‘Fe en Colombia,’ A Program by Everyone For Everyone

By Dialogo
June 10, 2016

Lorena Álvarez lived from one neighborhood to the next; she was one more of the victims of internal displacement in Puerto Tejada, located in the department of Cauca, in southern Colombia. Many of these victims were women who lost their husbands and children to the gangs, and it was not uncommon that they were threatened or sexually abused by these criminals. “That was when Idali appeared in our lives and literally saved us,” said Lorena.

Idali Mejía Caicedo is a community leader with a wide smile. She is a member of the Afro-Colombian community and was one of the first people to have contact with the members of the National Army who were interested in building community development among the local population. They did not want to accomplish it with arms but with community development campaigns. Then Colombian Army Captain Andrés Peñaranda Benavides –today Major Peñaranda– approached Idali and told her he was an engineer specialized in production projects. “At that time, we did not trust our Army. It was a smart way he found to approach us and gain our trust,” said Idali.

Major Peñaranda was actually the officer in charge of production projects developed to help people progress through funds and subsidies that would help them build their own micro businesses. “The important aspect was to get close to the population, especially, those we saw as potential community leaders. We had to bring governance to these areas, especially those plagued by crime, and empower local authorities and community leaders,” explained Major Peñaranda.

The beginning of the program

In 2008, the first rapprochement program by the Army towards the population was started by General Barrero Gordillo, who commanded the 29th Territorial Brigade in Cauca at the time. The general believed that there should be an office for ethnic matters that would serve as a liaison between the community and the public forces and the community and the various territorial entities that bring development to these communities.

At that time, there were communities dedicated to growing coca, in addition to a percentage of their population being involved with the guerrillas and militiamen in charge of blocking off the Pan-American Highway uniting Cali and Popayán. These blockades were very violent and caused much damage to the country. “There were casualties on both sides, among the police and the civilian population; there was much damage to infrastructure. The Pan-American Highway in that sector is the only thoroughfare in the Colombian southwest, especially between Cali, Popayán, and Pasto, in Nariño,” explains Colombian Army Brigadier General Luis Fernando Rojas Espinoza, commander of the Army’s Third Division.

The presence of the National Army

The disturbances led to the National Army’s intervention followed by a proposal to substitute the community’s illegal crops. This way, channels of communication and trust were created between the populace and the government, the government’s presence was established, and crop substitution programs were set up. Specifically, two pilot projects were launched in a peasant community and an indigenous community, which replaced illicit coca cultivation to coffee, and had very good results.

The soldiers then began to grow closer to the indigenous, Afro-Colombian, and rural populations of the region through trust-building activities. For example, on January 25th, with the support of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), eleven playgrounds were delivered to the districts of Calote, Guachené, and Florida in the Cauca and Valle Departments.

Then, the military began to approach indigenous, Afro-Colombian and rural populations of the region through confidence building activities. The National Army chose the southwest of Colombia because it was geostrategically important to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who used its corridors to the sea to ship their drug production. “Those communities began to see a change, accompanied by the Army and all government institutions, because in addition to bringing them lawful crops, they carried out some infrastructure projects, built bridges, built schools…,” said General Mario Augusto Valencia Valencia, head of the Colombian Army’s 5th Department, who, after learning of the positive results of the civil-military campaigns, especially in the region of Cauca at the end of 2014, decided to support the creation of Fe en Colombia

“ Fe en Colombia
is an initiative seeking to guarantee peaceful territories through tools that bring together the government and the community through rapprochement activities that bring social well-being, focusing state and private contributions on the most vulnerable communities,” explained Gen. Valencia.

U.S. Support

Currently, there are five U.S. Army Civil Affairs teams in Colombia from the 98th Battalion of the 95th Civil Affairs Brigade in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. According to Gilberto Perez, head of the Civil Affairs section at U.S. Southern Command, explained to Diálogo,
their mission is to work with their Colombian counterparts to establish relationships between the civilian community and the Armed Forces and Police of Colombia so that these authorities can focus their work on successfully obtaining the support of the population and ceasing any local support for the FARC or other insurgent or criminal groups that may operate in Colombia.

“Our Civil Affairs units work with different programs that the Government of Colombia has established; Fe en Colombia
is one of them. Our Soldiers support these programs by making recommendations and conducting interviews with commanders and non-governmental entities to analyze, for example, which programs would be most effective, be it building schools or clinics, or any other type of basic services the population might need to be able to develop their programs, activities, and resources efficiently and effectively,” Perez explained.

“What this program has achieved by organizing the communities is give them strategic guidance directed at offering them a series of life projects that have, undoubtedly, allowed them to meet their most basic needs. [It has helped to] create jobs, improve well-being and prosperity for the people of the areas, since they are already working on some very specific projects that bring them better living conditions. Support from the United States has been essential,” added Colombian Army General Juan Pablo Rodríguez Barragán, commander of the Colombian Military Forces.

Training of Colombian Soldiers

The Colombian Military had to be trained for their new role of instituting governance, empowering community leaders and, at the same time, helping create production projects, infrastructure, health, recreation, and education campaigns. This was achieved with interagency support and supervision by Major Peñaranda, one of the creators of Fe en Colombia,
who is in charge of training the soldiers implementing the program.

These activities make the Colombian Military participants proud, because, they have been part of implementing change and seeing the effects on the region. “For me, Fe en Colombia
has allowed me to get to know the community better, interact with them, learn from working together, and understand that the needs of the rural population take priority and that, if, as soldiers, we can help solve their social problems, the Army will have won their hearts. One experience that struck me was that of a man named José Raúl, from the town of Linares, in Nariño. We helped him start a coffee project, and today he is exporting it to the United States,” said Soldier Kenny Cortez Betancourt, social manager of the Fe en Colombia
program in that area of the country.

“ Fe en Colombia
has allowed me to gain the support and trust of the most vulnerable populations in the area where I work. I have a clear memory of a community in the town of Argelia that used to plant coca and operate laboratories. Today, they are egg producers. We helped them with a project of egg laying hens, and now they are much better off, because they changed from illegal drugs to the sale of eggs. Currently, we are organizing championships, outdoor movies and health events with the community, and it is there that I learn what the population’s basic needs are in order to begin working on them. I myself, also of a rural population, can say that Fe en Colombia
really works, and I have seen the change,” stated Soldier Javier Goméz, social manager of the Fe en Colombia
program in Cauca, to Diálogo

A national program

With the success of the Fe en Colombia
program, the ColombianArmy, together with the government, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and a private initiative, will expand the program to other parts of Colombia in the first weeks of July. “Thanks to the contact we had with the task forces of Generals [Juan Vicente] Trujillo and [Luis Fernando] Rojas, there are currently over 6,690 families that have benefitted from the program. We were able to reclaim many youngsters from criminal activity, prevent recruitment of young people, and prevent teen-age pregnancy,” said Idali.

“These communities currently have planted over 77 million coffee trees, in addition to agricultural, cattle, artisanal, fish, and industrial products, among others, and leaders who otherwise aided the guerillas, or helped as militias to the FARC, today are completely on the side of the law. There is no precedence in the world of an initiative designed by a national army that has served the requirements of the State and has created jobs, well-being, and prosperity among the population,” added Major Peñaranda.

One of the main focus groups of the campaign is women, especially those who, in some way, were displaced or threatened by criminals. Most are single mothers and heads of their households, and many are also artisans. For example, Marileide Mejía, is finishing a project that distributes beverages from the Pacific area to the rest of the country.

“Five years ago, a group of over 20 women came together. We were doing a project with local materials; I am from Caloto Cauca, but the women come from various areas: Terrero, Guasanó, we have women from Morales, from different places. And some of us are Afro-Colombian, others are indigenous, some are rural workers, and others mestizo. We have this strength”, she says proudly. “All of this is possible only because they are projects that were articulated under the program Fe en Colombia
and the Ministry of Agriculture. For us, and for me, in particular, it is gratifying to sit here and say that the Fe en Colombia
program really works.”

Policy of ideas and social development

“Finally, the country is building a policy of ideas and social development that is born from the communal social base and has vulnerable populations as its main axis. This is different than regular policies that are top down,” stated Major Peñaranda.

Fe en Colombia
currently links 40 national and regional institutions, and frames its work under 18 lines of action related to production, infrastructure, environmental, social reintegration projects, among others, with the goal of contributing to poverty reduction in the farms, strengthening income generation capacity, improving the civilian population’s living conditions, and increasing regional production competitiveness. This way, they make progress by formulating and introducing production projects geared towards building entrepreneurship and rural skills, and creating opportunities.

On the academic side, for example, students from several specialty areas, such as social workers, physical therapists, psychologists, environmental and civil engineers, do their internships by helping communities through academic agreements. “We have 41 academic agreements with the main universities of southwest Colombia. We have a legal aid program on the radio, and we do a lot of activities with the communities to help with economic, cultural, and community issues,” said one of the interns from the University of Cauca who participates in Fe en Colombia

Example for other countries

“Colombia is a country that has been immersed in a conflict for over 50 years that is not only armed, but also political and social in nature, and which has caused hundreds of victims throughout its history. Colombia's internal struggle has given rise to unique and exceptional strategies and capabilities that can now serve as an example to other countries with similar conflicts. Such is the case of the Fe en Colombia
program; one of its goals is to bring a solid government presence to rural sectors that have been inundated by violence due to the presence of criminal groups and promote social development and rural entrepreneurship there,” said General Rojas.

As a result of the comprehensive action activities related to consolidation projects, thousands of people have benefitted in over 29 towns in the departments of Cauca, Valle, and Nariño, substantially improving their living conditions through large projects, such as building sports centers and reclaiming, improving, and paving projects that exceeds $300 million. “These are projects that have undoubtedly brought progress and development to these regions in greater need and to parts of the southwest of Colombia with the goal of gaining and reestablishing confidence among rural workers, indigenous populations, and Afro-Colombian people,” said Major Peñaranda. The goal now is to create new opportunities for progress and improve the living conditions of all vulnerable communities in the entire national territory by implementing Fe en Colombia
program throughout the country.