MEXICO CITY, Mexico — A day after reaching a bilateral cease-fire, Colombia’s government on Thursday unveiled just how it plans to end a 52-year war against the country’s largest guerrilla group.
An estimated 7,000 guerrilla fighters from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, agreed to move from their hidden camps in the Colombian jungle into 30 specified areas around the country, hand over their weapons to United Nations representatives within six months of signing the final peace accord, and give Colombians the last word on the final peace agreement through a popular vote.
“The youth and children of our country have not known one single day without violence from this armed conflict. Today we open a new chapter,” said President Juan Manuel Santos from Cuba, where the peace talks have been taking place since 2012. The presidents of Venezuela and Chile, who sponsored the talks, as well as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, attended the ceremony.
“Let this be the last day of war,” said FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño, popularly referred by his nom de guerre, Timochenko. He spoke fondly of former Venezuelan president and icon of Latin America’s left Hugo Chavez and said that the FARC will continue fighting its cause through political means.
More than 220,000 people have died and millions have been displaced during the conflict, which began in the country’s impoverished countryside as an armed resistance to Colombia’s entrenched and abysmal socio-economic inequalities. The FARC eventually developed a highly lucrative cocaine and kidnapping business, sowing terror among the population.
The U.S. has been a recipient of a large portion of the FARC's cocaine, prompting a massive attempt over the years to shore up the Colombian military and eradicate coca crops. The State Department on Thursday highlighted to reporters the $10 billion investment made in Colombia since 2000. In recent years, a large chunk of those funds have been devoted towards the peace process.
Despite the historic step toward ending the war, parts of the peace deal remain contested. Issues like how the deal’s implementation will be financed, how far-reaching the FARC’s political representation will be, and how the magistrates for a future truth commission are to be chosen must still be ironed out.
Experts warn that significant challenges will emerge once these items are resolved and the peace deal is signed.
“A very delicate dance starts now in which a misstep could hurt the other side and in which numerous issues have to be dealt with simultaneously,” said Angelika Rettberg, director of the Armed Conflict and Peacebuilding program at the Universidad de los Andes. “It will not be a rose garden.”
Once the final peace accord is signed — Santos said it will happen by July 20th — Colombian voters will decide whether it will be ratified. Polls suggest that nearly 60% of people who intend to vote will do so in favor of the deal, though experts say the referendum has polarized the country. Those against the peace accord say allowing the leftist guerrillas into the political arena will turn the country into neighboring Venezuela, which has been suffering from acute shortages, spiraling violence and hyperinflation under its socialist government.
Former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, one of the most outspoken critics of the peace deal, has said it would essentially give human rights offenders a get-out-of-jail pass. Last month, he called for civil resistance against the agreement.
Analysts warn that those opposed to the agreement, including some within the FARC and paramilitary groups, could target freshly demobilized guerrilla fighters or, as was common during the height of the conflict, carry out terrorist attacks in the country in the coming months. The National Liberation Army, a powerful left-wing paramilitary group in its own right, is still active in the country and some fear that it will fill the void left by the FARC.
Despite that, a final peace treaty is virtually assured at this point. A group of U.N. representatives are expected to set up offices around the country and in the temporary confinement areas for FARC members in order to supervise the disarmament process.
A truth commission, whose formation was announced last year, will be set up and begin gathering testimonies to try and piece together the catalogue of human rights abuses that were committed during the five-decade long conflict, the longest-running in Latin America.
The effects of the deal may take years to reach remote areas of the country. The state has been absent for decades in some of the regions where the FARC has a strong presence and mid-level guerrilla commanders who have control over lucrative mines or drug corridors there may not be willing to disarm.
Adam Isacson, Colombia expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, said existing criminal groups could recruit remaining FARC members into their structures. “Even if the government says you can have a great future as an insurance salesman that might not be tempting enough,” added Isacson.