10 Reasons To Be Hopeful About Colombia’s Peace Deal
Only a year ago, we wrote an article telling you about the unprecedented horrors of Colombia’s 51-year civil war. At the time, we mentioned how peace talks in Havana offered a ray of hope in this devastating conflict. Fast-forward to September 2015, and those hopes are being realized.
Negotiators from the leftist rebel group FARC and the Colombian government recently announced a major breakthrough, and a lasting peace now seems within tantalizing reach. Although Colombia has been here before, in 1984 and 1999, things seem materially different this time. Here are 10 reasons 2015 may finally see the end of the world’s longest currently running war.
10 The Major Causes Of War Have Been Addressed
In a conflict as long-running and twisted as Colombia’s, it’d be nearly impossible to identify every single cause. The conflict’s roots can be traced back to 1948, when a politically motivated assassination sparked a decade of massacres. Many competing interests have since left their mark on the war. However, there are a couple of major reasons why FARC took up arms in 1964—reasons the Colombian government has finally addressed.
The first and biggest of these is land reform. Eighty percent of Colombia’s land is owned by a tiny handful of the super-rich. In a country where millions rely on small-scale farming to survive, this has created staggering inequalities. One of the major reasons that FARC initially enjoyed wide support among the peasantry was because they fought for land redistribution (although the group later developed a bad habit of confiscating land for growing cocaine). In May 2013, the government agreed to reform land ownership in favor of the poorest, one of the biggest hurdles on the path to peace.
Another major issue was political participation. When FARC first formed, the Colombian state only legally allowed two political parties—the Conservatives and the Liberals. One of the reasons that the 1984 peace talks derailed was because members of the UP party (which was set up by former rebels) were murdered. With a framework now reached for allowing FARC a safe route into politics, their reasons to continue fighting are quickly diminishing. For its part, the Colombian government has forced the rebels to cease cocaine production as a precondition for peace.
9 The Framework For Justice Is Strong
Until the 1990s, most Latin American insurgencies ended with a blanket amnesty and both sides sweeping their atrocities under the rug. The Colombian government has vowed to do things differently. They’ve created a sensible framework for justice that will see FARC willingly pay for its crimes.
This has been one of the most difficult aspects of peace to negotiate. Were the penalties too severe, FARC would walk from the table. If they were too soft, there would be outcry, as happened when the deadly right-wing paramilitary group AUC disbanded in 2006. In its attempt to balance these two ideals, the government has managed to form an impressive hybrid model.
Under their framework, suspected guerrillas will be given a chance to take responsibility for their crimes. Those who do will receive eight years of “community service” and confinement outside of prison (possibly under house arrest). Those who don’t will be thrown in jail for 20 years. At the same time, a nonjudicial truth commission will be set up to assign responsibility for the nearly 2,000 massacres and other war crimes committed during the conflict.
While the penalties may not be as severe as some had hoped, they are at least realistic. More importantly, they now have the blessing of both the Colombian government and FARC.
8 Both Sides Will Be Held Accountable
Although FARC is the biggest and scariest group in Colombia’s war, they’re far from the only criminals. Ultra right-wing paramilitaries connected to the government have continued to forcibly displace entire villages even as the peace talks progress, while the Colombian army is known to have murdered at least 3,000 innocent civilians and dressed them in FARC uniforms to boost their kill count. In short, all sides have committed war crimes.
What’s so great about the current framework for peace is that it specifically exempts no one from justice. While FARC guerrillas will likely make up the bulk of those accused, paramilitaries and soldiers from the Colombian army will also be held accountable. Colombia’s prosecutor general has even said that former President Alvaro Uribe could be jailed for war crimes, thanks to his alleged complicity in a 1997 massacre that destroyed an entire village.
This fact alone shows Colombia’s commitment to a strong peace process. Uribe is still regarded by many as a hero for his work fighting the FARC. The current president, Juan Manuel Santos, was his defense minister during the darkest days of the war. If Colombia is willing to investigate its own heroes, it sends a powerful message that no one in this conflict is above the law.
7 Victims’ Voices Are Being Heard
The word “war” brings to mind images of vast and invincible armies clashing on a blood-soaked battlefield. In reality, though, it’s usually a grubby affair that disproportionately affects civilians. Of the 220,000 people killed in the last five decades of Colombia’s conflict, at least 80 percent have been civilians .
Add that to the seven million internally displaced people (the highest number of any place on Earth except for Syria), and it becomes clear that those worst affected have been ordinary Colombians. The proposed peace deal recognizes this. Rather than being some distant, high-minded process, it puts the conflict’s victims at the very center of proceedings.
One of the key aspects of this is reparations. According to the deal signed by both FARC and the government, individual guerrillas or soldiers found guilty of rape, murder, forced displacement, or kidnapping will personally have to pay their victims for their evil deeds. At the same time, incentives to confess will hopefully ensure that crimes are brought out into the open. This last part is a massive deal in Colombia, where at least 70,000 people have disappeared without a trace, likely murdered by guerrillas, drugs gangs, or the army. Finding out what happened to them will bring much-needed closure to their families.
The proposals already have the victims’ seal of approval. Official victims’ groups have said that they are “very happy” with the agreed-upon framework.
6 Other Groups Are Now Pursuing Peace
Had they formed in any other Latin American nation, ELN would be world-famous. An ultra left-wing Catholic rebel group founded in 1964, it once boasted 5,000 active soldiers. In the 1990s, it hijacked a Colombian airliner, and in 1999, it orchestrated the largest mass kidnapping in Colombian history, snatching 186 people from a Cali church. Even if FARC had never existed, ELN would have ensured that the Colombian government still spent the last 50 years at war.
In spite of their strength, ELN has always existed in the shadow of its older brother. While they’ve occasionally joined forces with FARC in an unholy alliance of mayhem, the overshadowing has also influenced their reaction to the peace talks. With FARC now seemingly ready to disarm for good, ELN has announced that it is also seeking formal peace talks.
This means that the Colombian government could be on the brink of having its two most powerful enemies lay down their arms. With ELN throwing in the towel, many minor groups also seem ready to call it time. The once-powerful EPL, now Colombia’s third-largest rebel group, sent an open letter to the government in 2014, asking to be included in the peace talks. In one fell swoop, thousands of the architects of Colombia’s violence may soon renounce their methods, leaving the state freed up to focus on criminal drug gangs.
5 The US Has Dropped Extradition Demands
In the early 1980s, FARC turned their back on their founding principles to become involved with Colombia’s illicit new trade—cocaine. Along with Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel, the rebels became one of the biggest drug producers in the world, funneling billions of dollars’ worth into the United States.
Unsurprisingly, this brought the rebels to Washington’s attention. In 2006, the US officially issued an extradition request for 50 of FARC’s highest-ranking members. Another 30 requests have been made against fighters who kidnapped or injured US citizens. Although the requests were made in the name of justice, they provided one of the biggest roadblocks to peace in the entire conflict. As President Santos noted, no guerrilla “is going to turn in his weapon only to go and die in a US jail.” For FARC, the threat of US imprisonment was a reason to go on fighting, especially as extradition requests, once issued, are almost impossible to call back.
That all changed on September 28, 2015. In an interview with Colombia’s El Tiempo, the US special envoy to the peace talks made it clear that America would no longer be pursuing extradition of FARC leaders. Instead, it would be left to the Colombian government to decide whether to hand them over or not, on the understanding that noncompliance wouldn’t hurt the two states’ relationship. In a flash, this removed one of the last major obstacles to FARC laying down their arms, making the path to peace seem almost inevitable.
4 FARC Is A Spent Force
Go back in time only 20 years, and FARC was one of the most feared organizations on Earth. In 1999, they boasted 18,000 soldiers and were kidnapping 3,000 people a year. In 2002, they were even able to shell President Uribe’s inauguration ceremony in the heart of Bogota, launching several mortars that killed 14 people. They’ve been called one of the best-funded terrorist groups in history, with only ISIS and Hamas enjoying more buying power. They’re also completely spent.
After President Uribe came to power in 2002, he launched a brutal crackdown on guerrilla activity that decimated FARC. By hiring vicious paramilitaries to do his dirty work (and allegedly committing war crimes), he was able to more than halve FARC’s ranks of active soldiers. In the same period, three major rebel leaders were killed or died of natural causes, leaving the movement without firm leadership. FARC was pushed back into the mountains. It’s never really recovered.
While FARC is in a better position today than it was when Uribe left office in 2010, it’s still a shell of its former self. There are only around 6,000 soldiers left, and the idea that the group could do anything as brazen as shell congress seems laughable. This is probably FARC’s last chance to negotiate a settled peace. Were its members to walk out of these talks, they’d be consigning themselves to the dustbin of history.
3 The Two Sides Are Already Working Together On Some Issues
In a war as messy as the Colombian conflict, one of the biggest issues in the way of peace is trust. Both sides have good reason to be wary of one another. In 2002, FARC used the cover of peace talks to rearm, build up their forces, and launch attacks on government infrastructure. In the 1980s, the government colluded with drug cartels to murder former FARC fighters who demobbed and tried to peacefully enter politics. These aren’t the sort of betrayals that anyone on either side is likely to forget.
Nonetheless, steps are already being taken to improve trust between the two sides. One of the most impressive of these concerns land mines. Colombia is one of the most mined countries on Earth. Placed by the rebels, these homemade IEDs are often very cheap and very nasty. A typical Colombian mine will be made from a tin can and contains nails, syringes, and bits of broken metal—anything that might leave victims in need of amputation. In some parts of the country, there are significantly more mines than people. Since May 2015, FARC and the army have been working together to clear them.
Using old FARC maps, soldiers and rebels have joined forces to remove all the land mines from certain areas. It’s slow work, and it’s being conducted on such a small scale that it’s little more than symbolic. Yet, it’s still making a difference in local people’s lives. More importantly, it’s establishing a real bond of trust between these former enemies.
2 There’s Already An Effective Cease-Fire In Place
In September 2015, Colombians were given a wholly unexpected piece of good news. In the preceding two months, violence related to the conflict had fallen to its lowest level in 40 years. For almost 60 days, Colombia had experienced a level of calm not seen since 1975.
That it’s possible to write such a sentence is thanks entirely to the unprecedented steps taken by both FARC and the Colombian government. In August, the rebels declared a unilateral cease-fire without any time limit. While the group has declared other such cease-fires previously, this time, they seemed to stick to it. In September, the group didn’t launch a single attack. For the entire FARC structure to stop fighting like that is practically unheard of.
On the other side, the government has also shown remarkable restraint. Back in July, the army announced that it would cease air strikes on rebel camps, something that they refused to do during FARC’s last cease-fire. Soldiers on the ground have also held back from violence. While FARC’s near-cease-fire in January 2015 still saw the army carry out 48 attacks (compared to FARC’s one), in September, the army only launched 16 small-scale assaults.
At the same time, bombings and land mine incidents have plummeted over the summer. The result has been dozens of civilian lives saved. After the last cease-fire crumbled in May, it’s finally starting to look like lasting peace may be back on the agenda.
1 Colombia Has Suffered Enough
Yineth Trujillo was only a child when she performed her first abortion. Recruited by the FARC at age 12, she was trained by the guerrillas to run drugs, smuggle weapons, and gather intelligence. She was also tasked with providing abortions to female fighters who became pregnant. Before she deserted at the age of 15, she’d been forced to abort fetuses up to eight months along. The experience left her scarred for life. She was just one of the FARC’s many thousands of brainwashed child soldiers.
In January 2008, Luz Marina Bernal said goodbye to her son Fair Leonardo in the desperately poor Bogota slum of Soacha for the final time. A 26-year-old man with learning difficulties and a mental age of five, Fair Leonardo was incapable of understanding the conflict that raged around him. Yet four days later, he turned up dead, wearing a FARC uniform. Colombian army soldiers had kidnapped him, dressed him as a guerrilla, and executed him to bump up their kill count. For his murder, they received around $100.
When dealing with such vast numbers as 220,000 dead and seven million displaced, it can be hard to wrap our heads around what each statistic really means. It’s only when we stop and look at the individual stories that we can see how utterly horrific and dehumanizing a war like Colombia’s has been. For over 50 years now, people like Yineth Trujillo and Luz Marina Bernal have had to stand helplessly by as their houses were burned, their land confiscated, their children killed, and their innocence destroyed. This is why we can only hope that peace finally finds a way.
There may still be difficulties, but 2015 marks Colombia’s best chance to ensure that tragedies like these never happen again. With just a bit of luck, both the government and FARC may yet take that chance, ending one of the nastiest wars in Latin American history.