Colombia on the road to peace but burdened by drugs

Saturday, May 26, 2018

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BOGOTA, Colombia (AFP) — The following is a fact file about Colombia as it goes to the polls tomorrow in its first presidential election since a 2016 peace deal with ex-guerrilla group FARC that ended a decades-long war:

Longest-running conflict

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) launched its war on the Colombian Government in 1964, in the aftermath of a peasant uprising that was brutally put down by the army.

It would turn into the longest-running conflict in South America, also involving other leftist rebel groups, right-wing paramilitaries, and drug gangs.

More than 260,000 people were killed, nearly 83,000 went missing, and some 7.4 million were forced to flee their homes in a country with a population of around 48.6 million.

There were also kidnappings — perhaps the most high-profile one came in 2002 of French-Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who was held in the jungle for more than six years.

In November 2016, President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader Rodrigo Londono, better known as Timoleon “Timochenko” Jimenez, signed a deal to end more than a half-century of conflict.

It covered justice and reparations for victims, land reform, the FARC's disarmament and its relaunch as a political party.

Peace talks are meanwhile under way with the country's last active rebel force, the National Liberation Army, in Cuba.

Top cocaine supplier

Colombia is the world's leading coca leaf grower and also the biggest source of cocaine, according to the United Nations.

Its growing area rose by 52 per cent to 146,000 hectares (361,000 acres) in 2016, when it produced 866 tons of cocaine.

In the 1980s, drug kingpin Pablo Escobar — whose life has been chronicled in the hit Netflix series Narcos — became one of the world's richest men, according to Forbes, before he was killed in 1993.

The drug trade helped finance the FARC's struggle but the group agreed in the peace deal to help fight narcotics trafficking.

During the first year of the deal, the homicide rate increased by 11 per cent to 39.5 for every 100,000 inhabitants in the zones where coca is cultivated, the Fundacion Ideas para la Paz independent think tank said in February.

The government has launched a programme to encourage coca farmers to switch to legal crops such as coffee and cacao.

Troubled economy

Colombia is Latin America's fourth-largest economy and the world's third coffee producer after Brazil and Vietnam. It is one of the main sources of emeralds.

In 2017 it registered 1.8 per cent growth, its weakest for nearly a decade, and its unemployment rate was at nine per cent, according to the World Bank.

The slow recovery of oil prices and an increase in taxes contributed to the weak economic performance.

Poverty in terms of income decreased from 37.2 per cent in 2010 to 26.9 per cent in 2017, but around 13 million are considered poor.

Neighbouring Venezuelans have added new pressure, arriving en masse as they flee economic and humanitarian crisis in their own country.

In May, the Red Cross said at least one million people had entered Colombia from Venezuela since mid-2017.

Shakira and Zumba

Colombian singer Shakira is a global pop superstar — she has sold more than 60 million records and is one of Latin America's biggest acts, singing the Waka Waka anthem for football's 2010 World Cup.

One of the country's most venerated sons is Nobel Prize-winning writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose One Hundred Years of Solitude is considered a landmark 20th-century novel.

And the dance fitness programme Zumba that has taken the world by storm was born in Colombia in the late 1990s.

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