By Luis Jaime Acosta
AGUA BONITA, Colombia (Reuters) - Colombia's former Marxist FARC rebels have begun to construct communes in rural areas once torn apart by violence, part of their bid to reintegrate into society following a peace deal with the government.
More than 11,000 fighters and supporters of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have demobilized under last year's deal, ending its part in a half-century war that has killed more than 220,000 people.
The group is now a political party, known as the People's Revolutionary Alternative Force, maintaining the FARC acronym in Spanish.
The deal has been met with skepticism by many Colombians, who oppose ex-rebel participation in politics and have demanded jail sentences for leaders accused of murder, kidnapping and sexual violence.
Former rebels living in the nascent town of Agua Bonita, in southern Caqueta province, say a communal model will help alleviate deep socio-economic inequalities in Colombia, where the rural poor often lack access to public services.
"This is a project that will create conditions for a dignified life, where people aren't just guaranteed dignified housing, but also health, employment, education," Federico Montes, an ex-rebel and community leader told Reuters.
The town, which has 65 modest houses, is carved from Caqueta's jungle and plains, long the scene of battles between the rebels and the military. It is so far home to 250 former combatants and their families, and has a library, health center, communal store and bakery.
Towns like Agua Bonita will help fight the country's high poverty rate and offer a model for communal living in line with leftist beliefs, Montes said.
"We want to build a small model of what a more just, more equal and most of all more humane Colombia could be, where people have basic services and jobs," he said.
The FARC were founded in 1964 as the armed wing of the country's Communist party and revere Marxist leaders like Che Guevara. The group has long nurtured ties with socialist and communists governments in Venezuela and Cuba.
While local ex-rebels see the commune projects as a chance to build local left-wing utopias, national FARC leaders are more cautious.
When asked whether the communities would be run as communist enclaves, Pastor Alape, a leader of the FARC party, angrily denied they would have such an ideology and said any suggestion would open them up to criticism that they want to run independent states.
Many FARC members have expressed fears they could be targeted for assassinations in a repeat of the 1980s killings of some 5,000 members of the rebel-allied Patriotic Union party, which grew out of a failed peace process with the government.
Residents have begun to plant pineapple, plantain and cassava and plan to hand over the $2,700 they are supposed to receive from the government after demobilization to the community.
Agua Bonita is protected by the police, while the army operates nearby in an effort to combat crime gangs who are trying to move into former rebel territory and take control of lucrative coca crops, the base ingredient in cocaine.
"We need to be united to survive," said 34-year-old Danilo Ortiz, who spent two decades as a FARC fighter, as he sewed a boot in the town's shoe-making workshop, set along a neat red dirt street.
Rebels are looking for opportunities in areas that have not had state presence for years, Joshua Mitrotti, the head of the country's reintegration agency, said on a visit to Agua Bonita.
The town is a "good start" to integrating rural areas and could be replicated if it gets sufficient support from the government, said Jean Arnault, the head of the United Nation's verification mission in Colombia.
(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Helen Murphy and Alistair Bell)