC, who have just suspended peace talks.

The residents of the zone have got over the initial shock of waking up one morning to be told they were going to live under guerrilla rule.

Difficult time

But the last two years have been hard for them.

Now the people have learnt to live with the daily life they have got used to seeing guerrillas in the hairdressers

Maria Luisa Murillo
El Tiempo newspaper
Luis Eduardo Lopez, a veteran, and long-time resident of San Vicente sees the local population as caught in an unwilling threesome between two powerful adversaries:

"There is a cohabitation, here. There is a lawful state, that of the government, there is a de facto state, the guerrillas, and then there is us, the civil population," he says.

"So we have to be of the three, a combination of the three. That is what we are living here," he adds.

Initially the FARC could not believe their luck, and used and abused the safe haven as their own private fiefdom.

Widespread abuses

The list of abuses is long: the import of arms, the export of drugs, the building of military power and the holding of kidnap victims.

San Vicente street scene
Daily life continues under the shadow of FARC rule
These still go on, but for the civil population other abuses were much closer to their daily lives; the recruitment of their children, the imposition of FARC "revolutionary justice", and chain gangs.

"It is true that some fronts recruited minors, and various of these minors, under 15 years of age, have been returned to their families," says Simon Trinidad, one of the top FARC negotiators.

There has been no evidence of returned children, but after two years the FARC have responded to complaints from the civil population, and most abuses have stopped.

'Guerillas in the hairdressers'

The people of San Vicente, the capital of the safe haven, are now used to living alongside the guerrillas.

FARC guerrilla
San Vicente has gradually grown used to the FARC's presence
"Now the people have learnt to live with the FARC and in daily life they have got used to seeing guerrillas in the hairdressers, in the dentists, in the supermarket," says Maria Luisa Murillo, a journalist for El Tiempo newspaper.

But after two years of peace talks there has been no concrete progress, with the FARC insisting the government does more to fight their sworn enemies, the paramilitary army of the Self Defence Forces of Colombia.

This 6,000-strong group of right-wing death squads has had great success against the guerrillas, "cleaning" areas of their supporters through the indiscriminate use of massacres.


The frustration felt by all Colombians at the lack of prospects for peace is particularly poignant here in the safe haven.

The population has long felt like the mice in this laboratory, scuttling through the complex maze under the gaze of the guerrillas and the government.

The people know that peace cannot be made in a day and are prepared to continue with the experiment, as the alternative of another four decades of war is unthinkable.

"We have had not the patience, but the courage to endure 50 years of war, so how can we not have the patience to build the peace in the years it will need," says Luis Eduardo Lopez.

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See also:

16 Oct 00 | Americas
Colombia's massive military purge
04 Oct 00 | Americas
Red Cross suspends work in Colombia
29 Sep 00 | Americas
Colombian rebels target US troops
17 Sep 00 | Americas
Fierce fighting in Colombia
31 Aug 00 | Americas
US commits to Colombia
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