(BOGOTA) – A fifty-two-year-old armed conflict that has claimed the lives of a quarter million people and displaced five million more may finally come to an end.
Colombian government officials and FARC negotiators announced at the end of August that after four years of negotiations, they have settled on a set of final peace
accords to end their half-century-long armed conflict. The president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, presented the accord to Congress on August 25, announcing his intention to convene a referendum on the agreement in early October. At that time, Colombians will decide with a simple “Yes” or “No” whether the oldest armed conflict in America has seen its last day.
The conflict began in June 1964. A group of men scrambled up through the dense jungle in Colombia’s central cordillera, running from a village below known as Marquetalia. A few months prior, living within the isolated village, the men had declared independence from the Colombian state, calling themselves the Marxist-Leninist Republic of Marquetalia. Under rising pressure from the United States to combat the threat of a leftist insurgency in Latin America, the Colombian government moved to take Marquetalia back under control and arrived in late May with one thousand troops and four American helicopters.
Overwhelmed by the display of force, the forty-eight rebels of Marquetalia fled to the jungles surrounding the town, where they regrouped to discuss their next steps. Recognizing that Colombia’s leftist revolutionaries needed a unifying organization, the men took up arms and formed the hemisphere’s oldest guerrilla organization: the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
By 1982, reports estimate that over six thousand people had joined together under the FARC banner. In 2003, the number had grown as high as seventeen thousand. In the country’s most remote regions, FARC guerrillas openly controlled Colombian municipalities, instituting law, taxes, and pseudo-police forces. In the large cities, such as Bogotá and Medellin, regular kidnappings and bombings were reminders to those who would otherwise have been isolated from the conflict of the group’s existence and its intention to take control of the country’s government.
By the late 1980s, the FARC became inextricably linked to drug trafficking as its primary source of funding. A 2006 federal indictment of two FARC members stated that the group was responsible for up to 60 percent of the cocaine sent to the United States at the time. According to The Economist, an unpublished Colombian government report in 2012 estimated FARC assets at around $10.5 billion, a figure which would be significantly lower relative to the FARC’s assets during their peak in the ‘90s.
In the early 2000s, under the mano dura presidency of Álvaro Uribe, the Colombian military, assisted by illegal right-wing paramilitary
groups, made significant gains in reducing FARC numbers and regional control.
During that time, under immense pressure from the Uribe administration to eliminate the FARC, Colombian military and paramilitary forces institutionalized a system of “false positives.” This entailed murdering civilians and passing off their bodies as those of FARC soldiers in order to increase the military’s body count. While exact figures have yet to be determined, it is estimated that around three thousand citizens were victims to the false positive phenomenon. Since 2006, up to sixty congressmen have been convicted for corrupt ties to illegal paramilitary groups, leading many to believe that the government was aware of the false positive phenomenon.
The cumulative result of the three-sided conflict between the FARC, the military, and the paramilitaries is more than eight million registered victims, the vast majority of whom are civilians. According to the National Center for Memory in Colombia, most cases of victimization are those of murder, forced displacement, forced disappearance, extortion, and crimes of sexual violence.
In 2010, former president Uribe’s defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, campaigned for the presidency on a platform for peace. Two years after winning the election, Santos began the process of formally negotiating with FARC commanders in Havana, Cuba. For the supporters of the former president Uribe, who make up a significant percentage of Colombia’s electorate, the move by Santos to negotiate with the FARC was a capitulation and a betrayal. Today, as Santos’ government campaigns for the population to vote “Yes” in the referendum on October 2, former president Uribe and his supporters are the most vocal opponents of the peace accords, calling instead for a revised peace process with harsher punishments and reduced political participation for FARC commanders and soldiers.
The peace talks that began in Havana in 2012 marked the fourth time that the FARC and the Colombian government formally sat down to discuss a halt to hostilities. Past rapprochements between the government and the FARC in 1984, 1992, and 2002 all failed, largely due to the parties’ inability to agree to a ceasefire. As a result, hostilities would continue, at times jeopardizing negotiations altogether.
Unlike the failed processes of the past, the negotiation that began in 2012 marked the first time the FARC and the government sat down with an agenda, let alone one that aimed to end the conflict altogether.
Important elements of the peace agenda included “Integral Agrarian Development,” “Political Participation,” “Victims,” “Solution to the Illicit Drug Problem,” and “Implementation, Verification and Referendum.” For the Colombian government, issues of transitional justice and accountability, as well as the “Solution to the Illicit Drug Problem,” were the most pertinent. For the FARC, achieving agrarian reform to support small farmers and domestic production, as well as the right for FARC leaders to run for political office in the post-conflict era, were key points.
Since 2012, government and FARC representatives emerged periodically to inform Colombians whenever the parties had come to a final agreement on a point of the agenda. Many Colombians remained wary of these announcements, however. According to the original, binding agenda for the peace talks, “Nothing is agreed upon until everything is agreed upon,” meaning none of the accords could be implemented until they were all finalized. For a country where more than a generation has lived within a state of internal war, and where many citizens are as distrustful of the FARC as they are of their own government, most believed that a final peace deal would never see the light of day.
This past June, however, the government and the FARC surprised the public by announcing a major step forward—a bilateral ceasefire. Throughout the peace process, the FARC and the government operated under an informal ceasefire, but the announcement in June solidified a formal halt to hostilities. Many citizens living in regions where the FARC retains a presence experienced a degree of peace and normalcy that they had not known in decades. Bombing campaigns by the Air Force stopped, and in the Amazonas region, FARC soldiers emerged from the jungles, donned soccer jerseys, and even hosted a FARC Olympics.
And then on a Wednesday in the middle of August, the news broke: a final peace deal was ready. All of the accords had been finalized, meaning the peace deal could be implemented in its entirety. Across the country, crowds of Colombians gathered in public squares as the negotiators addressed the public in live streams from Havana. “The war is over,” said the government’s chief negotiator, Humberto de la Calle. “We are opening the door to a more inclusive society in which we can recognize ourselves as Colombians, and in which nobody will fear for their integrity as a result of their political opinions.”
“We have concluded the most beautiful of all struggles,” added the FARC’s chief commander, Iván Márquez, “that of laying the foundations for peace and coexistence . . . We never lost hope that this day would come . . . From Marquetalia to today, we were always sure of it.”
As with all peace agreements, this one is designed to ensure an end to hostilities. It includes mechanisms for the FARC to lay down their weapons under UN oversight, to become a political party with representation in Congress, and to receive alternative forms of punishment for war crimes, emphasizing contributions to truth and reparations for victims over jail time.
The peace agreement also extends far beyond traditional boundaries, mandating social and structural changes in the country to combat what the FARC and the government perceive to be the original causes and catalysts of the conflict. The agreement includes institutionalized agrarian reform, increasing the sovereignty of departmental and municipal governments so that they may better track and restitute land for the millions of Colombians who were displaced during the conflict. The agreement also includes mandates for illicit crop substitution, incentivizing farmers who currently grow coca, poppies, or marijuana to switch to licit agricultural production.
There are additional mandates for increased funding in health and education for the nearly 150 municipalities deemed hardest-hit by the conflict. The majority of these municipalities are ones that the FARC and the government agreed have benefited least from state support in the past.
And finally, there is an emphasis on upholding the fundamental rights of women, children, all ethnic and racial groups, and the LGBTI population during the implementation of the accords, the reparations process, and beyond.
None of these agreements, however, including the end to hostilities, can be implemented unless a plurality of Colombians vote “Yes,” with a required minimum voter turnout of at least 13 percent, on October 2. This means the government has slightly more than a month to educate the Colombian public on the content of the peace agreement, which in its entirety is 297 pages. If the “Yes” vote wins, the president will be obligated to implement the accords in full. If the “No” vote wins, it is not clear which aspects of the peace process, if any, will be salvageable.
Although forecasts on the vote have fluctuated significantly in past months, major Colombian news outlet El Tiempo recently reported that the “Yes” vote has been steadily climbing since the announcement of the final peace accords. Ultimately, when the agreement comes to a final vote, the country’s sheer exhaustion with over half a century of violence may be what propels it to vote “Yes” and to triumph over the massive hurdles of implementing the accords.
“I am seventy years old and I have never lived a day so happy,” one man told the Gate with tears in his eyes during the celebration in Bogotá on August 24. “We are a country that has never known peace. Now we have a chance. Now we have hope. The only thing we can do is vote ‘Yes,’ and contribute to the construction of peace in our country.”
When a member of M-19, a distinct guerrilla group that went through its own peace process with the Colombian government in the late 1980s, was asked whether he has experienced forgiveness and inclusion from the Colombian people since his demobilization, he explained to the Gate, “Of course, I have. Look at all of us here who openly identify as members of M-19. Colombians accepted us for who we are . . . They have forgiven us and embraced us.”
But Colombians are not the only ones who will have to support the peace deal with the FARC. The assistance of the United States and other countries around the world will be crucial to ensuring that the re-integration of FARC soldiers into society, as well as the implementation of the accords, moves smoothly.
“People’s memory is short and the caravan moves on,” said US Special Envoy Bernard Aronson in a March panel hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations. “In another couple of years, we won’t be talking about Colombia. But the need [for international support] will still be there.”
The FARC’s chief negotiator, Iván Márquez, had the following message for the United States on the night the accords were finalized: “You have long supported a war of the State against the guerrillas and against social nonconformity. We now ask you to continue supporting, in a diaphanous manner, Colombian efforts to reestablish peace. We hope to continue receiving humanitarian gestures from Washington—gestures that match the kindness of the American people, those who are friends of harmony and of solidarity.”
When asked how she felt seeing the FARC’s commander addressing the Colombian public, one woman in Bogotá told the Gate: “I don’t like it. Not one bit. But that’s democracy, isn’t it? Being for or against someone and their politics, but without guns in our hands. This is how we will reconcile our country.”
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