Guest Post: The fragile promise of peace in Colombia

FARC soldiers march in a military parade in southern Colombia in 2001. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)
Katherine McKeon

This is a guest post by Katherine McKeon, a UW communications major who recently returned to Seattle after working this summer for Reuters in Bogota, Colombia. The promise of peace talks between the government and FARC rebels is big news but, as she reports, few Colombians are getting their hopes up.

Katherine, in addition to her studies, three jobs and other demands that exhaust me just thinking about them will be working as an intern on Facebook for Humanosphere – so say hi to her!


Walking to Work

After spending two months in Colombia, I’ve had the great pleasure of seeing for myself that this Andean nation is much more than its narco-lord past.

The two largest rebel groups have agreed to open their doors to peace talks, making stability a real possibility for a country with decades of scars from political and sectarian violence. Still, many Colombians remain  skeptical.

The scars are deep.

 “I don’t think peace is a realistic possibility,” said Jaime Rodriguez, a twenty-two year-old Colombian who works at a restaurant.  “It’s just too complicated of a place, too many things have happened, and everyone remembers the violence.”

With its burgeoning middle class and powerful stake holders in the mining and oil sectors, Colombia clearly has moved on from its bloody past and global reputation as ground zero in the so-called War on Drugs. The rebels often support their campaigns with illicit funds, such as from drug smuggling or illegal mining. Counter-insurgency efforts backed by the U.S. government have driven narco-traffickers and leftist rebels to their weakest point in decades.

The last formal peace talks ended up in spurring the country deeper into the throws of drug and rebel violence.

For a story on coca cultivation reported by the United Nations, I found myself in the middle of  forceful international interests.  People from US state department called me soon after,  reporting to me that the UN, which found and increase the number for raw material for cocaine, was inaccurate. However, their number, which found a decrease in cultivation, was more accurate, though for “security reasons,” the US spokespeople could not relate to me why or how this was the case.

When I wrote my stories, or observed what my experienced colleagues at Reuters  cranked out almost subconsciously, I was always aware of the tendency to over-simplify —  to simply paint Colombia as a success story (aided by the US) or as still a dangerous place where leftist insurgents and drug cartels fight over precious assets.

In reality, it’s a bit of both — a dangerous place and a success story.

Finding the right perspective as a newcomer, a visiting foreigner,  as well as for informing the power I have as a writer to represent various aspects of this country, has been difficult.

It’s the job of the journalist to simplify, to quickly summarize the news.  But this is scary when the complexities and nuance of this place – of any place, really — stare you in the face every morning as you walk to work.

I did my homework before even agreeing to come here, so perhaps I had less of the typical Marxist rebel and narco-traffic stereotypes some other westerners may have about Colombia. Yet because of my perceptions of this place I still can be amazed, on my walk to the office, by  even just the routine morning commute.

I cannot believe what these people must have been through in the past few decades, the deaths, the uncertainties and instability, seeing the violence on nightly news, getting a dreaded phone call, and yet still having to go work, pick up their kids from school, to grocery shop.

Maria Eugenia Martinez, is 38, and sells cigarettes and snacks in Bogota’s business neighborhood. She doesn’t trust the promise of peace.

“Honestly, full peace is probably never possible,” she said, as she hands a lighter to a customer trying to light up on his lunch break. “Of course it would be good, reaching an agreement, but really, an end to the war? I think an end to the world will happen first!”

“People in this country, many in rural areas are ignored by the government. They say one thing, but in their policies do nothing. This is why there is war.”

My biggest realization here: Violence is never abstract.

It is never a far-away theory, and it is always present. It is a solid and heavy burden born to anyone inhaling the air. It is a constant hum, fueling fear and distrust. Violence is an atmosphere.  Perhaps this explains the common skepticism on the street.

Now that I’m back in Seattle, it’s hard to shake how real, and thus important, the possibility for peace is, news stories that were once just exotic and far away places in my mind.  Not only am I fortunate for never having to deal with the chance-chaos of going about a normal life with the threat of anything happening any minute, but so are my parents, and so are my grandparents.

Colombia has changed significantly, already for the better. Can the rebels and the government find peace? Are the scars too deep?

I can’t help but wonder how long I was in the dark about news in both foreign countries and places in my city that were distant to me,  how much I have missed. And that’s the point.

We lose an accurate view of people and places, the real nuance and complexity of things — and our place in the world — if we allow ourselves to remain ignorant, innocent, to reality. It requires work, and challenging our own assumptions, to really see the world.


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