National Geographic : 2018 Jan
78 national geographic • JanUarY 2018 gleaming rivers everywhere; steep valleys cov- ered in a patchwork of coffee farms; lush pastures spreading like velvet cloaks toward the Amazon. What you can’t see are the land mines. When a round of peace talks in the early 2000s broke down, the tide of the war turned against the FARC, which intensified its use of mines—technically, improvised explosive de- vices, since they’re handmade—to obstruct the army’s hot pursuit. They’re bitter souvenirs of the guerrillas’ fight, and eradicating them is a crucial task faced by the government. Too often a campesino steps on a mine somewhere that was planted long ago, leaving a child blinded by shrapnel or a farmer missing a leg or an arm and no longer able to feed his family. According to the HALO Trust, a worldwide mine-clearing organization, Colombia has consistently ranked behind Afghanistan as the country with the second highest number of mine victims in the The FARC sensed an opportunity and stepped in. In exchange for protecting the campesinos from ruthless traffickers and ensuring standard prices for the coca leaves they harvested, the FARC lev- ied an export tax for every kilo of processed coca paste that left the territories under its control. Soon FARC troops had standardized uniforms and boots—and standard-issue combat weapon- ry too. Their numbers swelled to an estimated 20,000. The guerrillas were awash in money, and the leadership inevitably became corrupt, vicious, and hungry for more. Hardly revolu- tionary, they extorted, kidnapped, and set off bombs. And because FARC guerrillas attracted the attention of paramilitary groups that sprang up to combat them, they inflicted great suffering on the very campesinos they lived among. It was the FARC that the paramilitary killers in El Sa- lado accused the villagers of sympathizing with, and it was the FARC that, backed into a corner militarily, finally signed a peace accord with the Colombian government on November 24, 2016, and turned over its weapons in June of last year. from the peninSUlar Guajira Desert to the high Andean páramos, where it’s possible to walk with one’s head literally in the clouds; from the tropical plains along the Atlantic to the deep green jungles of the Pacific, this is a breathtaking country, with only 48 million people occupying a territory almost twice the size of France. Colom- bia has more varieties of hummingbirds, butter- flies, orchids, frogs, and whatever other tropical living thing one can imagine than just about any- where else on Earth. Many people here are shockingly poor, which is particularly clear if you travel from the modern cities to, say, the Pacific region of Chocó, whose impoverished Indian and Afro-Colombian pop- ulations still navigate numerous broad rivers in canoes because there are so few roads. Visitors to the resort city of Cartagena are rarely told about an outlying barrio named after Nelson Mandela, where some 40,000 people, mostly refugees from the violence in places such as Chocó and El Salado, live in shameful conditions. Flying over the emerald-green country, you can see broad, At age 17, after Antonio saw paramilitaries displace his family, he joined the FARC. At 22, he and other guerrillas met to talk about turning in their weapons. Within a year a peace pact was signed, leaving the rebels the task of reintegrating into towns they’d once terrorized.