In the 1950s in these mountains of southern Tolima state, communist guerrillas and their allies, so-called self-defense groups from the Liberal Party, began forming to fight against the army and hired pistoleros from the Conservative Party. That sectarian violence, known as “La Violencia,” a national blood-letting that killed an estimated 200,000 people, spawned rebel organizations that expanded their fight for land into a revolutionary war to take power.
The terrain here, where coffee farms on rolling hills rise into peaks topping 16,000 feet, proved perfect for guerrillas: easy to defend, with trails that offered a clear escape to lowland jungles to the south.
When the army deployed 1,500 soldiers on May 27, 1964, to corral a few dozen fighters led by Pedro Antonio Marin, the battered band escaped and the FARC was born. Marin, who took the nom de guerre Manuel Marulanda and led the FARC until his death in 2008, once described the guerrilla’s emergence as coming about “spontaneously, nebulously, as the peasants became protagonists of their own history.”
By the late 1990s, the FARC was more an army, with an estimated 18,000 fighters and thousands more civilian supporters, or militiamen. Funding its operations from the cocaine trade that thrives in regions where it holds influence, the FARC spread nationwide and had the capacity of overrunning army bases and whole towns.
The momentum has shifted over the past 12 years, as nearly $9 billion in U.S. aid — 70 percent of it geared toward the military — began to flow in. That helped Colombia improve its insurgency efforts, from intelligence gathering to providing transport helicopters and better training, giving the advantage back to the state. Seasoned commanders have been killed or captured, and the group’s influence is now confined to remote rural regions.
Some of the government’s success is apparent even here.
“We have security. It’s not perfect — this is Planadas, after all,” said the local army commander, Col. Jairo Leguizamon, who is 42 and has been in the service since he was 15. “But people can do their work, get their products to market.”
Guerrillas once patrolled the streets of Planadas, the only state presence being a small police outpost that was constantly under attack. Today, the military is here, roads are being built by army engineers, the prosecutor’s office is active and social programs are being introduced.
The government says that new reality is found across the country and is prompting a new generation of FARC commanders — the youngest of whom are in their late 50s — to engage Santos.
Even the FARC’s supreme leader, Rodrigo Londono, who is better known as Timochenko, acknowledged in a video shown in Cuba last week that the rebels “arrive at this new attempt at reconciliation besieged.” That is expected to continue during talks, as Santos told reporters last week that there will be no cease-fire.
Still, the FARC is far from gone, and the low-intensity violence in this region underscores the challenges facing a state that, until recently, never held much authority here.
The rebels have been an especially stubborn presence along the wall-like mountains that rise from rapids in and around Marquetalia. Here, life has always been hard. Farmers grow beans and raise cattle along what appear to be impossibly steep hillsides where one false step can mean a 1,000-foot plunge.
It is a region begging for the state’s attention, locals say. Mario Medina, 50, who raises dairy cows, noted that state has been pledging roads and other services for years.
“Development would be good, and we’d also like peace,” he said. “In this place, we’re forgotten. In these corners, very forgotten, as you can see.”
Among the most forgotten is Marquetalia.
Nohemi Caicedo’s rambling wooden house is on an abandoned army base. Old trenches, some several feet deep, are a stones throw from her porch, overlooking a valley where the guerrillas made their escape from army troops 48 years ago.
It was here, too, where Marulanda — dreaming of revolution with his compatriots — plotted his next move.
Now, Caicedo said, she hopes that the negotiations lead to peace and that the two sides make the symbolic decision to sign an armistice here.
“I hope it happens, because there’s been so much war,” she said. “It would be so nice if it would happen here.”