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An effort to combat drugs and rebels could be a model for the US in Afghanistan.
Though the program has received about $13 million from the United States, there are no USAID logos attached to any of the projects, as such branding could undercut the Colombian government’s quest for legitimacy.
And unlike most aid projects which are run out of the capital, the program’s Fusion Center sits in Vista Hermosa, a collection of tin-roofed houses, cantinas, and farm tool shops at the foot of the Macarena ridge. Instead of hobnobbing in the capital, program workers can live among the people they are trying to help.
They must tread carefully.
If aid workers push beyond the areas secured by the Colombian military, their projects can be sabotaged by the FARC. Yet if they don’t move in quickly to provide seeds, pour concrete and dig wells, the government can lose credibility.
“We have to be very fast,” said Alvaro Balcazar, who manages the consolidation program, as he sat in one of the trailers at the Fusion Center. “We can’t wait for a year for a contract to be approved.”
However, snafus and bureaucratic infighting have been unavoidable.
A program to grant peasants title to their farms — which would increase land values and allow them to secure bank loans — was delayed in part because Colombia’s former agriculture minister considered the squatters to be guerrilla supporters, Balcazar said.
During a recent visit to one agriculture cooperative, farmers said they had received a cultivator from the government six months ago, but were still waiting for the tractor to pull it. Nearby, the machinery sat rusting in the weeds.
Perhaps most troubling, the FARC remains a lethal force. Last month guerrillas ambushed two policeman and gunned down five soldiers near Vista Hermosa.
“The guerrilla presence in the countryside was much greater than I’d been led to believe,” said Adam Isacson, of the Center for International Policy in Washington, who visited the region in April just as rebels attacked a team of coca eradicators.
He also cautioned that the program may be difficult to sustain due to the government's short attention span and the revolving door of Colombian ministers and U.S. diplomats who rarely stay on the job for more than a few years.
Still, Isacson and other analysts say the consolidation plan seems far more serious than past efforts to pacify Colombian war zones.
Thanks to a newly paved road, Vista Hermosa is now just a five-hour drive from Bogota. Land prices in some areas have risen 10-fold. The rich farmland now produces more food than narcotics.
One of the farmers experimenting with legal crops is Cuestas, the former coca grower who was forced off his land by the FARC. He now raises sugar cane and cacao, which is used to make chocolate.
“For the past 30 years we were not really part of Colombia. We considered the government our enemy. And I was one of the most skeptical, ” he said. “But now I’m a believer.”
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