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Colombia Peace Deal With FARC Guerrillas Sparks Outrage

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now to Colombia, where under a 2016 peace treaty, the country's largest guerrilla group known as the FARC has disarmed. In many remote areas, though, criminal gangs are fighting over the lucrative illegal drug trade FARC used to control. As John Otis reports, this violence has forced thousands of people from their homes.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Speaking Spanish).

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: This public school in the jungle town of El Charco now houses 360 homeless people, many of them children. They fled their hamlet on Colombia's Pacific coast, a seven-hour boat ride from here, after gun battles broke out between rival drug gangs. Only five villagers stayed behind. Among the newly displaced is schoolteacher Ruth Delgado.

RUTH DELGADO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "The whole village was traumatized," she says. "We feared there'd be more fighting and that we would be killed, so we decided to leave and seek protection."

MILTON CUERO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: They came to El Charco because it's the largest town in this remote patch of southwest Colombia that's mostly rainforest, mangrove swamp and deserted coastline. Now El Charco's mayor, Milton Cuero, is scrambling to provide the newcomers with food, clothing and mattresses.

CUERO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Cuero says that under the peace treaty that disarmed the FARC guerrilla group, the army was supposed to provide security to El Charco and to other areas that were once dominated by the rebels. But, Cuero says, that hasn't happened.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Instead, new armed groups, including some former guerrillas, have moved in to take over cocaine trafficking routes previously controlled by the FARC. Adam Isacson is a Colombia analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America.

ADAM ISACSON: And very quickly, new groups popped up. Mid-level commanders of the FARC who had pretty good ties to the narco-economy moved back in because they decided not to demobilize. And within a year, really, you had violent contestation of control of these very, very lucrative trafficking routes.

OTIS: Home to coca fields, cocaine laboratories and fleets of drug-running boats, the Pacific coast is now ground zero for Colombia's cocaine trade. But Isacson says that the new armed groups also covered the land for illegal gold mining and other lucrative activities.

ISACSON: Now, who's on that land - people who've probably lived there for generations. They are in the way. They are independent. They can - often they're well-organized, especially if they're ethnic communities. So they want them out.

OTIS: Since the peace treaty was signed, more than a quarter of a million Colombians have been uprooted from their homes by the fighting according to the U.N.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: To pacify the Pacific coast, the Colombian government recently sent in thousands of troops, including this joint police-army squad that patrols jungle rivers in and around El Charco. But as newcomers, they lack good intelligence and are unfamiliar with the terrain.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

OTIS: Tonight they've been tipped off that smugglers may be loading cocaine from a nearby dock. They go ashore and try to sneak up on them.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

OTIS: But a pack of barking dogs gives away their position. When they reach the dock, it's empty.

DELGADO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Back at the school, Delgado says that she and her family will not go back to their village until security improves. But it appears that may not happen anytime soon. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in El Charco, Colombia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.