San Carlos: Where the peace process started in civil war-torn Colombia

San Carlos Colombia is a picturesque, isolated mountain town in the Antioqian hills, about four hours from Medellin. Population 16,000. One might fear that such a town would struggle with modern amenities such as fast internet, medical facilities, even basic shops. The kind of town where there would be more donkeys than restaurants. But a quick breeze around the central plaza soon disabuses one of these notions. It's a large open space ringed with shops, restaurants, bars, hotels, even discotheques, and crowned by an elegant and always-active church. On the weekends, food stalls and local artisans set up shop. Pumping, blaring salsa music is not uncommon, and the whole place is alive with people and movement.

Around the central, disused water fountain is a wall of metallic flowers of varying colours. It's nice and colourful and rather pretty, and a memorial to the victims of the ten year war fought between FARC guerillas and right-wing 'defence' paramilitaries that engulfed San Carlos, made victims of its people and caused a general evacuation of the town. Today, the surrounding hills and mountains heave with a tranquil peace; sometimes hazy, sometimes lost in cloud, but timeless and redoubtable and full of hope.

FARC had been operating in and around San Carlos in the 1990s, as part of territory they claimed. A left-wing guerilla force that had been in operation in Colombia since 1964, it used a variety of illegal and inhumane methods to fund its activities; ranging from kidnap and extortion, illegal mining and the illicit narcotics trade. It derived most of its membership from the poor peasant population who sympathised with its political goals. Ranged against the FARC were the government forces, and the right-wing paramilitaries. These latter groups employ brutal methods to suppress left-wing activity among the populace, as well as controlling much of the cocaine trade. And it was they who invaded FARC territory and the town of San Carlos in 2000, and when the terror and suffering truly began for the local people.

The paramilitaries set up shop in San Carlos and began recruiting from the local population as a 'defence militia' against FARC. As the conflict made day-to-day business more and more untenable, actually joining the belligerent sides became increasingly attractive. But the paramilitaries were soon employing their usual tricks of kidnapping and extortion, torture and forced disappearances of supposed FARC sympathisers, as well as rape and murder. There was no law and order apart from behind the barrel of a gun. Residents would be there one day and gone the next. Freshly dug earth, or slight mounds in otherwise flat land suggested a grave. Sometimes the mounds were very large. A hotel near the main square was commandeered by the paramilitaries, and here the screams and suffering of torture could be heard at night. As the horrors and atrocities piled up one on top of the other, it became abundantly apparent that normal life could not continue as normal in San Carlos. Some were ordered to leave there and then, with only what they could carry, and others chose to leave. There was an exodus to the surrounding cities and towns, more secure from the barbaric attacks of the combatants. 20,000 people were displaced.

For Spanish Adventure's Daniel, he recalls being 10 years old when paramilitaries came to his town and told his mother that they had 7 days to leave their farm or they would kill the entire family. To make their point, they murdered another family. In the end they fled in a neighbor's car with just the clothes on their backs. For Camilo, he recalled when FARC came to San Carlos in 1998, holding speeches in the town square and firing their rifles into the air. The family fled to Medellin soon after. As few as 3,000 people opted to remain, and it became like an abandoned ghost town. Alirio, the gregarious local butcher, remembers the time as being 'scary', and was reluctant to speak on the topic.

In 2005, as part of a complicated, nationwide peace process, the paramilitaries agreed to demobilise and lay down their arms. But it was never going to be so simple as a war between two neighbouring nations, which at the cessation of hostilities could go home to their own land. In San Carlos, and beyond, many of the fighters who had terrorised the town also came from the town, or the surrounding areas. For this reason the government enacted programmes of 'reconciliation' and 'rehabilitation', whereby the perpetrators would be forgiven and welcomed back. The amnesty procedure required the fighters to lay down their arms within 60 days and go before a 'truth commission'. They would be offered amnesty on the basis that each individual had not committed crimes too egregious. Those who admitted to serious wrongdoing would face prison sentences of between 5 and 8 years, including for the worst offenders. But those who refused to recognise and admit their crimes, should they subsequently be found guilty of them by a special tribunal, would face jail sentences of 20 years. This was the deal that was struck to bring to a close decades of fighting. And FARC would be reconstituted as a political entity, rather than a revolutionary army.

Slowly families started returning to their abandoned homes In San Carlos after 2005. Up to 40 paramilitary personnel remained in the town to resume a normal life after demobilisation, and to contribute towards and participate in the rehabilitation and reconstruction. It was through their assistance that a number of graves and mass graves were identified. It is beholden to the demobilised fighters to provide compensation to their victims as part of the reconciliation and rehabilitation. 4,000 people have received various forms of compensation. The last victim of an anti-personnel mine was on 23 July 2008. Since then, San Carlos has been declared a mine-free zone. 

The memorial in the plaza of San Carlos has flowers of differing colours. The purple flowers mark those who disappeared; yellow for victims of landmines; green for those displaced; red for murdered. White flowers remain nameless and represent victims of sexual abuse. There are still 300 missing people, not counting those victims accounted for as murders. But in a symbol of hope as well, there is also a flower for each family that returned to San Carlos.

The story of San Carlos stands as a shining beacon for the rest of Colombia; as an example of how a seemingly intractable and insoluble conflict, with too much blood spilt, too many ideological splits, too many horrific crimes committed by people within the same community, and how such a conflict can be overcome. Sometimes pithy phrases such as 'peace' and 'reconciliation' can seem formulaic or inevitable. But San Carlos is a shining beacon because the people had the courage and fortitude to put aside rage and rancour, seeing the wisdom and necessity of reconciliation with former foes who participated in the terror.

As much as San Carlos is now a peaceful and happy town far removed from war and excess, it is not all good news for Colombia. Guerillas and paramilitaries still operate in other parts of the country, and as they each demobilise and lay down their arms, in the aid of peace, the illegal trades that they presided over are simply too lucrative to be allowed to wither and die. In their place, simple criminal bands and gangs take up residence to control the cultivation and supply of cocaine and other illegal activities. And as some groups demobilise, leaving a power vacuum behind, the incentive for other groups to follow suit diminishes. There is still much work to be done in order to secure a genuine and lasting peace in Colombia. But that work has started in San Carlos.

Update December 2017 - The New York Times did an amazing piece about the reconciliation of San Carlos.  We recommend checking the article out here: San Carlos, the Colombian town where enemies live together. The article is in Spanish but can be translated easily