The demilitarized zone is a necessity for the peace talks to take place in the midst of war, free from aerial bombings and assassinations. It is not a gift from the Pastrana government-it is an achievement of the people, the product of 37 years of struggle. The establishment finally understood that in order to build peace in Colombia, it is necessary to bring about structural changes that eliminate the root causes generating this war we have been in for more than 50 years.
What is the demilitarized zone, and what is done there? It consists of five municipalities free from the organisms of state security, controlled by the fighters of the FARC-EP, where many activities are carried out with the civilian population to make improvements in living conditions, in addition to holding the talks in pursuit of peace with social justice.
The zone has its implacable critics among the political class, some NGO's along with most of the Colombian and some of the foreign media. Many of these were previously ignorant of the region, and they still are. They do not know what the people who live there want and feel. But they write or broadcast any number of lies, denying what has been achieved in this laboratory of peace.
In Switzerland, during a discussion concerning the role of women in the guerrilla movement, a Colombian woman recounted the experience of her sister who now lives in San Vicente del Caguan. For twenty years they had heard nothing of her whereabouts. Then she made contact and her family were scared when they heard where she was living. The information they had about the zone was of horrors the guerrillas were supposedly committing against the population.
They could not understand how she could put up with that. Her relatives asked her to come to live with them, saying that they were in a safe and peaceful area. But she said, "I'm fine here in San Vicente del Caguan. Since the FARC-EP arrived in the town, with the participation of the population, various activities for their benefit have been developed. I don't need to live far from my home to be well, safe and at peace." Some data will clarify for us why she saw no need to leave.
Consider this: When the Cazadores Battalion and the official police station were there, there were 366 violent deaths in a year. After demilitarization, there have been only 8. Muggings and robberies diminished to almost nothing and women no longer live in terror, threatened by imminent rape. The inhabitants confirm their satisfaction with the peace and progress they now experience, something they had never before enjoyed.
With members of the region's residents, a police force affectionately known as "the civic" was formed. They carry only side arms and a billy club that controls without killing. They maintain civic order, ever present and living with the residents, generating tranquility and security among them.
In the last two years the guerrillas of the FARC-EP have built more than 250 km. of new highway and have repaired another 250 km. for the benefit of the population of these municipalities.
Twenty bridges able to carry trucks loaded with agricultural produce have been constructed over rivers and creeks, connecting the rural population with the markets in town. This benefits the families that live on the plains-families the state and the critics of the zone never worried about.
In San Vicente, there used to be only five paved streets. Today, the townspeople have 64 streets in good condition, built using the town's own resources. San Vicente has two asphalt mines which no previous mayors had made use of. The work began on streets with schools and in the poorest barrios; the business section was repaired later. Now, almost the whole town is paved and one can walk free of mud and mire.
This work is carried out with the participation of the population. The guerrilla organization forms work brigades. Some people cook food. Those who have a truck or pickup loan it to transport asphalt to the work site. Others help the guerrillas to lay out the street and put down the sand and final pavement. Everyone is happy doing this united and organized work. Even children take part, bringing firewood and doing other things.
But the zone's critics call this "forced labour", or as the priest of the town said, "Siberian camps".
Electrification of the various villages and improvement of their medical clinics and schools has been proposed to the High Commissioner for Peace. The airport's landing strip was fixed and there are initiatives by the people together with the guerrillas to build a water main since not all the houses have running water. People say that, "If the guerrilla in charge of engineering runs for mayor, he would win by an immense majority."
Illnesses that science has been able to prevent for years were common in San Vicente. The FARC-EP is carrying out massive vaccination campaigns from which more than 20,000 children and adults benefit. The hospitals and pharmacies participate in them because they see that the initiative of the guerrilla organization is positive. The dishonest Liberal and Conservative politicians never took care of the people's health.
On the guerrillas' initiative, work days dedicated to public sanitation take place. San Vicente had various spots that were centres for infections. Today it has no perils of that sort.
Likewise, cultural and sport activities have been developed for the whole community. The FARC-EP invites Colombian and foreign artists to the zone to present theatre, dance and music at the central square of San Vicente and in other communities of the demilitarized zone. The people of this town never imagined that they could enjoy cultural events from different parts of the world and from beautiful Colombia itself.
We have mechanisms in place for protection of the flora, fauna and fish to preserve the natural environment. Care for the waters, for reforestation and control of exploitation of lumber are measures taken in this sense. Now it is common on the roads or in the forest to meet deer, chiguiros, manaos and other species that had been almost wiped out.
And then there is Villa Nueva Colombia. It is a place provided with the lighting and communications appropriate for holding the Public Hearings. It is in the township of Los Pozos, which now has paved streets, electricity, and telephone connections to the rest of the country. For the purpose of making it a unified and pleasant centre, it was all painted -houses, posts, fences, etc.- by the master Manzur, a Colombian painter and member of the national thematic committee.
The people of the region, in marches, documents and declarations have declared their support for the peace process in the zone. During President Pastrana's unexpected visit to the zone just before his last meeting with Commander Marulanda, a peasant from La Macarena told him that before the departure of the official armed forces, they were afraid of what might happen to them, but now they are afraid of what will happen when demilitarization ends. "With the FARC-EP, we have experienced safety and progress.
" Could it be that what bothers the zone's critics is that the FARC-EP are generating progress, peace and security in this Colombia that has been abandoned by the state?