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Colombia's FARC Guerrillas Are Set To Miss Disarmament Deadline

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

In Colombia, a key deadline is approaching. Under a deal to end the country's half-century-long guerrilla war, the Marxist rebel group known as the FARC must lay down its weapons by the end of this month. But as John Otis reports, disarming the guerrillas is complicated.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Rather than mapping out attacks or taking target practice, about a dozen FARC rebels are building a fish farm.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: With picks and shovels, they dig ponds that will soon be filled with cachama fish to help feed the roughly 500 guerillas living at this FARC camp. There are no weapons in sight.

FAISURI MENDOZA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Ten-year FARC veteran Faisuri Mendoza says it feels a little strange to be hoisting a shovel rather than her trusty Kalashnikov rifle. But she's optimistic about the future and points out this war had to come to an end.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Mendoza is among 7,000 FARC fighters who have gathered at special disarmament camps like this one located near the village of Colinas in the southern Colombian state of Guaviare. Under the peace treaty, the FARC has until May 31 to turn over all of its weapons to a United Nations team that's monitoring the peace process. But Colombian officials admit that this deadline will not be met. Although the guerrillas have handed over most of their rifles and handguns, tons of the FARC's heavy weapons, ammunition and explosives remain buried in the jungle in more than 900 clandestine storage sites.

MAURICIO JARAMILLO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Mauricio Jaramillo, one of the FARC's top commanders, says the FARC has provided the location of these arms depots to the U.N. mission collecting the weapons. But that task is only now getting underway, says Gylmar Castellanos, a member of the U.N. team.

GYLMAR CASTELLANOS: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: One complication, Castellanos explains, is that many of the rebel arms warehouses are deep in the jungle and surrounded by landmines. This is just the latest setback in Colombia's peace process. Scores of human rights activists who support the peace treaty have been killed by criminal gangs. What's more, a splinter group of some 300 FARC members who reject the peace process has resumed attacking government troops and recently kidnapped a U.N. anti-drug official in Guaviare.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Nelson Prada, who manages this grocery store in Guaviare, says the dissident rebels often call him up to demand extortion payments.

NELSON PRADA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "What is happening to the peace process," he says. "It seems that things are spinning out of control." Prada and others warn that if the FARC's weapons are not collected soon, they may fall into the hands of dissident rebels or drug traffickers. But in a recent interview with NPR, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos insisted that the peace process is on track and disarmament will be completed within a few months.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PRESIDENT JUAN MANUEL SANTOS: A couple of months after 52 years of war is nothing. There are logistical problems - you know how difficult it is? And a delay of two months or three months is nothing compared to what the benefits of peace are going to bring all these people in Colombia.

OTIS: Most of the FARC weapons will be destroyed, but some will be melted down and used to create several sculptures to commemorate Colombia's war, a conflict that's killed more than 220,000 people. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Colinas, Colombia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.