The text, and the Photo-Essay published below, are part of an effort by Noria to analyze the evolution of the Colombian Peace Process, in the context of the May 2022 Presidential elections in the country.

A year ago, we published a Policy Paper by Jacobo Grajales, analyzing land conflicts, violence, and capitalism in Colombia.

Click here to read the Paper.

In this occasion, we present the work of our Research and Photographer Fellow, Tomás Ayuso. Tomas is a Honduran writer and documentary photojournalist. His work focuses on Latin American conflict as it relates to the Drug War, forced displacement, and urban dispossession. Tomas seeks to bind the disparate threads of communities into the grand, interlinked story of the Western Hemisphere. In covering the different types of violences facing the region’s people, he hopes to record a narrative of both continental struggles and local successes.

Click here to follow Tomas Ayuso’s work on his Instagram page.

Photo Essay by Tomas Ayuso

In 2016, I moved to Colombia just as the fifty-year conflict was drawing to a negotiated, peaceful end. At least, that’s what the hope was back in those heady days preceding the minting of the accords between the Colombian state, representatives of civil society, and the high command of the FARC. 

In the five years since then, many of the lofty ideals underpinning the peace pact have come undone. With over 1000 murdered activists since 2016, a multiplication in armed actors, and the looming specter of a Plan Colombia redux, far-reaching political instability from the most remote village to the highest echelons of Colombian society spreads unease across a country that was once poised to right historic wrongs. 

The answer as to how the conflicting elation and cautious optimism of 2016 turned to ashen resignation that peace is doomed for failure vary from sector to sector. Some argue that they were set to collapse from the outset, others blame the persistent opposition by hawks who never gave the precepts of the accords a chance to materialize. Wherever the fault may lay, there are few who see what is happening in Colombia a half-decade since the official end of the conflict and claim that it truly concluded. 

What follows are stories and reflections of my three years in Colombia (2016-2018). I chose to document the end of conflict and how it developed in the immediate aftermath.

In seeing these pictures in 2021, and reading my notes of the period, I’m struck by how accurate the stated predictions in conversations with both peace promoters and critics, the victims and victimizers, turned out to be. They were not doomsaying as events unfolded around them, as I thought at the time, but rather, knew full well what the contours of their community’s future held in store. 

These photographs, therefore, are glimpses from that brief liminal period of post-conflict. Seemingly lost to time, the country now reckons with the consequences of the unenforced promise of peace, whether by design or by negligence. A time when hope met with grievances, justice clashed with impunity, and a way out of fifty years of conflict was still undefined. While there is still hope that the lofty values of the accords can be rescued, what exists today remains a very close approximation to the low-intensity state of indignity and conflict that existed before 2016. The same causes persist, the same actors adapt, and the same victims endure.

A police officer stands in the wreckage of what used to be Bogota’s largest open air drug market known as “El Bronx”. It was in the multiblock dwelling that former paramilitaries and even some guerrilla soldiers transitioned into a criminal gang with backing from the country’s major drug trafficking organizations. Inside the lawless enclave, evidence of trafficked people who had fled the conflict to Bogota would emerge as well as collusion with elements of state security forces. Since then, the groups that controlled the Bronx have formed similar dens elsewhere in the capital. © Tomas Ayuso
While peace negotiations were held in Havana between the Colombian government and the FARC high command, part of the conditions for the dialogues to take place was for the FARC to concentrate their forces in contained zones across the country where the group had significant presence. Guerrilla members would use their time in detente in different ways, such as building a homes for people who lived close to where the different insurgent fronts awaited news from Cuba. © Tomas Ayuso
Many would use this time to learn a basic education as many had been recruited, forcibly and willingly, into the FARC. The guerrilla member who was pregnant at the time, something that was only made possible due to the unilateral ceasefire declared by the FARC’s high command, reads a newspaper criticizing the peace dialogues being held at the time in mid 2016. © Tomas Ayuso
Two young guerrilla members play chess in a position turned into their home throughout the duration of the peace dialogues held in Havana during the closing months of the negotiation in mid-2016. © Tomas Ayuso
While ostensibly in a state of ceasefire, the commanders of each individual front would order patrols around the area the guerrillas had sheltered in as tension in places where the conflict had been the most violent remained high. In the back, a picture of once FARC commander Alfonso Cano exclaiming “Alfonso Cano Vive” and a flag flown by the FARC with an outline of Colombia, two AK-47s, an open book and the insurgent group’s name. Cano was killed by the Colombian army in 2011, largely precipitating the beginning of the group’s transition towards peace in 2012. © Tomas Ayuso
A front officer speaks to FARC guerrillas after news of a possible break in the ceasefire in August 2016. Although a minor event altogether, at the time, the men and women of the insurgency voiced their criticism and distrust toward the government and, especially, the military. In the years that followed, some FARC soldiers, critical of the peace accords, would break off into what are known as FARC dissidencies who continue their proclaimed insurgency albeit at a reduced scale to this day. © Tomas Ayuso
A guerrilla member shows off a tattoo and a scar she bears on each shoulder. In retelling of a confrontation, Stefany recalled how her partner and her were on patrol when a military ambush left her gravely wounded and her partner dead. Stefany would recover and tattoo a heart on the opposite shoulder in the memory of her fallen comrade and boyfriend. © Tomas Ayuso
A young service hangs his head in prayer as he’s deployed to the front opening against the ELN (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional), Colombia’s then second largest guerrilla army, amid deteriorating conditions in mid-2016 of the yet signed peace accords with the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) that held the country in a state of suspense. © Tomas Ayuso
A UH-60 Black Hawk formation advances towards positions recently taken by the ELN (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional) in the department of Antioquia after the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) doubled back into rural strongholds as part of a set of conditions of an often tenuous ceasefire in mid-July 2016 prior to the peace accords. © Tomas Ayuso
Once the FARC retreated into de facto demilitarized zones, the vast territories that served as the stage for their operations were contested by the many other armed groups that quickly moved in to fill the void left by the guerrillas. Namely in areas rich with coca and minerals as well as regions of strategic and economic value such as trafficking routes. © Tomas Ayuso
In towns once under FARC control or completely surrounded, military and police increased their presence as the guerrillas retreated and held in concentrated areas of the hinterlands. A sight unseen for many inhabitants who had only known FARC governance. © Tomas Ayuso
Cocaine production would spike during and after the peace accords. Many more players would come into the trade and rural folk, once promised crop substitution, grew sour on the failed proposal of the government. Instead choosing to cultivate more coca leaf in times of extreme volatility in the aftermath of the peace accords of 2016. © Tomas Ayuso
Displaced people from the devastated village of Kilometro 15 head back to pick up remaining family members to ferry back to a rural school turned shelter in Playa Rica, Antioquia in May 2018. In years prior the Ituango region had been a battleground between FARC, paramilitaries and other armed groups leading to many deaths and displacement. © Tomas Ayuso
Once the peace accords were signed, people who had long been displaced would return to their once abandoned homes fearful of what they would find. Up the Tamana river where FARC had long cultivated coca and aggressively practiced illicit mining, farmers left their lands behind. In 2017, an Afro-Colmbian farmer would begin the process of recovering his land that had grown wild in his absence. © Tomas Ayuso
In Putumayo where guerrilla presence had left state investment mostly unheard of, the infrastructure that existed between villages was mostly built by the people to serve their specific needs. The hope for many in the months after the peace accords was that the state would develop the impoverished regions. The reality instead has been waning belief in the promises made during the heady days on the peace negotiations, leaving the territories vacated by the FARC up for grabs by the many armed groups that cropped up in the FARC’s wake. © Tomas Ayuso
Even with rivers that connect many settlements in and around water ways such as the Atrato River, displaced people returning to their villages would often come to the cruel realization that in the decades away, they had simply forgotten how to go back home. © Tomas Ayuso
The department of Choco, stage for many of the late stage atrocities of the conflict, hope for peace and prosperity was palpable. Generations of people in the mostly Afro-Colombian department had only known the different aspects of the country’s internal violence. © Tomas Ayuso
Places such as Buenaventura where demobilized paramilitary groups rebranded into criminal gangs provided a possible outcome for the demobilization of the FARC. People of the Pacific city, long victims of the conflict and, later, criminal violence would remain cautiously optimistic as their lived experiences proved contrary to what both sides of the dialogue promised. © Tomas Ayuso
The Embera, a major indigenous group in the northwestern regions of the country, are some of the most victimized peoples in the conflict. Part of the dialogues intended to rectify their displacement and address the many grievances the Embera community have had throughout the fifty years of violence. Reality would again prove contrary as Embera communities were persistently displaced out of ancestral lands and into flophouses in dangerous neighborhoods of Bogota where this Embera woman was hanging clothes to dry for her family. © Tomas Ayuso
In many of the more violent places of the late-stage conflict such as down river of the Atrato River, where paramilitary forces and FARC would engage in combat, villages were completely abandoned. Left to rot in the jungle, this woman returned to her home see it abandoned with many of her kin and neighbors nowhere to be seen. Ghost settlements belie the low intensity violence that replaced the fifty year conflict. © Tomas Ayuso
Elections held in 2018 pit conservative wunderkind Ivan Duque, successor apparent to Alvaro Uribe, and former M19 guerrilla, Gustavo Petro. Seen here at a campaign stop in Buenaventura held for Petro. The 2018 elections were seen as an unofficial referendum on the peace accords. Ultimately, the electoral contest would favor Duque. In the years that have followed, political violence against community leaders increased exponentially and many promises of the peace accords have fallen by the way side. In 2021, a month long series of national protests against the Duque government boiled over as his mandate has been criticized for having failed to deliver on matters related to the postconflict period and to the other issues facing the average rural and urban Colombian. © Tomas Ayuso
Some of the most affected during the present post conflict are rural Colombians who have seen the cost of living spiral. While in regions with active political movements pushing against the private-public drive to privatize or grant concessions to extractivist transnational corporations in lands once held by the FARC has lead to the assassination of 1160 community leaders across the country since 2016. © Tomas Ayuso
In 2017, the FARC marched to a number of demobilization camps across the country to hand in their weapons and begin the process of reintegrating into society. During the months long process, spaces for artistic expression, such as this play by former fighters acting out a fable out of local folklore about reconciliation, were set up next to classrooms to help the many illiterate soon-to-be former fighters. Some of these camps have transformed into villages made up of FARC veterans as they feel safe with people who lived similar experiences, while others were abandoned due to the vitriol and attempted violence by armed groups hellbent on revenge. © Tomas Ayuso
The fifty years of violence that was waged across the country, mostly took the lives of rural folk caught between the military and the insurgency. The scars of the conflict are still very much alive and little has been done to ameliorate the countless and justified grievances of the victims. For these communities, the peace accords for all they were touted to be, little has changed materially in their lives. © Tomas Ayuso
An Embera woman carries her son outside a flophouse in downtown Bogota along the outskirts of the defunct criminal enclave known as El Bronx. Their story is that of the victims, whether of the guerrilla or the state: Left to fend for themselves surrounded by armed actors that continue to terrorize them, with little to few overstretched humanitarian groups attempting to stave off further violence in the face of threats. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, an economic downturn, political instability and many more interlinked crises, the fears that whatever gains the peace accords achieved are coming undone are as visible as ever. © Tomas Ayuso

The Photos presented in this article belong to Tomas Ayuso.

Click here to discover Tomas’ work.

Click here to access Jacobo Grajales’ Personal Website

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