With Peace Talks at Stake, War Victims Weigh in on Colombian Election [UPDATED]


Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect new developments after the first round of Colombian elections, which took place on Sunday, May 25.


Jose Armando Irreño lives in uncertainty each day. His father Leonardo was kidnapped in January of 2012, and no one has heard of his whereabouts ever since.

"Ever since this happened we have lived through problems," said Irreño, whose family raises cattle in Colombia's Magdalena Medio region.


The steamy valley, which is home to some of Colombia's richest lands, has also been historically one of the most violent areas in the country. It is rife with land conflicts, and cattle ranchers here have suffered from kidnappings and extortion at the hands of guerrilla groups, paramilitaries and criminal gangs.

Irreño says that the second and final round of Colombia’s presidential election, which will take place on June 15, is pivotal for security to improve in the country.

The elections pit Juan Manuel Santos, the current president and a supporter of peace talks with the Marxist FARC guerrillas, against Oscar Ivan Zuluaga. The latter, a right-wing candidate, would likely cancel these peace negotiations, which have been going on in Cuba for the past 18 months.

Like most of Colombia’s voters, victims of the war are deeply split in this election, which has become a referendum on the peace process.


Opponents of the talks, such as Irreño, say that peace can only be achieved in Colombia if the government takes a tougher stance on crime, and punishes armed groups who commit crimes like kidnappings and extortion. For them, the peace talks are only encouraging criminal behavior in the country, as they would offer the guerrillas an entry into politics and reduced sentences for certain crimes.

Supporters of President Santos hope that guerrillas will be lured into dropping their weapons through a series of policy deals that include proposals on how to develop the Colombian countryside.


SEE ALSO: Santos Says Colombia is Much Safer than 4 Years Ago

Backers of the peace talks are willing to forgive the rebels for some of the crimes they have committed, including kidnappings, as long as they actually drop their guns.


"I’d rather see a guerilla fighter in Congress, wearing a suit and tie, than in the mountains holding a rifle and killing peasants," says Edgar Ramirez, who was kidnapped for ransom by the FARC when he was just thirteen.

Ramirez, now an architect, is hoping that Santos’ peace talks will make Colombia a safer place to live in, once the guerrillas drop their guns. He says that we wants more "tranquility" for his 8-year-old son and his parents, who have experienced several death threats at the hands of the guerrillas.


Irreño, who still works in the cattle ranching business, has a very different view on the talks. He doubts a peace treaty between the rebels and the government will stop land conflicts, which have led to countless acts of violence in Colombia.

"We need a government that provides security, but also judicial guarantees," Irreño said at his family’s apartment in the city of Bucaramanga. This 30-year-old cattle rancher currently risks losing his 20 hectare farm to the "land restitution law," a government program created under the Santos administration, that is trying to provide reparations to victims of paramilitary groups.


"You can't achieve peace by creating conflicts between campesinos," said Irreño.

The election on June 15 is expected to be a close one. On Sunday, May 25, Zuluaga obtained 29 percent in the first round of the election, with Santos trailing him by just four percent of votes.


Both candidates will now have to seek alliances with the three candidates who lost in round one. Together, they garnered around 40 percent of the total vote.

Santos and Zuluaga will also have to reach out to Colombians who didn't turn out to vote. Despite the pivotal nature of this election and its critical impact on peace talks with the FARC rebels, only four out of 10 Colombians voted in the first round.


Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.

Russ Finkelstein is a producer for America with Jorge Ramos.

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