I first visited Colombia 10 years ago, when covering the demobilisation of right-wing paramilitary groups that had emerged some two decades earlier to fight Marxist guerrilla soldiers. Since then, I have remained very attached to Colombia and its fate.
This month, and a decade on from my first visit, the Colombian government has signed a historic peace agreement with leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, otherwise known as FARC. This accord brings Colombia closer to peace than ever before. Like everyone, who knows and loves Colombia, I wish both parties every success as they try to convert the deal from a piece of paper signed by old commanders tired of war, to a meaningful peace on the ground. But I hold my breath.
Colombia's civil war, which started out as a peasant revolt against oppressive landlords and spiralled into continued fighting against successive Colombian governments has morphed into a drug war. The huge profits to be made from the cocaine trade have meant that the war is now more a question of crime than of ideologies.
On my recent visit to Colombia, my team and I travelled to Cauca, one of Colombia's biggest cocaine producing regions and an area controlled by FARC. I wanted to try to find out for myself the answer to two questions: could young fighters convert to other, peaceful ways of life - and could the victims, and families of victims, of violence on both sides, forgive their enemies. We met the coca farmers working for FARC. They were keen to tell us that unless the government could provide them with an alternative and equally lucrative crop, they would have little choice but to continue producing cocaine. So it seems unlikely cocaine production will stop overnight.
And will young foot soldiers who have known no livelihood but drug dealing and fighting, realistically give it all up after a piece of paper is signed?
To find out, we travelled to the coastal city of Buenaventura. It's Colombia's largest port on the pacific and a main gateway for drugs leaving the country. Because of its strategic importance, Buenaventura is fought over by drug gangs vying for control of territory. We discovered that the gangs terrorising the city were being run by ex-paramilitary leaders, the same people that supposedly demobilised 10 years ago. The violence gripping Buenaventura appears to be a direct result of paramilitary organisations demobilising, shedding their political façade and splintering into rival drug groups. Could history repeat itself now with FARC's imminent demobilisation? After speaking with a parliamentary drug boss, we were told that FARC soldiers were already prepared to leave the 'revolution' to become full time drug-runners. It seems, the peace agreement could serve only to add to the existing violence and corruption.
There is also the question of the families whose loved ones were brutally slaughtered by both FARC and paramilitary forces. Where does their justice sit in this peace agreement? I came across a mother who lost her 16-year-old son Carlos. On his way back home after buying some fruit, he was taken by two men who suspected him to be a member of a rival gang and tortured him for information. After beating him, suffocating him and drowning him, they began to cut up his body while still alive. Carlos was tortured for purely being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The pain and trauma that his family continues to suffer makes me think that, even if this peace agreement is successful, how long will it take those who have endured this kind of suffering to find their own peace?
Given the horror we heard from Carlos's family, we wanted to meet those who inflict pain and suffering and interrogate them. After travelling to a sex motel on the outskirts of town, we were given the opportunity to interview a sicario, or hitman, from one of the local gangs. He explained the mentality of the gangs: in their minds, they used violence to become notorious, feared and to command respect. He then began to describe, in horrific detail, their methods of torture including electrocution and scratching their victim's eyeballs with needles. It was an overwhelming moment for us all as we sat and witnessed the sicario share details of how his first kill was his close friend, emotionless, blank and without any change in tone.
Against a backdrop of war and terror, the question remains how will this historic peace agreement rehabilitate terrorists and bring them back into society? And will younger FARC soldiers pursue alternative partnerships to continue to dominate the cocaine drug trade that provides the promise of wealth and power? Colombia holds its breath.
Ross Kemp: Extreme World continues Wednesday 28th September at 9pm on Sky1 and NOW TV
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