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Closing the gates of violence in Colombia

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Antonio Castillo |  25 July 2016


It has been little more a month since the Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos (pictured) and Timochenko, the nom de guerre of the leader of the FARC, the oldest guerrilla group in the world, proclaimed a cease-fire.

Juan Manuel SantosIt was in La Habana, on 23 June, when the two concluded four years of negotiations to end the 50 year old Colombian civil war, the longest armed conflict in the western hemisphere.

'The time to shut the gate of violence has arrived,' pronounced Timochenko when the negotiations began in Oslo, in 2012. And last month in La Habana Santos declared: 'Our time to live in peace has arrived.'

Since Colombian peace attempts are nothing new — the first serious attempt to resolve the conflict goes back to 1982 under the presidency of Belisario Betancur — these statements are audacious but they are also hopeful.

The peace conditions won't be easy to meet. First of all the FARC — the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — will have to be disbanded. They will have to dispose of the arms and there is a date for this; January or February 2017.

There is also an amnesty clause that will make sure not one of the guerrilla fighters will end up in jail and should the FARC be able to become a political party, it will have a seat in the senate.

And there is more. The peace accord will have to deal with the economic and moral reparations to the massive casualties of war. And by massive I mean more than 200,000 deaths; 6.6 million displaced people; and 25,000 disappeared. The majority of these victims are civilian.

The war that the FARC, a rural left wing communist guerrilla, has waged against the central government goes back to the 1960s. It broke over a historical problem; wealth and unequal rural land distribution. As the Colombian novelist and Nobel laureate, the late Gabriel García Márquez, said: 'The main problem of Colombia is its inability to find ways to overcome economic inequality.'


"Those who want to keep the fight going — and reject the peace deal — are ideologues with a misty-eyed view of Latin America's revolutionary 1960s."


The enemies of Colombian peace are many and mighty. One of them — and perhaps the most instrumental — is former president Álvaro Uribe. A hard-line right wing and devoted Opus Dei, Uribe is leading the opposition against the peace agreement, an agreement that will be subject to popular plebiscite on a date yet to be announced.

Uribe is not the only threat to peace though. The army and its offshoots, criminal right wing paramilitary sicarios, want to see the FARC military annihilated. And there is also a breakaway faction of the FARC, the so-called Frente 1, that sees the end of the war as the end of their lucrative drug, extortion and kidnapping business. Frente 1 — responsible for one of the world's most well known kidnappings, of Ingrid Betancourt — operates in the country's southeast and controls the region's illicit crop.

President Santos came to power in 2010, and his approach to the Colombian conflict has been downright opposite to that of Uribe, his predecessor. While Uribe wanted the military defeat of the FARC and during his eight years of government inflamed the conflict's bonfire with massive military offensives in the regions under guerrilla control, Santos has reached the conclusion that the most effective way to achieve peace is on the negotiating table.

What is important to understand is that these two approaches are underpinned by a single idea; Santos is a deeply pragmatic politician and Uribe — whose father was killed 30 years ago by the FARC — is guided by the Latin American ideological fault lines of the 1960s.

And these two approaches can also be seen within the FARC. Those who have been sitting on the negotiating table in La Habana — like Timochenko for example — are actually the combatants, those who lived and died at the war front; while those who want to keep the fight going — and reject the peace deal — are ideologues with a misty-eyed view of Latin America's revolutionary 1960s. Some of them live abroad.

Signing and getting Colombians to endorse the peace agreement is one thing. Keeping a lasting peace is another. One of the fundamental challenges — apart from finding ways to provide war reparations and deliver justice to victims — is to find a role for the FARC in a post-war Colombia.

One option is to follow the path of the April 19 Movement or M-19, a guerrilla group that demobilised and became a political party in the late 1980s. Uribe and his Democratic Centre, the party he set up in 2013, have already said this is unacceptable.

One more mountain to climb; but again Colombians are well known in the world of competitive cycling — the escarabajos or beetles — with their extraordinary and enduring mountain climbing prowess. Perhaps this time, this country of 47 million will also reach a new height, the long awaited peace.


Antonio CastilloAntonio Castillo is a Latin American journalist and Director of the Centre for Communication, Politics and Culture, CPC, RMIT University, Melbourne-Australia.



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Submitted comments

An important piece of reportage. Are there parallels with the Northern Ireland process?

Jaygo 25 July 2016

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