Many Colombians say price too high for peace deal with FARC

After four years of negotiation, President Juan Manuel Santos announced last week a peace deal with FARC to end the bloody guerrilla war in Colombia. But many Colombians are unhappy with a deal that could mean no jail time for killers and kidnappers, and a guaranteed role for the rebels in their Congress.

Significant support for No campaign grows among people angered by long guerrilla war

Luis Emilio Arboleda holds up a sign reading, 'If you're against FARC-Santos, HONK' at a demonstration against the government peace deal with FARC in Medellin, Colombia. (Victoria Stunt/CBC)

Luis Emilio Arboleda stands before a line of stopped traffic at an intersection in downtown Medellin, Colombia, and holds a sign high above his head.

"If you're against FARC-Santos, HONK," the sign reads in Spanish.

Dozens of cars sound their horns. The street is far louder than normal on a Saturday afternoon, as Arboleda and other demonstrators show their disapproval with the peace deal President Juan Manuel Santos signed with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the Marxist guerrilla movement the government has been fighting for more than five decades.

After four years of negotiation, Santos announced last week the final peace agreement would formally be signed on Sept. 26. The accord aims to end a conflict that has killed 220,000 people and left millions displaced.

However, Colombians have to decide for themselves whether or not the peace deal will become a reality by casting their votes in a national plebiscite on Oct. 2.

Yes side gaining, according to some polls

Many are ready to vote No. A campaign against the peace accord is being led by ex-president and opposition leader Alvaro Uribe, an influential and popular political figure whose own father was killed by FARC guerrillas and who now heads the Centro Democratico, or Democratic Centre, party.

'They're supporting the No side. Why? Above all, it's because [the government] is going to give the FARC impunity.'-  Sebastian Ramirez Vidal, demonstrator for the No side

One poll commissioned by media outlets Semana, RCN and La FM in August suggests half of respondents would vote against the deal while 39 per cent would support it. Eleven per cent were undecided.

However,manother poll published Saturday by the same media outlets predicted 72 per cent of people will vote Yes in support of the deal while 28 per cent will vote No. 

Although the Yes vote seems to have gained momentum in the past month, divisions persist.

A 'reward for 50 years of violence'

Back at the demonstration, the scene is peaceful but not exactly orderly. One passerby calls a demonstrator a paramilitary rebel. The demonstrator responds by following her across the street and pointing a megaphone in her ear. "Guerrilla!" he screams repeatedly.

Arboleda stands off to the side arguing with someone else.

"We're here strongly asking the Colombian people ... to vote No in the plebiscite, to say a convincing 'No' in this plebiscite that the government and the FARC have proposed," he says later.

Arboleda, right, argues with a passerby over the peace deal President Juan Manuel Santos has struck with FARC. (Victoria Stunt/CBC)

Cars continue to honk.

"As you can see, they're supporting the No side," said Sebastian Ramirez Vidal, one of about 50 demonstrators at the event. "Why? Above all, it's because [the government] is going to give the FARC impunity."

Under the terms of the peace accord, serious violations, such as war crimes, kidnapping, hostage taking, torture, forced disappearance and recruitment of minors, won't receive amnesty.

But guerrillas who confess to these crimes won't receive jail time, either. They'll be sanctioned for five to eight years and have restrictions on where they live and what activities they can participate in. FARC members who refuse to confess can be imprisoned for up to 20 years.

FARC will also have non-voting representation in Congress until 2018. After that, they'll have to win votes like other political parties.

'They think it's not really a peace process but more like the government's letting [FARC] win.'- Santiago Valencia, congressman for Antioquia

"People are really afraid. They think it's not really a peace process but more like the government's letting [FARC] win, letting them take part of the power and not paying anything for what they have done for our country," said Santiago Valencia, a congressman for the department of Antioquia (Colombia's provinces or regions are called departments) and a member of Centro Democratico. 

"It's some kind of reward for 50 years of violence."

He fears that enabling FARC guerrillas to participate in Congress would destroy democracy in Colombia.

The same worry was voiced at a Centro Democratico meeting in Medellin Monday, which was led by Uribe. The opposition fears that FARC has accumulated a lot of money from its involvement in drug trafficking, which could help finance a successful campaign for office. This isn't necessarily an exaggerated worry, said Valencia, as Colombia has a history of fraudulent elections and politicians bribing citizens to vote for them.

The opposition, including Uribe himself, has also voiced concern that if FARC gets into power, Colombia could end up like Venezuela: with a socialist government and a dire economic crisis.

Jorge Giraldo of Universidad EAFIT believes FARC will never achieve power through election - it's too unpopular. (Victoria Stunt/CBC)

Jorge Giraldo Ramirez, dean of humanities at EAFIT University in Medellin, said that's not likely to happen.

"The FARC ... will never grow or have a real probability of being elected into power, because they'll never be able to win the sympathy of significant sectors — of poor regions, of the poorer classes, urbanites," he said.

"We didn't lose ourselves in the most difficult times of the war. These are moments when in other countries, military dictators or quasi-dictators appear. This has never happened in Colombia."

If the 'no' vote wins

Santos has ruled out re-negotiating with the FARC if the peace deal is rejected on Oct. 2. Uribe says he plans to re-negotiate a new deal with FARC if he wins the presidential election in 2018. His deal, he says, would require the guerrillas to go to jail for five to eight years.

But in the meantime, Giraldo warns, Colombia could become very unstable. He said FARC will likely enter into an accelerated process of disintegration, and it will be replaced by criminal organizations without any one central command.

Giraldo predicts that FARC members will disperse and turn to crime on their own. He's said if the No side wins, Colombia will find itself in a risky situation.

"The common citizen feels a feeling of rejection, of hurt, in some cases anger, against the FARC because, specifically in the last 25 years, the FARC have committed a lot of atrocities in Colombia," Giraldo said.

Nevertheless, he says he'll still vote in favour of the deal.

"If we're able to have fewer people who kill, commit crimes, I think this is good for the country and for the people."


Victoria Stunt is a Canadian freelance journalist based in Medellin, Colombia. Follow her at @vgstunt.