Colombia is an amazing place to travel, but Simon Reeve’s latest BBC2 documentary isn’t about its unspoilt Caribbean coast, Amazon jungle or pre-Hispanic treasures.
Instead he was keen to see whether the Colombian government’s peace deal with the guerrilla army FARC will bring lasting peace after 50 years of brutal civil war. So he confronted one of the leaders of FARC and found out about other players in the conflict, including far-right paramilitaries funded by the cocaine trade.
He tells us about the inspiring people he met on his trip and what he learned.
I’ve been to Colombia a couple of times before, and I’ve loved the place, the people, and been fascinated and appalled by its history. For half a century Colombians have endured a terrible conflict that’s affected almost everyone in some way. But now, finally, the government has signed a peace deal with the FARC, one of the main groups responsible for the fighting, and there’s a real chance of peace. I wanted to visit Colombia and travel around the country and find out what’s going on and whether there’s a real chance of peace.
We filmed there this year and it was a really eye-opening journey in which I had lots of adventures and met some really inspiring people who make me quite hopeful about the future of the country.
Do you think the deal between the government and FARC will bring lasting peace to Colombia?
I really hope so, but the big realisation for me is that peace on its own isn’t enough to resolve the problems of Colombia. I went into the jungle to one of the last FARC camps and met guerrillas and one of the most senior leaders of FARC, and I’m pretty sure that they’re sick of war and they want peace. But there are lots of other groups that have been responsible for the suffering of the country that the government will need to keep under control, including former right-wing paramilitaries that massacred countless civilians and are now mutating into major crime gangs; the army, which also committed terrible crimes; plus drug gangs who are still an issue.
Simon Reeve in with a FARC fighter, Cesar
So the government needs to deal with and reform all of them, but it also needs to tackle the root causes of the conflict, which was the fact that Colombia is a shockingly unequal country. That’s the biggest issue. Colombia is one of the most unequal countries in the world, and a small number of wealthy landowner families control vast areas of land and often lord it over people they treat like peasants. Until the government can actually help the poorest in the country and provide them with infrastructure, healthcare, education and jobs, then there will always be risk that rebel groups will go back to war.
What other challenges to peace are there in Colombia?
I was amazed by the problem of illegal gold mining. It’s yet another huge challenge facing Colombia. Experts reckon there are 17,000 illegal gold mines in Colombia and it’s the main cause of deforestation in the country. Across South America illegal gold mining earns gangs make more money than drugs. I went on a huge raid of an illegal gold mining site with dozens of heavily armed soldiers and they blew-up a couple of diggers the miners were using. It was pretty mad.
Tell us about one of the inspiring people you met while filming
In the capital Bogota I met a woman called Luz who is what’s known as an IDP – an internally displaced person – basically a refugee in her own country. She was forced out of her home in a remote bit of Colombia and suffered appallingly. She had a terrible story to tell me, but she was also very much in favour of the peace process and spoke very movingly and with great dignity about her hopes for the future and for her children and grandchildren.
Simon Reeve with Luz Angulo, survivor of Colombia’s armed conflict
I get quite emotional thinking about her now, actually. It was a real honour to meet her. We Brits really can’t imagine how much people in places like that suffer. And so much of what Colombia has endured is because of cocaine trade.
What was the highlight of your trip?
There were a lot of highlights! It’s a really extraordinary country. But if you twist my arm I’d say it was a meal I had at a fancy restaurant in Medellin, which used to be one of the most dangerous cities in the world, but has now been transformed. The restaurant is run by a celebrity chef who has won lots of acclaim for his food, which is delicious, but the real treat for me was in the kitchen. The restaurant has a ‘Cooking for Peace’ project that employs former combatants from the conflict alongside each other. So former deadly enemies working together making delicious food.
I met a former soldier who lost a leg and an eye to a guerrilla landmine, and a former guerrilla and a man who’d been in a right-wing paramilitary group, and they admitted that initially they’d been horrified about the idea of working together. But they were now comrades and friends who were all in favour of the peace process. There was a moment when we were all cramped in the kitchen and they had their arms around each other in a matey way and I got a lump in my throat – it was beautiful to see that reconciliation as possible. Romero, the former soldier, said something simple but incredible: “The price of peace is forgiveness”. We can all learn from that.
Colombia with Simon Reeve is on Sunday 16 April on BBC2 at 9pm