Colombia: seeking peace but burdened by drugs

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Bogota (AFP)

The participation of Colombia's ex-guerrilla group FARC in legislative elections for the first time Sunday is a major step, but the country continues to battle a massive drugs trade.

Here is some background.

- Half-century of conflict -

The 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, involving also other leftist rebel groups, right-wing paramilitaries and drug gangs.

The legacy is grim: more than 260,000 people killed, nearly 83,000 missing and some 7.4 million forced to flee their homes.

There were also kidnappings, perhaps the most high profile being 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 by as Timoleon "Timochenko" Jimenez, signed a deal to end more than a half-century of conflict.

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

- Cocaine paradise -

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 a staggering 52 percent to 146,000 hectares (361,000 acres) in 2016 when it produced 866 tons of cocaine, the UN says.

In the late 1980s drugs baron Pablo Escobar -- immortalized in the hit Netflix series "Narcos" -- became one of the world's richest men, according to Forbes, by building an empire on drug trafficking before he was killed in 1993.

Drugs helped to finance the FARC's struggle, but the group agreed in the peace deal to help the fight against the traffic.

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

The government has launched a program 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. With Zambia, it is one of the main emerald producers.

But in 2017 it registered 1.8 percent growth, its weakest for nearly a decade, and has a 10 percent unemployment rate.

In 2016 the World Bank reported 28 percent of the population of 48.6 million was living under the poverty line.

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

Bogota's migration authority said mid-January that the number of Venezuelans entering the country -- 550,000 -- had increased by 62 percent in the past year.

- Zumba and 'Waka Waka' -

The naturally diverse country has a vibrant, colorful culture that has made international impact.

Colombian pop superstar Shakira 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 program Zumba that has taken the world by storm was born in Colombia in the late 1990s.