The Urban No

Colombia’s war zones voted overwhelmingly for peace. But they got screwed by the city vote

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BOGOTA—Colombia’s most war-torn areas are wondering why the rest of the country won’t let them give peace a chance, after voters narrowly rejected a proposed treaty between the government and the FARC guerrillas that would have ended 52 years of war.

The “No” vote carried Sunday’s plebiscite based on concerns that the government was granting too many concessions to guerrilla leaders who have committed war crimes. But in the rural areas of the country that have seen the most combat, people voted overwhelmingly “Yes” in favor of the peace deal, hoping that it would bring an end to violence and finally put them on a path to development.

Now, Colombians living in these remote regions find themselves facing an uncertain future, amid looming fears of a return of war.

“We feel like we have been abandoned,” said Leyner Palacios, a human-rights activist in the remote jungle town of Bojaya. “The accords were good for the countryside, so for urban Colombia to deny us this possibility is almost like telling us we are not Colombians.”

In Bojaya, a stunning 96% of voters approved the peace deal that was four years in the making.

Half of Bojaya´s population is Afro Colombian

Half of Bojaya´s population is Afro Colombian

The town of 11,000 people is surrounded by FARC units and paramilitary groups that have long vied for territorial control. On May 2, 2002 the war came directly to town. Bojaya was bombed by guerrillas who were trying to repel a paramilitary battalion making its way upriver. Seventy-nine civilians were killed that night, when guerrilla rocket attacks hit a church where people sought refuge.

After the peace talks began in 2012, Bojaya sent representatives to Havana, Cuba, to talk to negotiators about the needs of war victims. The town also hosted an emotional meeting where FARC leaders asked forgiveness of the survivors of the 2002 massacre.

The residents of Bojaya are understandably frustrated with Sunday’s result. From their point of view, a bunch of people in cities that avoided the brunt of the war —but have far more voters—have decided to deny the countryside a chance at peace and development.

Palacios says the peace deal also included several rural development programs that were designed to help the economy of long abandoned areas of the country.

“I remember that after the massacre happened many Colombians stood in solidarity with us and repudiated the tragedy,” Palacios said. “We expected the solidarity of the rest of Colombia on Sunday, but that didn’t happen.“

Bojaya wasn’t the only war zone that voted overwhelmingly in favor of the peace deal.

Toribio, a small mountain town that has been attacked by the FARC 700 times, voted for the peace deal by 85%.

In Buenaventura, a large port on the Pacific coast that has long been besieged by guerrilla groups, paramilitaries and drug traffickers, 70% of voters said yes to the peace treaty.

It’s a voting pattern that happened across much of the country. A map published Monday by Ideas Por la Paz, a local think tank, shows there is a strong correlation between the “Yes” vote and areas affected by the war.

Green dots on the map represent FARC battalions. These dots are mostly found in orange and red zones of the country, which are the areas where most people voted “Yes” to the peace deal.

plebiscitoBoris Ramirez

Adam Isacson, a Colombia conflict analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), says he isn’t surprised by that pattern.

“If you live in those areas, the conflict is a real factor in your life,” Isacson told Fusion. “You probably change your travel plans because of the FARC, or if you are a business you may be extorted by the FARC. So if the peace deal helps you to get rid of them, that’s great.”

Isacson suspects that in cities, the “No” vote may have been influenced by anger towards the government of President Juan Manuel Santos.

“In the cities the conflict is just something you see on TV,” he said. “So you may be concerned about things like the poor health system, or unemployment, or if you’re religious you may think the government is being too easy on gay people.” Isacson said. “I think people just stayed at home or (some) showed up and voted no to punish the Santos government.”

Another factor that possibly led to the rejection of the peace deal in cities were concerns that it would give too much political power to the guerrillas.

The peace deal would have given the communist rebels 10 congressional seats for the next two election cycles. That’s fewer than 5% of all congressional seats in Colombia. But supporters of the “No” campaign said that the group could use its money from drug trafficking and extortion to buy more votes and eventually increase its stake in Colombian politics. The outcome, the “No” campaign speculated, would turn Colombia into a failed socialist state like Venezuela.

But in Colombia’s conflict zones, many people see the FARC’s participation in politics as a positive development.

“I’d rather see guerrilla members staging political debates in congress than listen to their bullets here,” said Alcibiades Escue, the mayor of Toribio, a mostly indigenous town.

Toribio is a mostly indigenous town

Toribio is a mostly indigenous town

In 2011, the FARC detonated a bus bomb in Toribio, killing four cops and injuring almost 100 people. The town lies on a strategic mountain corridor and its police station has been bombed by the guerrillas dozens of times.

“The indigenous people who have suffered from this war have been preparing for forgiveness,” Escue told me. “We hope that the government keeps up the negotiations with the guerrillas.”

The Santos government has vowed to keep up the negotiations and uphold a ceasefire with the rebels, who also promised on Monday that they will not stage any attacks on the military while talks continue.

But the complicating factor is that the government must now include the concerns of the “No” campaigners into a rewrite of a new peace deal. President Santos has already sent a delegation of three trusted aides to start negotiations with the Democratic Center, the opposition party that spearheaded the “No” campaign. But there’s no telling what will happen next, or when—or if—another peace treaty will emerge from the new talks. It’s also not clear if that new peace treaty would be submitted to another popular vote.

In Bojaya, Leyner Palacios is asking the government to honor the less controversial parts of the rejected peace accord that dealt with rural development. It’s unlikely to happen, but Palacios isn’t losing hope.

“This decision to turn down the peace deal was made in the center of the country, where the accords will barely be implemented,” Palacios said. “This affects the rural areas, and the rural areas voted in favor of the deal.”

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