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Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia’s president, wore white to symbolise peace. So did Rodrigo Londoño, the normally olive-garbed commander of Latin America’s largest rebel movement. They were joined by John Kerry, US secretary of state, and the presidents, from Cuba’s Raúl Castro to Argentina’s Mauricio Macri, who flew into Cartagena to witness the end of the western hemisphere’s oldest conflict.
After 52 years of fighting, more than a quarter of a million deaths and almost 7m people displaced, all it took on Monday was two signatures and a roar of applause from the 2,000 guests, also wearing white, and the Colombian government and the Marxist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) agreed to live in peace — at least on paper.
Several presidents have sought to end the conflict in Colombia, the world’s most populous Spanish-speaking country after Mexico, with a population of 47m and an economy a similar size to South Africa’s. That this attempt has got so far is therefore remarkable. Yet its central question remains: at what price?
The last effort failed in 2002 after an inauspicious start: the Farc’s founder, Manuel Marulanda, did not turn up at the opening negotiations in 1999. The image of his empty chair, la silla vacía, became etched in popular memory as a symbol of vengeful Farc duplicity.
It also led to a controversial US-backed counter-insurgency led by President Álvaro Uribe, called Plan Colombia. This pounded Farc troops — labelled narco-terrorists in the language then employed by Washington in its war on drugs — in their jungle redoubts but never vanquished them. That offensive has now culminated in this peace initiative led by Mr Santos, after four years of painstaking negotiations in Cuba.
“In historical terms, this is comparable to the fall of the Berlin Wall,” enthuses Felipe González, Spain’s former prime minister who, in his day, struggled with Basque terrorists. “This is a transformational moment for the hemisphere,” adds Bernard Aronson, the US’s special Colombia envoy. “It is a final repudiation of political violence as a means of changing governments.”
Such talk holds up a rare beacon of hope in a world beset by terrorism. And for once the hyperbole may be justified.
The end of Colombia’s civil conflict promises to drain the water from a Latin American quagmire that for more than a half century has fostered international terrorism and drug-trafficking, and been implicated in other insurgencies and uprisings from the conflict in Northern Ireland to neighbouring Venezuela’s socialist revolution. Peace would also present the Obama administration — since 2002 the US has sunk $10bn into Plan Colombia — with a rare foreign policy victory.
If all goes to plan, Mr Santos’ peace drive will be celebrated with a November state visit to the UK. London has provided Bogotá with military intelligence and UN Security Council support since the mid-1980s after links emerged between the Farc and the IRA in Northern Ireland.
Nonetheless, success is far from guaranteed. For one, there are the difficulties of implementing peace in a country that is the world’s largest cocaine exporter and the size of two Spains, spread over often impenetrable terrain.
Last year, Colombia produced 646 tonnes of the drug, the UN estimates. With a retail value of well over $30bn — a fraction of Colombia’s $300bn annual economic output but still a significant source of finance throughout the conflict — there are many reasons why violence may continue.
“The peace accord is a beautiful document,” says José Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch. “But however beautiful the conception, daily reality in much of Colombia is just too hard.”
Although world leaders from Pope Francis to Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, enthusiastically support the accord, the majority of Colombians must first approve it in a referendum on Sunday that has sparked a vitriolic campaign between the Yes and No camps.
May 1964 Guerrilla leader Manuel Marulanda, known as Sureshot, creates the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or Farc after two decades of sectarian violence sparked by the 1948 assassination of Liberal presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán August 1982 Peace talks with the Farc open but end in failure March 1990 Colombia’s government and the M-19 leftist rebels sign a peace agreement which leads to the group’s demobilisation and conversion into a political party
On a recent afternoon in Santa Marta, a sweltering Caribbean port, a No campaign lorry drew smatterings of applause. It carried a giant billboard that showed the bearded Mr Londoño, better known by his nom de guerre of Timochenko, brandishing an AK-47, and the slogan: “Vote Yes if you want Timochenko for President”.
“To lose the plebiscite would be a national disaster,” claims Humberto de la Calle, who led the government team during the Havana peace talks. Not so, says the No camp, led by Mr Uribe, who has become President Santos’s arch-enemy, and wants it renegotiated. The government says this is impossible.
“This is a negotiated end to a war, not a surrender,” says Mr Santos, who has compared the peace process to “swallowing toads”. He adds: “But we could never finally win the war due to Colombia’s geography and the drugs trade. This is the best deal we could get.”
Polls give conflicting signals. The latest Ipsos survey suggests 72 per cent of Colombians support the deal. But as one senior official warns: “We cannot relax. Uribe is a political fox with a clear goal — to stop this at any cost.”
1991-2001: Decade of turmoil
April 1991-October 1992 The Farc and other leftwing groups hold talks in Venezuela and Mexico with representatives of the Bogotá government. But the peace attempt fails December 1993 Pablo Escobar, at the time the world’s biggest drug lord, is killed by Colombian security forces in Medellín August 1998-February 2002 President Andrés Pastrana launches a new peace effort. But the talks come to nothing after Farc rebels kidnap senator Jorge Eduardo Gechem. Álvaro Uribe, elected as president in 2002, launches an all-out offensive against the group
The No campaign has three main complaints: the judicial impunity they say disbanded Farc guerrillas will enjoy; that the group can run for political office; and the subversion of Colombia’s constitution by the 297-page peace accord that they claim will subsume local law to supranational bodies.
This last complaint may seem like legalistic nit-picking. But arguably it is the legal strength of Colombia’s institutions that helped the country prevail through a series of conflicts — including a drugs war recently trivialised in the Netflix blockbuster seriesNarcos — that would have brought many other countries to their knees.
We could never finally win the war due to Colombia’s geography and the drugs trade. This is the best deal we could get
“The effects of the [peace] accord are [constitutionally] limited,” says Manuel José Cepeda, a former constitutional court judge, who disagrees with the No camp objections. “It [the legal basis] is a reference used to verify the way the peace agreement is implemented … [It] can only be applied for six months, extendable for another six.”
The most emotionally charged issue is justice. In the pursuit of truth and reconciliation any guerrilla who admits to involvement in human rights abuses faces a maximum eight years under house arrest. Such apparent impunity strikes a deep chord in Colombia, where more than 46,000 people have “disappeared” since the 1980s — although not all at the hands of the Farc.
“There have been a great number of concessions,” warns Iván Duque, a member of Mr Uribe’s No camp. “This could generate fresh violence.”
2003-2011: All-out war
July 2003-May 2006: Some 30,000 paramilitaries, members of the rightwing United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia, are demobilised August 2007 Hugo Chávez, president of Venezuela, offers to broker a hostage swap — including three US contractors and French-Colombian politician Íngrid Betancourt — held by the Farc. A year later the hostages are freed in a military operation that draws international attention to the conflict 2008-2011 Armed forces kill top Farc leaders, including Raúl Reyes, Mono Jojoy and Alfonso Cano. Manuel Marulanda dies of natural causes
Yet Colombia’s “transitional justice” scheme is much the same as the one imposed on the 30,000 rightwing paramilitaries that disbanded in the mid-2000s under Mr Uribe — and many of its leaders now support the agreement. Human rights abusers in the military will face the same scheme too.
“Who wouldn’t like to see some of the Farc rot in jail?” says Mr Santos. “But there has to be a balance between forgiveness and justice.”
Many Colombians are also concerned that Farc leaders can run for congress, or even the presidency, and will turn Colombia into a socialist state like Cuba or Venezuela. Worse, say critics, they have already been granted 10 seats in congress — part of the process of turning bullets into ballots.
But this compromise is comparable to peace deals elsewhere, according to Claudia López, a pro-accord senator: in Angola, demobilised insurgents got 70 seats out of 220; in Nepal they were initially guaranteed 83 out of 330.
Until 2018 Farc deputies will only be allowed to vote on matters relating to the peace accords; after that they must win office in fresh elections. Nor, as Néstor Humberto Martínez, the attorney-general, stresses, can Farc politicians fund themselves with illicit money.
2012-16: Fresh talks
August 2012 Following months of back- channel negotiations, President Juan Manuel Santos announces fresh peace talks with the Farc August 2016 Bogotá and Farc leader Rodrigo Londoño, known as Timochenko, announce the peace accord, ending five decades of armed conflict September 26 Santos and Londoño formally sign the peace deal October 2 Colombians go to the polls in a referendum to endorse, or reject, the peace deal
As to the prospect of Timochenko becoming president, it is a theoretical possibility. But most Farc militants’ espousal of Marxist-Leninist rhetoric is unlikely to win many hearts and minds in traditionally conservative Colombia.
“We made many mistakes within the framework of armed conflict,” admits Carlos Antonio Lozada, one of the few top Farc commanders to recognise openly the political challenges of peace. “We have to accept our errors to have moral authority.”
From La Violencia to Farcstock
Colombia’s striking beauty and the sophistication of its cities hide the origins of the conflict, which has roots so deep and varied it is simply referred to as La Violencia. Indeed, for most people the concerns of war feel a world away from the bustling streets of the capital Bogotá or Medellín, with their humming entrepreneurialism and “multilatina” companies that are expanding abroad.
We made many mistakes within the framework of armed conflict. We have to accept our errors to have moral authority
But in the jungled savannahs of Caquetá province, where the Farc held a peace convention this month dubbed “Farcstock” — an ideologically charged cross between Glastonbury and Woodstock — there are pressing life-and-death concerns. Many of its estimated 7,000 troops fear assassination by rightwing death squads once they lay down their arms, despite UN troops overseeing the demobilisation. “We need guarantees,” says Vladimir Ruiz, who joined the Farc when he was 10 years old.
Some guerrillas, most of whom know how to handle a rifle better than a mobile phone, may also struggle to adjust to civilian life. Indeed, Mauricio Jaramillo, a Farc commander, says 100 men in his 3,500-strong unit have already rejected the accord. “They have been co-opted by the mafia,” he says, referring to drug gangs. As well as moving into crime, splinter groups may join a smaller guerrilla movement, the National Liberation Army, or ELN. It has not signed the accord but is exploring the possibility of separate peace talks with the government.
This raises the horrifying prospect of Colombia turning into a gangland free-for-all, as in El Salvador, which has been plagued by gang conflict since its civil war ended in 1992.
Joaquín Villalobos, a former El Salvador guerrilla leader who advises Colombia’s government, does not believe that will happen. El Salvador “had no organised crime before [its] war”, he says. “Colombia is better prepared because it already knows the criminal phenomenon and has lived through it … growing and strengthening [the power] of the state.”
‘An opportunity, not an event’
Every peace agreement is a compromise. The success or failure of Colombia’s will reflect the very personal feelings of millions of people who have lived through the conflict. “Peace is an opportunity, not an event,” says Sergio Jaramillo, the high commissioner for peace.
That is particularly so for the young, who have the most at stake. “This is for my generation, and generations to come,” says María Fernanda Guarín, a 23-year-old law student at a Bogotá peace rally, where her fellow marchers chanted “Obviously, Yes” in favour of the deal.
Her call is echoed 600 miles away in the jungle by Rocío Bohórquez, who joined the Farc as a teenager after paramilitaries killed her parents. “The most important thing now is to have peace, forgiveness and to leave the rifles behind,” says the 30-year old, who says she wants to study dentistry. “Nobody likes war — and this war has just been terrible for everybody.”