FARC rebels at a demilitarization “settlement” in La Paz, Colombia in Feb. 2017. After reaching a historic peace treaty with the government, FARC members have agreed to surrender their weapons and finally bring a 50-year war to its end. (Federico Rios Escobar/NY Times)
For over 50 years, the government of Colombia engaged in a brutal, seemingly endless conflict with leftist guerrilla rebels. Last year, President Juan Manuel Santos reached a peace agreement with the leading rebel group, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Beginning in February 2017, scenes played out across the country that many thought they would never see: FARC members peacefully surrendering their weapons, and preparing to return to civilian life under the protection of the military that had been their mortal enemy for decades.
Of course what everyone in Colombia wants to know is, is this peace for real? Is this really the end of a seemingly endless struggle in which hundreds of thousands perished? Is Colombia moving into a new era of acceptance and reconciliation? While the outlook seems positive, the road will not be easy.
The current resolution is not without controversy. The peace accord was driven by Santos, who received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end the longstanding yet. Under the deal, FARC rebels would report to demobilization zones overseen by UN personnel. They would disarm and begin a transition/reintegration into Colombian society, monitored by the Colombian government. In return, rebels are to be granted full amnesty, though the government promises to launch a “transitional justice” system to address claims of crimes committed during the war.
Santos had compliance of FARC leaders and the best chance for peace in decades. Yet when Colombians voted on the peace accord in an October 2016 referendum, it was rejected. Many felt the deal was too lenient on the rebels, as the amnesty promise meant none of them would see jail time. As described by Helen Murphy of Reuters, “The accord has been heavily criticized by many.”
So what did Santos do? He circumvented the public’s decision, using the country’s Congress to force the agreement into law in November last year. In other words, the president decided “put the deal in front of voters—and then simply sidestep[ped] them when he did not like the outcome.” Not surprisingly, this angered many Colombians. The next presidential election in Colombia is in 2018, and if Santos is not re-elected the entire agreement may be in jeopardy.
Nevertheless, the transition is moving forward. Around 7,000 FARC rebels have abandoned their remote jungle and mountain encampments and arrived at 26 demilitarization zones throughout the country within the last month. On February 20th, Santos announced that the rebels would begin to surrender their weapons, with UN-overseen disarmament expected to be completed by June.
As a symbol of remembering but moving on from the past, weapons will be melted down and shaped into war monuments. FARC also plans to transition into a leftist political party that could be included in the government it has so long opposed. Families separated for decades by the conflict are reuniting.
Also in Feb. 2017, Santos began negotiations with a second prominent rebel group called the National Liberation Army (ELN). An agreement similar to the one reached with FARC is on the horizon, and ELN negotiators stated that the prospect of ending their decades-long conflict with the Colombian government “gives us hope.” However there is still work to be done—on February 20th Colombian authorities held ELN responsible for a bomb that exploded in Bogotá near a bullring, injuring dozens of police officers.
While the mechanics of the move toward peace have not been smooth, it seems that Colombia is moving closer to peace now than ever before. Whenever enemies become neighbors there will be hostility and uncertainty. But both sides seem to genuinely want the disarmament and reintegration to succeed. Generations of Colombians have only known war, and to see rebels turning in their weapons without opposition (mostly) is a truly incredible accomplishment. The Colombian government, FARC, and the UN now must make sure it sticks. There is too much at stake.
The transition may not be perfect, but there is no question it will lead to a better future for all Colombians. It really does seem that a new era has arrived.