Why the deal to end Colombia's 5-decade war is no guarantee of easy peace

As much as the deal to end Colombia's five-decade war has been cheered in the South American country, the accord is also extremely controversial because the FARC rebel group is so widely despised, John Otis writes from Bogota.

People cheer in Bogota as accord signed but FARC rebels remain widely despised by Colombians

Senior members of Colombia's largest rebel group, the FARC, gave their unanimous approval to a peace deal with the government after nearly four years of talks. However, Colombians narrowed voted Sunday in a referendum to reject the proposed deal. (Reuters)

Colombia's ultraviolent guerrilla war has dragged on for 52 years — so long that most Colombians have never known their country at peace.

But that's about to change thanks to a historic peace agreement unveiled Wednesday night by the Colombian government and the Marxist rebel group known as the FARC.

At a signing ceremony in Havana, Cuba, where the peace negotiations began four years ago, the two sides laid out a framework for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia to disarm, exit the illegal drug trade and form a left-wing political party.

The government agreed to carry out land reform projects and to develop impoverished rural areas that gave rise to the FARC in the 1960s.

"We have achieved our goal. The signing of the final accord means the end of the war with the FARC," said Humberto de la Calle, the government's top negotiator, before a crowd of diplomats and journalists at the Havana convention centre.

People celebrate in a park in Bogota on Aug. 24, 2016, as they listen to the announcement that delegates of Colombia's government and leaders of the FARC reached a peace accord to end their half-century war. (Fernando Vergara/Associated Press)

In the Colombian capital of Bogota, throngs of people watched the proceedings on large-screen televisions set up outdoors and roared their approval as the peace accord was inked.

Still, the accord is extremely controversial because the FARC is so widely despised by Colombians.

Kidnappings and extortion

To finance its war, the FARC has often acted more like a criminal gang by trafficking cocaine, kidnapping civilians for ransom and extorting businesses. 

The rebels are also responsible for massive human rights abuses, with Human Rights Watch saying civilians continue to "suffer serious abuses" perpetuated by guerrillas. 

Thus, there is scant support for offering concessions to the FARC.

The most controversial provisions in the peace accord involve a transitional justice system that will allow rebels who tell the truth about their crimes to avoid prison.

Instead, they will receive only token punishment, such as community service and up to eight years of loose confinement on agricultural co-operatives.

Colombian opposition leader Alvaro Uribe shakes hands with a supporter as he takes part in a protest against President Juan Manuel Santos's government in Medellin on April 2, 2016. (Luis Benavides/Associated Press)

As a result, many Colombians, chief among them former president Alvaro Uribe, who heads Colombia's main opposition party, are urging voters to reject the peace treaty in the Oct. 2 plebiscite announced by President Juan Manuel Santos to give voters a chance to approve or reject the deal.

Uribe, who as president between 2002 and 2010 led a massive military offensive against the FARC, claimed that the deal amounts to impunity for war criminals.

"These accords will not produce peace. They will produce more violence," Uribe said.

However, under a ceasefire negotiated in June by the two sides, violence in the countryside has fallen to its lowest level since the war began.

Little popular support

According to the Bogota-based Conflict Analysis Resource Center, only four deaths have been attributed to the FARC over the past two months.

What's more, Santos and his supporters point out that the Colombian war was unwinnable.

The FARC rose up a half century ago to fight for land and social justice. Although the rebels never came close to seizing power and enjoyed little popular support, profits from cocaine trafficking allowed them to keep fighting while Colombia's three Andean mountain ranges and dense Amazon jungle provided them with plenty of hiding places.

Under Uribe and later Santos, military offensives cut the number of FARC fighters in half to about 7,000 troops.

But by 2012, the war had settled back into a stalemate and both sides decided it was time to talk peace.

Martin Corena, acting commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia's southern bloc, addresses his troops in the southern jungles of Putumayo on Aug. 17, 2016. (Fernando Vergara/Associated Press)

Three previous rounds of negotiations dating back to the 1980s had failed. But this time around, FARC leaders — many of whom are now in their 60s — realized they would never take power and that it was time to cut a deal.

And despite widespread criticism, Santos stayed the course over four long years of negotiations.

When it all culminated in Havana on Wednesday night, de la Calle, the government envoy, declared: "The best way to win the war was to sit down and negotiate peace." 

'New chapter of peace'

In a nationally televised address, Santos declared that peace would transform Colombia into a mecca for tourism and foreign investment and allow the country to emerge from its long national nightmare.

The conflict has killed more than 220,000 people. Thousands of civilians have been maimed by landmines while five million have been displaced from their homes by the fighting.

Ivan Marquez, chief negotiator of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, left, flashes a V sign, while Humberto de la Calle, right, head of Colombia's government peace negotiation team, looks on after signing a peace agreement in Havana, Cuba, on Aug. 24, 2016. (Desmond Boylan/Associated Press)

The peace agreement "allows us to close the chapter of war and to write a new chapter of peace," Santos said.

Should the "Yes" vote prevail in the Oct. 2 plebiscite, the FARC would start gathering in 31 zones around the country to begin the six-month process of turning in its weapons to United Nations inspectors.

After that, the newly demobilized rebels would begin organizing a political party to take part in national elections starting in 2018.

Because of the immense challenges in this transition, Interior Minister Juan Fernando Cristo said that between 2018 and 2026, the FARC would be guaranteed 10 seats in the bicameral congress no matter what the popular vote.

Rebels of the 32nd Front of the FARC, laugh during a break at their camp in the southern jungles of Putumayo, Colombia, on Aug. 16, 2016. (Fernando Vergara/Associated Press)

What's more, the Colombian government has agreed to protect newly minted FARC politicians from reprisals.

That's a key issue because a similar effort in the 1980s collapsed when right-wing death squads killed about 3,000 members of a pro-FARC political party called the Patriotic Union.

In Havana, Ivan Marquez, the FARC's top negotiator who briefly served in the Colombian congress in the 1980s, declared: "The battle with weapons now ends and the battle of ideas begins."

About the Author

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.