EL PLACER, Colombia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Under the gaze of a sniper, an elite soldier, with his finger on the trigger of an assault rifle, peers into a car at a sand-barricade checkpoint leading into Colombia's southwestern Cauca province.
Like most troops in this volatile outpost, he is ever vigilant of another car bomb or mortar attack that may be launched by rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, hiding in surrounding mountain lairs.
Off the main highway up a winding dirt road in the hamlet of El Placer, the recent arrival of government troops has done little to ease fears of local villagers and gain their trust.
“All the government does here is to send in soldiers to fight and interrogate,” said a woman who gave her name only as Alma, as she sat on a bench breastfeeding her baby. “You never know when the fighting will start and when it will end.”
Long a FARC stronghold, Cauca's labyrinth of deep canyons and forested mountains sits on the frontline of a 50-year-old conflict that has been fought out of sight and out of mind of the residents in the capital Bogota, 550 km (340 miles) away.
Cauca remains a no-go zone for most Colombians and foreigners. A weak state presence means violence can flare up at anytime, forcing villagers caught between the two warring sides to dodge bullets and homemade cylinder bombs fired by rebels.
As the Colombian government and FARC hold ongoing peace talks in Havana to end Latin America's longest-running insurgency, it will be in rebel fiefdoms like Cauca where peace will be hardest to build and hardest won.
Cauca is seen as an acid test for President Juan Manuel Santos to prove he can secure control of its neglected hinterlands, return thousands of displaced people to their lands and win the hearts and minds of farming and indigenous communities.
“If peace building works in Cauca, it would work elsewhere in Colombia,” said Jorge Restrepo, who heads the Conflict Analysis Resource Centre, a think tank in Bogota.
Even if a peace deal is signed, analysts say insecurity will linger in Cauca as drug-funded FARC rebels and criminal gangs fight for control of a key trafficking route that stretches across its Andean mountain spine to the Pacific coast.
With an outlet to the Pacific Ocean, Cauca is a gateway to the global cocaine trade. The FARC and criminal groups rely on it as a coveted corridor to smuggle drugs through Central America, Mexico and then onto the streets of the United States.
“Parts of Cauca are quite vulnerable to other armed groups not only fighting for control of coca (used to make cocaine) but for gold and precious woods like mahogany,” said Restrepo.
'BEST TO KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT'
Conceived back in 1964 as a Marxist-inspired agrarian movement that fought to topple the government and defend the rights of poor and landless peasants, the FARC later turned to cocaine, kidnapping and extortion to fuel its war coffers.
At the height of its power, the group, considered a terrorist organisation by the U.S. and European Union, boasted some 20,000 fighters. But a U.S.-backed military offensive has whittled its numbers to about 8,000.
In Cauca, many villagers know rebel fighters personally. Some are related to them, and there are others who can identify which families have traditionally fed guerrilla ranks. They live in uneasy harmony with the FARC and blame government troops for putting them in the crossfire.
A big part of the government’s challenge will be gaining legitimacy in the eyes of disgruntled indigenous communities who say they have been forgotten by the government and left to fend for themselves.
Many complain of being exploited by guerrillas and government troops alike, accusing them of snatching their food, demanding refuge in their homes when fighting breaks out and interrogating them about each other's movements.
"We're stigmatised here," said Luis Cruz, a shopkeeper in El Placer. "The army points the finger at us and says we're FARC collaborators and vice-versa."
Here, being branded a collaborator or informant can lead to a bullet in the head.
"It's best to keep your mouth shut at all times and never give information or help to either side," Cruz explained. "It's difficult to trust anyone. Even a greeting to either side can get you in trouble and be interpreted as collaborating. You need to keep neutral to survive."
At the local school overlooking verdant peaks, teacher Hermes Leon has been treading a fine line between the two sides for decades.
A "NO GUNS" sign and white flag hang outside the bullet-pocked building, yet Leon repeatedly has to tell both sides to respect it as a safe haven where villagers scramble when the fighting erupts.
"The worst thing is hearing explosions and not knowing where they’ll land,” Leon said. “Bullets and grenades have hit the school while children have been inside. There’ve been times when we’ve had to close the school for weeks because of the intense fighting."
REGAINING CONTROL INCH BY INCH
Cauca has long been FARC's stomping ground but Santos, who took office in 2010, is determined to secure control of the region. He has deployed more than 6,000 troops to dislodge rebels holed up in the mountains as part of an intensified military offensive since 2011.
Troops have set up mobile and permanent bases on strategic mountaintops, allowing them to regain territory - inch by inch - and hunt down FARC leaders, such as Alfonso Cano, who was killed in a 2011 air attack on his jungle camp in Cauca.
Even so, the FARC's response to a rare visit by Santos last year served as a reminder of the government’s tenuous control in Cauca. Within minutes of his arrival by helicopter, the rebels had mounted a roadblock just 1 km from the president.
For local residents, roadblocks and FARC-imposed curfews are just one of the many ways the rebels make their presence felt.
Another is the sight of plain-clothed guerrillas belonging to the FARC's network of thousands of urban-based informants who ride through the villages on motorbikes reporting intelligence back to rebel commanders hiding in mountain camps.
Sometimes, FARC commanders are the only law enforcers around, dishing out justice in cases of theft and domestic violence where there's an absence of the police or the courts.
"In some remote areas in Cauca where the army doesn’t have any control, the FARC are the political and economic authority, operating as a sort of justice system," said Maryse Limoner of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Colombia.
The FARC are also seen as a way out of poverty in rural areas where the poverty rate is around 60 percent – double that of Colombia's cities.
Attracted by false promises of adventure and money, roughly 40 percent of the FARC's fighters are thought to be children, according to 2012 research by a Colombian academic.
"When you ask a group of 20 kids in your class what they want to do when they grow up, more than half will put up their hands and say, 'I want to be a guerrilla'. Others will say, 'a soldier'," said school teacher Leon. "It's all that they've seen and grown up with - a man with a gun."
The temptation to join an armed group is simply too great for many youngsters, Leon said.
"There's not much else here for young people to do. Kids think it’s going to be easy, that they won’t have to work. But when they end up in FARC camps it’s really hard," he added.
Besides advancing the rule of law in Cauca where men with guns have held power for decades, a major challenge is promoting rural development, creating jobs and providing a viable alternative to the lucrative coca crop, the raw ingredient for cocaine.
Many subsistence farmers here depend on growing coca to survive, in a province where two-thirds of its 1.4 million inhabitants live on $3 a day.
"Of course we want to change coca for legal crops but there’s not the means to do this," said Jairo Yatacue, a coca farmer who lives in El Placer, where the light green coca shrub dominates much of the landscape.
While Cauca's lush agricultural land lends itself to sugarcane, coffee, cattle and corn, its dirt roads are often washed away by rain and traveling them can take days - stifling agricultural production, a mainstay of the local economy.
Indigenous leader Yatacue earns around $450 every three months during the coca harvest and sees little alternative to the coca trade even if peace comes to these mountains.
"We need better roads, access to small loans at low interest rates, fertilizers and technical assistance to help us set up small fruit businesses." Yatacue said. "A hectare of coca is always more profitable than a hectare of plantain."
Unlike other coca-growing areas in Colombia where the government pays civilians to handpick coca leaves or sends U.S.-backed planes to spray chemicals over coca fields to eradicate the resilient plant, Cauca has so far remained beyond the government’s reach.
But that could all change soon.
"Indigenous groups are known to block roads and surround police accompanying manual coca eradicators. We know it’s going to be tough and that there’ll be resistance but we’re going into Cauca in July," said one high-ranking government official, who declined to give his name.
He said only when farmers have cleared their coca fields will the government provide subsidies and help them switch from growing coca to coffee, rubber or cocoa, which is used to make chocolate.
In the valley below, as the smell of burned sugarcane permeates the picturesque colonial town of Caloto, human rights official Elier Erney helps victims seek compensation and justice for land stolen, relatives murdered, families displaced and landmine victims under historic legislation passed by the Santos government.
He questions what change, if any, peace will bring to Cauca.
"Peace in Colombia needs to be constructed with social programmes. I ask myself if peace is really possible if there’re no jobs," Erney said. "We need a real tax reform, a real land reform. No big companies are here."
For Erney, there is little evidence of the billions of dollars in development projects that Colombia and the United States, the country's top aid donor, are pouring into Cauca and other no-go areas concentrated in Colombia's south and border areas - in a bid to bridge the huge rural-urban divide.
One problem, analysts say, is that many local government officials are simply not up to the task of managing multi-million dollar development plans to create jobs, build bridges and water and sewage systems without money being siphoned off or wasted.
With a weak local government and limited rule of law in Cauca, drug-related violence will likely continue regardless of any peace deal.
The FARC controls roughly 60 percent of Colombia's cocaine production in what is one of the world's biggest cocaine producers in a business bringing in the rebels as much as $1 billion a year, the government says. The FARC denies involvement in the drug trade.
Experts say even if the FARC agrees to disarm, there is no shortage of drug-running criminal networks, known locally as Bacrim, which could fill the vacuum of power left behind.
"Bacrim are a major force and are expanding. There’s a huge temptation for them to move farther into Cauca, where they’re already active in some areas," said Michael Shifter, head of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank in Washington.
"The Bacrim could come in and work with FARC renegades, those who haven’t laid their arms. It’s likely to be very complicated unless there is a massive sustained economic development."
It's a view shared by many locals who are acutely aware that peace won't bring an end to the drug trade and the violence it spawns.
"Even if peace is achieved, drug trafficking will continue,” Caloto's rights official Erney said. “That will also bring displacement and wars between drug trafficking groups."
Leaving Caloto, zigzagging past oil barrels filled with stones marking another army checkpoint, a bus driver is asked to pull over and place his hands on the side of the bus, ready to be frisked by soldiers searching for guns, explosives and drugs.
Towering above him is a big government poster urging FARC fighters to lay down their arms:
"This is a historic moment to build peace. Leave behind the armed struggle. We're waiting for you."
(Editing by Katie Nguyen and Tim Large)