One of the longest and bloodiest guerilla wars ever has been taking place in Colombia. It has been going on for five decades, leaving 220,000 people dead, 25,000 missing and untold numbers displaced. The parties involved were the Colombian military, left-wing guerillas and right-wing paramilitaries. Villages and farms were wiped out. As 2016 began, there was no end in sight, and Colombia was on the brink of becoming a failed state.
A small group of Colombian and revolutionary officials had met for some time in the Cuban capital of Havana. Participants recognized the need for change, and they reached a reconciliation agreement on Oct. 2. However, the populace narrowly rejected the agreement in a public vote, to almost everyone’s surprise. One problem was that both the Democratic Center led by Alvaro Uribe and the Conservative Party strongly opposed it. The years of civil war were accompanied by a number of autocracies. People disappeared on both sides, never to be heard from again.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos spearheaded an effort in November to restructure the arrangement to achieve genuine peace. On Nov. 30, Colombia’s Chamber of Representatives approved a peace agreement with the left-wing guerilla group known as FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia). This replaced the agreement that voters had rejected in October. By submitting it directly to the Congress, Santos avoided a public vote.
There were, however, important issues behind the scene that had to be resolved before the citizens support the outcome. While no one in Colombia’s Congress voted against the treaty, a number of members believed that it did not go far enough. Many wanted provisions to make it possible to put certain FARC members on trial for crimes they committed during the guerilla war.
For example, FARC had abducted presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt in 2002. She was held for six years until Colombian Special Forces freed her in 2008. Hers was only one of numerous high-profile kidnappings, assassinations and hijackings (estimated by Colombian intelligence to number 25,000). FARC was also heavily involved in drug trafficking. In the early 2000s, Colombia supplied as much as 90 percent of the world’s cocaine. The United States in 2009 said FARC was responsible for 60 percent of the Colombian cocaine sent to America. In 2012, Colombia’s defense ministry estimated FARC’s income from the drug trade at $3.5 billion.
The United States has been keenly aware of Colombia’s problems in fighting drug production and smuggling. In 2000 the United States approved an aid package to assist Colombia in fighting guerilla violence and to help it stem drug production and trafficking. Since then the United States, Columbia’s largest trading partner, has given it an additional $10 billion.
Returning to the peace agreement, some observers believe that regardless of Colombia’s intentions, sighing a document that amounts to amnesty for human rights violators undermines the agreement’s value. In essence, they maintain, it represents a surrender to FARC. Human Rights Watch says such a document “ensures that those responsible for atrocities on both sides of the conflict escape meaningful punishment.”
According to the peace agreement, FARC’s roughly 7,000 rebels are supposed to gather in 23 hamlets and turn in their weapons to a United Nations commission. Colombia’s military has agreed to clear the mines it has planted throughout the country ; mines have killed or maimed more than 11,000 people during the past 25 years. As a sign of America’s support for the movement toward peace, the U.S. House Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs recently approved $400 million in aid.
Given the bitterness, the animosity and grief that this 50-year war has inflicted on Colombians of all political persuasions, reconciliation will not be easy. Indeed, there is no guarantee that the peace will last even six weeks, let alone months or years. The task faced by the Colombians will not be easy. There will be many setbacks as they try to avoid further pain and suffering.
Dale R. Herspring, a Distinguished University Professor of Political Science, Emeritus and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U. S. diplomat.