Building peace in Colombia may be more challenging than 50 years of war

The plan by the Colombian rebel group FARC to disarm after half a century of warfare, form a political party and blend into civilian life looks enormously challenging.

FARC rebels' history of criminal brutality looms over signing of accord with government

Rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, cheer during a concert in Yari Plains, Colombia, on Sept. 18. FARC leaders and delegates gathered for their last conference as a rebel army as the group looks to transition into a peaceful political movement following more than a half-century of hostilities. (Associated Press)

It was a week-long farewell to arms by Colombian guerrillas, a kind of Marxist-Leninist jamboree that included emotional speeches, music concerts and plenty of beer. Now comes the hard part.

The event, which ended Friday in the savannas of southern Colombia, was the 10th conference of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the country's oldest guerrilla army, known as the FARC. It was called to discuss a final peace accord that will be signed Monday to end Colombia's half-century of guerrilla conflict.

"We will maintain the principles we've always been struggling for: a Colombia that is more inclusive and fair and that respects democratic freedoms," Pablo Catatumbo, a top FARC commander, told reporters.

But analysts say the FARC's postwar plan to disarm, form a political party and blend back into civilian life will prove enormously challenging — in some ways harder than the training, war games and combat that have been part of daily routine for rebel foot soldiers for five decades.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, left, presents a copy of the peace agreement to UN Security Council President John Key on Sept. 21 at UN headquarters. The accord ends Colombia's 52-year war with its rebels. (Associated Press)

The FARC has about 7,000 armed combatants plus thousands more members of civilian militias. But most of them lack the education and skills required to join the Colombian workforce.

A government agency has been set up for newly demobilized rebels to earn their high school diplomas and receive job training. But many Colombian businesses are wary of hiring them due to the FARC's terrifying reputation.

The FARC sprang up in the 1960s to fight for land reform and social justice. But to finance its war, the FARC became deeply enmeshed in drug trafficking, extortion, illegal gold mining and other crimes. The rebels also carried out many kidnappings and massacres.

'A very, very strong rejection'

"There is a very, very strong rejection of the FARC in Colombia," said Sergio Jaramillo, the Colombian government's peace commissioner and a key member of the team that negotiated the peace accords.

"The FARC will need to do more to persuade Colombians about their real will to participate in politics and leave behind their weapons and their connections to criminal activities."

Most polls suggest Colombians will endorse the peace accords in an Oct. 2 referendum. After the vote, the FARC will have six months to gather in zones around the country where they will turn in their weapons to UN inspectors. The rebel organization has also promised to help the army locate and destroy landmines and to extricate itself from the cocaine trade and other illegal activities.

In return, the government has promised to invest huge sums to develop the deeply impoverished rural zones that gave rise to the FARC and to help drug farmers — who worked closely with the rebels in the cocaine business — to transition from coca to legal crops.

Meanwhile, the FARC intends to organize a left-wing political party and take part in local and national elections starting in 2018.
Fighters from Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, enjoy a party during a cultural event at a camp where they prepare to ratify a peace deal with the government in Yari Plains, Colombia, on Sept. 20. (Reuters)

However, it is widely expected that factions within the FARC may reject the peace pact. The security think-tank InsightCrime estimates that up to 30 per cent of the FARC's fighters may refuse to disarm, while continuing to smuggle cocaine and extract gold.

A similar splintering occurred a decade ago after right-wing paramilitary groups, which worked closely with the Colombian army to pursue the guerrillas, disarmed under a peace treaty. Many paramilitary commanders returned to the mountains to form drug-trafficking organizations that continue operating today.

Then there's the FARC's complicated pivot to politics, an issue its leaders discussed with Bernard Aronson, the U.S. special envoy to the Colombian peace talks who also took part in negotiations to end El Salvador's civil war in the early 1990s.

In pushing the FARC to make peace, Aronson pointed out that leftist leaders and former guerrillas had recently won power through the ballot box in Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela. In fact, El Salvador's current president, Salvador Sanchez Ceren, is a former rebel commander who negotiated with Aronson a quarter-century ago.

"The FARC looked around the hemisphere and they saw populist leftist regimes coming to power through democratic processes," Aronson said. "They became convinced that they could get into politics as a legitimate party."
Imprisoned members of the FARC, given leave to attend the group's conference, speak to the media on Sept. 21 in Yari Plains, Colombia. (Reuters)

When they made the jump to politics, however, the Salvadoran rebels were far more popular than the FARC who often garner less than five per cent support in public opinion surveys. In addition, Colombia already has many left-wing parties, some of which fear new competition for votes from the FARC.

Pastor Alape, a FARC commander, claims that polls don't reflect the group's true support because, fearing reprisals, many people refrain from publicly backing a guerrilla movement. He and other other FARC leaders are more concerned about security for their newly disarmed politicians.

During a ceasefire in the 1980s, the FARC helped form a left-wing political party called the Patriotic Union that was immediately targeted by paramilitary groups. More than 3,000 Patriotic Union members were killed, including two of the party's presidential candidates.

"They killed off the Patriotic Union," Alape said. "The FARC has always wanted to take part in legal politics but the Colombian oligarchy has never let us."


John Otis is a U.S. journalist who reports from South America. He is the author of the 2010 book Law of the Jungle about Colombia's guerrilla war.