Street art in Comuna 13, a Medellin neighborhood subjected to a military offensive to root out FARC guerrillas in 2002. Translation: Military intervention never again. Slider image: one mother of the "disappeared," who joins many hundreds demonstrati...
“May this be the last day of the war.”
These were the words of Rodrigo Londoño, head of Colombia’s FARC guerrillas, as he choked back tears and shook hands with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in Havana June 23.
He gave voice to the hopes of millions of Colombians.
This week’s announcement of a final peace agreement between FARC and the Columbian government is one more step toward ending more than fifty years of ongoing armed conflict in Colombia, the longest in Latin America and one of the longest in the world. The August 24th agreement still needs to be signed by Colombians President Juan Manuel Santos and approved in a national referendum currently scheduled for October 2nd.
More than two generations of Colombians have grown up under a state of war, and across the country there is a deep yearning for peace. An estimated 260,000 people were killed during the conflict; as many as 7 million people were displaced, about 14 percent of the Colombian population.
With the ending of armed hostilities, demands for equality and justice will shift to the political realm. As Gonzalo Sánchez, director of Colombia’s Center for Historical Memory noted:
“After spending half a century accustomed to the sound of bullets, now we will have to get used to the sound of social mobilization in the streets.”
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, best known by its acronym, FARC, began as a peasant-based group in 1964, during a time when Marxism was on the rise throughout Latin America. Decades of military offensives, backed by U.S. military aid and often disguised as a “war on drugs,” failed to defeat the guerrillas. At the same time, FARC was unable to achieve its goal of armed revolution. As it turned to kidnappings and drug trafficking to finance its operations, FARC’s popular support declined.
In 2012, under a dialogue overseen by Norway and Cuba, peace negotiations began in Havana. A tentative accord was announced last fall, but thorny details remained. Last week’s announcement of a bilaterial ceasefire signaled an end to the biggest controversy.
There are an estimated 8,000 armed fighters with FARC. The handing over of weapons will begin with the signed accord, in a process to be monitored by the United Nations. An amnesty covers guerrillas who do not face allegations of serious human rights violations, and there will be a process to re-incorporate them into civilian life.
Carolina García de Gomez with photos of her son (r), Henry Jaime Gomez García, disappeared on Nov. 26, 1999 and her husband, Eusebio de Jesús Gomez Ciro, killed in March 2000 by paramilitaries. Carolina is one of more than 900 mothers of the "disappeared" who demonstrate every week in Medellin. Photo by the author.
Human rights observers note that ending the war may be the easy part. How to win the peace? How to ensure peace with social justice, especially in volatile rural areas far from the media spotlight?
Some of the complexities are similar to those in other countries that have moved from war to peace. How will thousands of armed guerrillas readjust to civilian life? How will the government’s military adapt to a new mission beyond defeating the guerrillas?
Other questions are more specific to Colombia.
- Will Colombia’s right-wing paramilitary squads step into potential power vacuums in former guerrilla strongholds?
- Will the country’s indigenous, Afro-Colombian and peasant populations, who have borne the brunt of the killings and displacement and yet were not part of the Havana negotiations, be integrated into the peace process?
- Will the Colombian government follow through on promises of land reform, or will it continue its policies that favor mono-crop agribusiness and mining interests who have long coveted Colombia’s rich natural resources?
The threat of increased paramilitary activity is the most immediately pressing. For instance, in a thirty-day period during February and March, thirty people were assassinated by paramilitary groups, according to Justice for Colombia, a British NGO. Many of them were community or political activists, often organizing against illegal mining, or victims of “social cleansing” that targets “undesirables” such as homeless people, orphans or drug addicts. Amnesty International has called for a complete cutoff of the hefty military aid the U.S. provides to Columbia, due to the "continued collaboration between the Colombian Armed Forces and their paramilitary allies as well the failure of the Colombian government to improve human rights conditions."
“All these assassinations and the increase in threats and acts of intimidation indicate the extent of paramilitary presence in the country and raise serious concerns about guarantees for social and political activists in the country,” the report noted.
In the long term, dealing with land reform is perhaps the most essential. A press release from Amnesty International stated:
“Forced displacement and the misappropriation of land, often through violence and intimidation, have been a defining feature of Colombia’s internal armed conflict. These human rights violations and abuses have targeted above all Indigenous, Afro-descendant and peasant farmer communities.”
For now, however, the focus is on the peace accord. At a time when many of the world’s hot spots seems to be spiraling into further violence, Colombia offers hope.
No one disputes the hurdles ahead. But as author and academic Mario Murillo said of the bilaterial ceasefire, on “Democracy Now,” “You’d have to be really cynical not to recognize the importance or significance.”
Barbara Miner is a Milwaukee-based writer who spent several months in Colombia last fall. This article is an updated version of a piece published July 1, 2016.