In Colombia Fighting to farming: New life for ex-rebels

Felix Salcedo lost an arm fighting during Colombia's half-century civil war which ended in August. Today, he uses his remaining arm to grow pineapples.

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Demobilized FARC rebel Felix Salcedo, who lost his left arm to an antipersonnel mine, works in a pineapple plantation, trying to make a new life for himself in Colombia at the end of Latin America's longest conflict play

Demobilized FARC rebel Felix Salcedo, who lost his left arm to an antipersonnel mine, works in a pineapple plantation, trying to make a new life for himself in Colombia at the end of Latin America's longest conflict

(AFP)
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Felix Salcedo lost an arm fighting during Colombia's half-century civil war which ended in August. Today, he uses his remaining arm to grow pineapples.

Like dozens of other former FARC guerrillas in his village, Salcedo is trying to earn a living legally after his rebel movement disarmed under a December peace deal with the government.

Salcedo, 38, thinks back on the half of his life he spent with Colombia's largest rebel force, which in September transformed into a political party.

An anti-personnel mine tore off Salcedo's left arm, he explains as he sprays pesticides at the plantation of 20,000 young pineapple plants.

Peace hasn't come easily to the country where for decades the FARC controlled areas where coca leaf and cocaine production flourished.

Not only have there been delays in implementing the peace accord but the ex-combatants face strong temptations to join dissident rebels, keep their weapons, and traffic drugs.

Last week, UN assistant secretary-general for human rights Andrew Gilmour said "reintegration is not going so well" because "there is nothing" for returning FARC fighters.

La Montanita village, with its houses of metal sheeting and zinc roofs surrounded by emerald green plantations, is considered a success for the peace plan.

In the country's south, it is one of 26 demobilization zones for the 7,000 ex-members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

His fighting days are over but Salcedo has found renewed motivation from the esprit de corps that kept FARC going for 53 years.

"To be united, that's what it takes to work, to carry out future projects," he says of the pineapples, planted thanks to a fund created by 150 former rebels assisted by public subsidy.

'Harder' than war

About 250 former FARC rebels are trying to start second lives in agriculture, fish farming, shoe repair and other pursuits in Colombia's La Montanita village play

About 250 former FARC rebels are trying to start second lives in agriculture, fish farming, shoe repair and other pursuits in Colombia's La Montanita village

(AFP)

In this jungle zone which was a historic bastion of FARC, about 250 ex-rebels came together to start their lives anew in agriculture, fish farming, or as cobblers.

Some have opened bookstores or bakeries.

The aim is to transform the demobilization zones into villages for former FARC members and their families, so they can put into practice the socialist ideals on which their movement was founded.

FARC and another rebel group were formed in 1964 to fight for land rights and protect poor rural communities.

Over subsequent decades, the conflict drew in paramilitary groups and state forces in what became a many-sided war fueled by drug trafficking.

It left about 260,000 people dead, 60,000 unaccounted for and seven million displaced in Latin America's longest conflict.

"This process we are going through is harder than the war itself... We have to invent (these projects) and a whole lot more," says Danilo Ortiz, who spent 20 of his 34 years in FARC.

Now he repairs shoes.

"What we see here is a good example of how the reintegration process should be carried out," says Jean Arnault, a Frenchman who heads the United Nations mission in Colombia.

The UN was tasked with supervising the guerrillas' disarmament and return to civilian life.

But elsewhere in the country, ex-guerrillas have quit the reintegration program, deciding to find their own ways of making a living, or to join dissident rebels.

Between 500 and 800 have turned to the dissidents, said State Ombudsman Carlos Negret.

"If people in the countryside don't see state aid arriving, it's going to be very difficult to have the conditions needed for the peace process," he cautioned during an interview with AFP.

FARC's former commanders criticize the government of President Juan Manuel Santos for not respecting what was negotiated. The government attributes delays in implementing the accord to bureaucratic and logistical problems.

"The state must be reintegrated in all the regions that were left aside," says Pastor Alape, one of the former commanders.

Salcedo and Ortiz, the two ex-guerrillas, share Alape's frustration but want to be more hopeful.

They smile as they consider the "collective effort" that will produce the income from the village's first peacetime harvest of pineapples.

"United, we will never be defeated," Ortiz says, in an old revolutionary refrain.

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