Colombia’s President: Making Peace With Rebels Is ‘A Good Investment’

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Latin America’s longest armed conflict is finally over. Colombia’s guerrilla war, which began in 1964, has killed more than 220,000 people and displaced millions from their homes. But the Colombian government and the Marxist rebels agreed to a cease-fire and a timetable for the guerrillas to disarm.

“It is the first time ever that a guerrilla group lays down its arms to submit to a justice system where they are going to be investigated, judged and condemned and sanctioned,” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos told NPR in an interview at the Casa Nariño presidential palace in Bogotá.

Santos announced the agreement in a speech in Havana on June 23, calling it “a historic day for our country.”

It’s a day many Colombians thought would never arrive. At one point, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the guerrilla group known as the FARC, had 17,000 fighters.

The FARC started out as a Marxist uprising, fighting for land reform and greater equality. But to fund its war and expand its power, the group gradually became involved in a vast assortment of criminal activities.

The rebels kidnapped thousands of civilians for ransom, extorted businesses, smuggled cocaine and became major players in the illegal gold mining industry. They also committed numerous atrocities. Three Andean mountain ranges plus vast tracts of jungle gave the rebels plenty of hiding places, from which they launched devastating raids on towns and army bases.

Strengthening The Armed Forces

So before making peace, Santos had to upgrade the Colombian armed forces to go after the FARC. He had a unique background. He joined the Colombian navy at age 16 and is the only president in the country’s modern history to have served in the military.

“How many times did I have to go to funerals and to console the widows and the children who lost their parents?” Santos told NPR on Monday. “And that’s one of the things that stimulated me to be very successful in making war and weakening the will of [the FARC] to continue fighting.”

As defense minister in the late 2000s, Santos led a U.S.-backed military campaign that cut the number of FARC guerrillas in half. Intelligence and joint operations also improved.

In 2008, the Colombian armed forces carried out a spectacular commando raid that rescued three U.S. military contractors and a former presidential candidate, Íngrid Betancourt, from a FARC encampment in southern Colombia. Not a single shot was fired.

Those triumphs propelled Santos, an economist who studied at the University of Kansas, the London School of Economics and Harvard, to the presidency in 2010.

Santos campaigned as a hard-line national security candidate. But once in office, he did an about-face and opened talks with the FARC. After three previous attempts to negotiate peace, dating back to the 1980s, rebel leaders were finally ready to cut a deal.

They were urged on by a close ally: Hugo Chávez, the late leader of Venezuela’s socialist revolution, who told the FARC that it should instead attempt to take power — as he did in Venezuela’s 1998 elections — via the ballot box.

“Chavez was very helpful. He pushed these people a lot,” Santos recalled. “He said, ‘Continuing this war will take you nowhere.'”

Lengthy Talks

The talks began in 2012 and have dragged on for more than 3 1/2 years, causing many Colombians to lose faith in the peace process. The main sticking point concerned what to do about FARC commanders accused of war crimes.

Following guerrilla conflicts in in the 1980s and 1990s in El Salvador, Guatemala and elsewhere, demobilized rebels received full amnesties. The FARC insisted on equal treatment. But impunity for former fighters is now rejected by international law. So negotiators had to come up with a formula to provide a measure of justice while still persuading the FARC to demobilize.

“People in Colombia quite rightly are fed up that the negotiations have taken so long. But you need a lot of time for a 50-year-old guerrilla group to understand that the world has changed, that there are different standards and expectations in terms of justice,” Sergio Jaramillo, one of the top Colombian negotiators, told NPR in an interview in Havana. “Today, nobody is happy to see an amnesty for war crimes or crimes against humanity. That’s not going to happen. So you need to build this complex transitional justice system.”

A Special Tribunal

The two sides managed to hammer out a deal in which FARC commanders will be judged by a special tribunal. Those who confess to their crimes and help compensate their victims will receive five- to eight-year sentences. But rather than prison, they will likely perform social work in the countryside, with limited freedoms. Those who refuse to cooperate and are convicted will be sent to normal prisons.

Some Colombians insist that this arrangement amounts to impunity. The main voice of protest is former President Álvaro Uribe, whose father was killed by FARC rebels. Following the cease-fire announcement, Uribe said the peace process was “wounded” because it will allow guerrillas accused of kidnappings, rapes, bombings and the recruitment of children to avoid serving a single day behind bars.

The cease-fire formally goes into effect once the two sides reach a final peace treaty that Santos expects to sign later this summer. The rebels will then have six months to gather in 23 zones around the country, where they will turn in their weapons to U.N. inspectors who will be in charge of monitoring the cease-fire and demobilization process.

After that, the FARC plans to form a left-wing political party. A similar attempt in the 1980s ended in tragedy.

Back then, the FARC helped form the Patriotic Union party, a mix of leftists and former guerrillas. Because the FARC had not disarmed, its critics viewed the party as a kind of Trojan horse that would help a guerrilla army seize power and install a Marxist government. The backlash was fierce. About 3,000 Patriotic Union members, including two of its presidential candidates, were gunned down by military-backed death squads.

“They destroyed the Patriotic Union,” FARC negotiator Pastor Alape told NPR. “The FARC has always wanted to transition to legal politics, but the Colombian oligarchy has not let us.”

This time around, the Colombian government has agreed in the peace accords to provide protection to demobilized FARC members who run for public office.

“I think it will be important for the democracy and the process that [the FARC] will be successful in gaining a space in the political arena,” Santos said. “This is what democracy is all about.”

Stopping Colombia’s war has brought Santos international acclaim. But partly due to the many concessions he made to the FARC, Santos has lost popular support at home. A recent Gallup Poll put Santos’ job-approval rating at just 21 percent.

Trying to make peace with the FARC “has had a very high political cost,” Santos conceded. “But it will turn out to be a good investment.”

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