15 years on, Colombia's road to peace passes through town

Fifteen years after negotiations with leftist rebels collapsed in a fury of violence, the road to peace in Colombia once again passes through this remote southern town near where leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia are gathering in a jungle conclave for their last meeting as an armed insurgency.

Once a rebel safe haven, San Vicente del Caguan today is a thriving center of commerce serving cattle ranchers and oil drillers who have arrived in droves. Since the government moved in 2002 to take back a Switzerland-sized demilitarized zone it had ceded to the FARC, the population has tripled, crime is down and the government is making its presence felt in a way it never has before.

Mayor Humberto Sanchez, who was kidnapped held captive by the FARC for several months in 2006, said most people don't even remember the last time the rebels attempted to carry out an attack on the town of 40,000. While sympathizers still clandestinely distribute pro-FARC propaganda from time to time, the fear arising from such actions has largely dissipated and shopkeepers said they're no longer being extorted by the FARC to pay "vaccines" guaranteeing their safety.

"The permanent siege by the guerrillas doesn't exist anymore," said Sanchez, who belongs to the conservative Democratic Center party that until recently never would have dreamed of gaining a toehold in what Colombians refer to as the "sanctuary" of the rebels.

Starting Saturday, several hours from the town by a muddy and strut-busting dirt road, the FARC is holdings its 10th and final conference as a guerrilla army to ratify the agreement reached last month with government negotiators in Cuba. In an area known as the Yari plains, rebels have been busy building makeshift bamboo structures to house hundreds of delegates who will for the first time be debating their future political strategy instead of battlefield tactics. Hundreds of journalists have been invited to witness the proceedings.

Sanchez says Caguan's role as host of the event — the municipality is the size of Haiti — is a small sacrifice in the path to peace that he hopes will be repaid by the government dedicating more resources for the town's development. Top on his wish list are reopening commercial flights the town's airport and construction of a government-run vocational school for 3,000 young adults.

But already the town has seen major improvements, such as the installation of streetlights and a new plaza, as a result of oil royalties that have poured in and the permanent presence of an elite military unit.

Some residents, still embittered by years of mortar attacks and kidnappings committed by the rebels, say they plan to vote against the peace deal in a referendum scheduled Oct. 2. Others are more willing to forgive and even express some disappointment that they couldn't play an even larger role in Colombia's reconciliation.

"The peace deal should've been signed here," said Tatiana Pineda, a 36-year-old store vendor.