Reuters International

A boy sits next to the main church in Toribio, Cauca, Colombia, February 9, 2016. REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga

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By Helen Murphy and Luis Jaime Acosta

TORIBIO, Colombia (Reuters) - For decades, Marxist rebels have come down the mountains to recruit fighters, stock up on supplies, and move freely through farmlands around Toribio, a town where generations of some families have joined them in Colombia's five-decade war.

For much of that time, the state has been virtually non-existent in these fertile western highlands, where marijuana and coca grow alongside coffee and sugarcane.

So it is precisely from strongholds like this that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, hope to build a political movement once guerrilla leaders sign a peace deal with the government, likely later this year.

Yet even here among Toribio's largely poor farmers, there appears to be little enthusiasm for the 7,000 fighters' transformation from armed insurgency into a political party.

"I want nothing to do with them, they've done so much damage," said Martha Secue, 40, tearfully recalling the day five years ago when the FARC detonated a bus bomb outside a small police outpost in Toribio's main square, severing her husband's arm and ending his work as a cobbler.

From her crumbling adobe shack, she struggles to raise three children from the periphery of the illegal marijuana trade, feeding them rice, beans and plantain on good days and sugar water on bad.

"I will never vote for the FARC," she said, watching over a handful of marijuana plants she grows in order to sell to local dealers.

While a unilateral ceasefire by the FARC allows residents to sleep more peacefully at night, the long conflict caused havoc in the area, killing scores of local residents as rebel units battled troops across the valleys.

Across Colombia, the five-decade conflict has cost at least 220,000 lives.

The mostly indigenous residents of this area have long been accused of helping the FARC and many have had family members in its ranks. Only some, though, appear ready to give them a hearing in a new era of peace.

"Let's see what they have to offer, it can't be worse than what we have now," said Teresa Riva, 40, who sells basic foods and soda to marijuana and coca workers at her small grocery store near Toribio. "It's been hard."

Hoping to end Latin America's longest-running insurgency, President Juan Manuel Santos wants Colombians to at least forgive the rebels enough to support a peace accord through a national vote.

"The link between politics and weapons must be broken forever," he said recently, even as he cast doubt on whether the FARC will prosper as a political movement unless it discards its "archaic and Soviet-era" rhetoric of class war.

The FARC says it has always been a political movement, formed in 1964 to fight for social justice and the rural poor. In the 1990s, it had as many as 20,000 armed fighters and posed a serious threat to the government.

But it was then pushed onto the defensive by a U.S.-backed anti-insurgency campaign and its reputation has been hit by its involvement in the illegal drugs trade and human rights abuses that include attacks on civilian targets and the kidnapping of thousands of people for months or years on end.

The FARC wants to radically change Colombia's economic model, nationalize industries like oil and mining, and renegotiate free trade deals. Unable to force those changes in almost four years of negotiations in Cuba, it now plans to take them into electoral politics.

"Our platform's not new," said Benkos Bioho, a member of the FARC negotiating team. "The idea is to mount a broad front to channel people who don't agree with the way things are run."

But polls show more than 90 percent of Colombians have a negative view of the FARC and 77 percent do not want it to participate in politics.

Some analysts believe the rebels use fear to keep residents in line in its strongholds, and that they may get a very different reception once they swap camouflage fatigues and AK-47 rifles for ponchos and farm tools.

PRECEDENTS

In El Salvador, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front rebel group formed a political party under a 1992 peace pact, quickly became the leading opposition force, won power in 2009 and was re-elected in 2014.

But the FARC has less popular support and Colombia's history of guerrilla groups' transitions into politics is a bloody one.

The Patriotic Union (UP), formed under a previous attempt at peace with the FARC in 1985, had about 5,000 members and supporters murdered, including two presidential candidates, by right-wing paramilitary death squads.

The M-19 rebel movement was also attacked after signing peace. Its presidential candidate, Carlos Pizarro, was shot dead on a commercial flight in 1990.

Since then, however, violence has eased and a former M-19 leader was elected mayor of Bogota, Colombia's second most powerful position.

Antonio Navarro Wolff, a senator and former M-19 rebel who lost his leg in an assassination attempt, says the FARC's path to politics could be dangerous.

"The FARC has many enemies," said Navarro, 67, adding the rebels would need to drop their more radical policies to succeed. "They will have to win support gradually and show that their bid for peace is genuine."

Aida Avella, a UP leader who took exile in Switzerland in 1997, received scores of death threats when she returned to Colombia to run for president in 2014.

"We worry about the resurgence of paramilitary groups," she said from an office adorned with pictures of the old Soviet Union and images of Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara. "They are revitalizing."

To succeed politically, the FARC would need to form alliances and begin at grassroots, says analyst Ariel Avila, who reckons it has 600,000 sympathizers in the country of 47 million people, possibly enough for it to win a few seats in Congress.

There are already signs the FARC is gradually changing its tone and becoming more conciliatory.

    At peace talks, its leaders have agreed to help substitute illegal crops like coca and marijuana for coffee and fruits, release child soldiers and help clear land mines. Government officials say local rebel leaders are also working quietly with human rights groups to create political networks as a step towards building electoral support.

And a new mood is being felt in towns like Toribio.

"They've gone from aggressive to somewhat tolerant, they've lowered their intensity," said Toribio's 53-year-old mayor, Alcibiades Escue. "They talk about a future now."

(Additional reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb in Bogota and Nelson Acosta in Havana; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Kieran Murray)

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