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Guerrilla pseudo-state complicates the search for peace in Colombia

By Luis Jaime Acosta

YARI PLAINS, Colombia (Reuters) – A bunch of youngsters holding pink, yellow and blue balloons – the colours of Colombia’s flag – run to the playground of a newly-opened college constructed and paid for by the Estado Mayor Central (EMC) guerrillas.

The new college – which opened final month in a troubled space in the nation’s south – is only one instance of how the group is consolidating management of sure areas, gaining social assist and territorial dominance, and doubtlessly stymieing already-fraught efforts by President Gustavo Petro to ink a brand new peace deal.

The 3,500-strong EMC are rebels who rejected a landmark 2016 peace cope with the authorities that largely put an finish to a long time of battle. Dissidents from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), they continue to be armed and dedicated, they are saying, to Marxist beliefs like wealth and land redistribution.

The EMC’s building of a pseudo-state – constructing clinics, roads and bridges – is a method to convey it nearer to native individuals in locations with minimal state presence, authorities officers, safety sources and analysts say, giving the rebels a stronger place at the negotiating desk.

Control of territory additionally permits the EMC to develop drug trafficking and unlawful mining, funding its armed operations, the safety sources mentioned, hurting U.S. and Colombian anti-drug efforts and damaging fragile Amazon ecosystems.

As in different international locations the place guerrillas or prison teams have stuffed a void of state presence, their efforts have sowed mistrust of safety forces, mentioned a high-ranking military official who requested to stay nameless.

But the EMC says they’re bringing advantages to marginalized communities.

“It’s a dream … for the communities,” EMC second-in-command Alexander Diaz Mendoza, higher identified by his nom de guerre Calarca Cordoba, instructed Reuters at the college opening. “Especially for this region which has been excluded by the state.”

The EMC, which entered peace talks with the Petro authorities final 12 months, inherited the pseudo-state constructing apply from its predecessor the FARC, which demobilized underneath the 2016 peace deal. It is now Colombia’s third-largest armed group.

Around 13,000 individuals demobilized underneath the FARC deal, which mandated the group’s leaders face struggle crimes investigations, however different armed teams – together with crime gangs, dissidents like the EMC and the National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels – stay lively, counting some 17,600 members between them.

Petro has promised to finish the 60-year battle, which has killed 450,000 individuals, via new peace offers, however he’s confronting vital hurdles, together with the partial suspension of a ceasefire with the EMC.

“The school is for the communities, for the children, who need it,” Calarca mentioned earlier than inaugurating the constructing, whose 12 lecture rooms, pc room, dormitories and different amenities outclass many rural faculties in Colombia.

Camilo Gonzalez, the authorities’s head negotiator at the talks with the EMC, mentioned such initiatives occurred as a result of the state was not current.

“If infrastructure is being constructed illegally it’s because legally it doesn’t happen,” he mentioned.

Petro’s authorities has pledged to combat inequality with enhancements to public providers and healthcare in far-flung areas, however the president’s reforms have struggled in congress and lots of applications have but to return to fruition.

Gonzalez mentioned the guerrillas’ “substitution of the state” could be mentioned at the peace talks, and that it made the talks tougher.

Constructions like the college are a type of social management, mentioned Crisis Group analyst Elizabeth Dickinson.

“The closer an armed group is to the population, the harder it is to move toward peace, because they are ever more a part of society,” mentioned Dickinson, including that her group’s investigations have proven that the EMC additionally imposes its personal justice system in some areas.

It is extra useful for the EMC to construct infrastructure than it’s for them to confront the state militarily, Dickinson mentioned.

ILLEGAL FINANCING?

The building of the college in the Yari plains, deep in Caqueta province in the Amazon Basin, value some 3.2 billion pesos, about $800,000, mentioned insurgent chief Calarca.

Calarca mentioned his group additionally spent some $900,000 on an agriculture and reforestation challenge, although he wouldn’t present particulars of the funds’ origin.

The armed forces accuse the EMC and different armed teams of drug trafficking, unlawful mining, kidnapping and extortion.

As a part of the 2016 deal, the FARC admitted their involvement in drug trafficking.

Groups like the EMC “oblige us to rethink our strategy,” General William Salamanca, director of the nationwide police, instructed Reuters, including that the place there was armed group presence the state wanted to take a position in native communities.

“The transition from war to peace includes public works beyond fighting criminal organizations,” mentioned the military official, including that territorial management facilitates cash laundering.

For residents, the pseudo-state brings clear benefits.

“This is an opportunity for young people, for the children,” mentioned farmer and Yari group chief Raul Avila, who mentioned the state has historically been current in the space solely via the army. “We have never seen community investment, we’ve always been abandoned.”

“We’ve made a state within a state,” mentioned Avila, as 1,000 individuals gathered to rejoice the college opening.

The EMC is prepared if the authorities tries to delay the college from functioning, insurgent chief Calarca mentioned.

“If they don’t put it into operation, we will.”

(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

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