Colombia relocates village of ex-rebels as killings surge

A village of former guerrilla fighters who laid down their arms in a historic 2016 peace deal was relocated by Colombian authorities Wednesday after 11 of its residents were murdered over the past three years.

The Roman Ruiz Reincorporation Center in northwest Colombia was home to a group of ex-Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia fighters and their families, who lived in small prefabricated homes and worked on projects that included raising chickens and a coffee farm.

The village’s entire population of 94 people loaded their belongings onto trucks and boarded double-decker buses to move to the banana-growing region of Uraba, where the government has rented 137 hectares (340 acres) of land for the group and promised to help them build new homes.

“We’ve been uprooted,” said Marco Urbano, a spokesman for the group of ex-FARC fighters who was in the mountain village overseeing the move. “Most of the people here had been working for three years on farming projects and now they will have to start from scratch.”

The relocation of the Roman Ruiz village comes as Colombia’s government struggles to ensure the safety of former FARC fighters and stabilize rural areas whose progress has long been hampered by violence and inequality. According to the United Nations, 210 former FARC fighters have been killed since the peace deal was signed.

While the FARC successfully registered as a political party and was given 10 seats in the nation’s congress, many of its members have also received death threats and been forced to move from rural areas.

The ongoing violence undermines President Iván Duque’s efforts to get Colombia’s remaining dissident groups to give up their weapons, says Sergio Guzmán, a political risk analyst in Bogota.

“If you are a rebel group and you see what is happening to the FARC, why would you trust in a deal with the government?” Guzmán said. “Why would you consider them a reliable partner?”

More than 13,000 FARC fighters gave up their weapons during the peace deal. But a smaller group of less than 2,000 fighters rejected the deal and continues to fight the government, financing itself through the cocaine trade. Another rebel group, the ELN, is also fighting in remote parts of Colombia, with peace negotiations breaking up after it set off a bomb that killed 23 people at a police academy last year.

The Roman Ruiz village in the province of Antioquia was one of two dozen reincorporation zones that former FARC fighters moved into following the peace deal. First, these villages served as places where fighters gave up their weapons to the U.N. and were registered with Colombia’s social services.

Then at the request of the FARC, the villages remained in place and became locations where ex-fighters pursued agricultural projects and learned new trades. Former fighters were given a monthly stipend by the government as well as funding to start up their new businesses.

Ariel Avila, a Colombian security analyst, said the Roman Ruiz village and the surrounding municipality of Ituango fared well in the first year following the peace deal.

But violence increased in 2018 when the ELN and various drug trafficking groups began to fight over Ituango. The district is part of a large “coca-growing frontier,” Avila said, and is currently on the frontlines of a war for control of drug trafficking routes in Colombia’s northwest. The conflict involves the ELN, the Gulf Clan and the Caparrapos drug trafficking groups, a well as a small faction of FARC fighters who never joined the peace deal.

The retired fighters in the Roman Ruiz village became easy targets for rivals wanting to settle old scores or suppress local activism.

“The government lost control of the security situation,” said Manuel González, a FARC leader and political candidate who lived in the village until 2018, when he was forced out by death threats. “We were caught in the middle of that mess.”

González said the village saw its population fall from 300 ex-FARC fighters to less than 100 at the end of last year, as violence in the surrounding area increased.

Government officials had spoken with FARC leaders about relocating the village since early last year, but the decision to move was finally agreed upon by all sides in January, after two former fighters who lived in the village were killed in a month. Village residents will now move from a cool mountain climate to a sweltering farm near Colombia’s Caribbean coast.

They will have to replace 100 dairy cows with cattle that do better in hot weather. They are also hoping to start a fish farm.

“We hope the government will be able to guarantee our security this time” González said. “It is the only way to materialize the peace deal.”