This stencil on a Bogotá home suggests that Colombians have had violence raining down on them for far too long. (Lorne Matalon)
This story was produced by West Texas Public Radio and Fronteras: The Changing America Desk. Fronteras is a reporting collaboration of NPR member stations in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California focused on the US-Mexico border.
BOGOTA, Colombia — A peace deal is expected to be signed in March 2016 between the government of Colombia, a key ally of the United States in South America, and the largest guerrilla movement among several that have fought for decades to topple the Colombian state. The guerrilla group is known as FARC, the Spanish acronym for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
The U.S. has spent billions of dollars in Colombia backing the government against the FARC and another guerrilla group known as the ELN, the Spanish abbreviation for the National Liberation Army, under the terms of Plan Colombia.
The plan is a multibillion-dollar security package, the majority of which has been deployed to combat drug trafficking, though critics of the government in Colombia are unhappy that much of the assistance from the US went to the Colombian army, which has been accused in the majority of human rights abuses during the armed conflict.
President Barack Obama welcomed his Colombian counterpart in early February. Now, Mr. Obama is pledging to push Congress to grant financial support for the peace talks. But in Colombia, the path to peace is under intense debate.
“It’s a situation of being scared,” said Dario Hidalgo, referring to the inability to move freely throughout Colombia during the conflict. Hidalgo is a Colombia-based urban sustainability researcher whose work is read and followed around the world.
“Suddenly you hear that some soldiers are killed, that some policemen are killed. This is every day’s news, or was,” Hidalgo said.
Hidalgo’s cousin was murdered by the FARC. You might reason that he’d oppose his country’s negotiations with guerrillas. But that is not the case.
“We won’t have immediate peace” Hidalgo said.”There will be criminals,” he continued. “There’s still narcotics. But knowing that there’s no guerrillas is a really big improvement.”
Colombia and the FARC are negotiating in Havana, Cuba. But in Colombia, there’s harsh disagreement over negotiating with the FARC.
FARC began as a rebellion against inequality in the 1960s. It has since morphed into a vertically-integrated organized crime group that funds itself through extortion, kidnapping and drug trafficking. FARC has also recruited child soldiers on a large scale, often under threats of death to their parents.
But FARC is a group that the Colombian government has concluded must be met at the negotiating table rather than the battlefield.
“Nobody alive today in Colombia knows how to live and do politics without the FARC in the picture. Nobody alive,” Senator Claudia Lopez told me in the Colombian capital of Bogotá.
She supports the peace process, though she’s no fan of the FARC.
“This society for good reason hates the FARC,” Lopez said. “And we fear them.”
But Lopez is hardly an apologist for the Colombian government either. Lopez fled Colombia for a year after she exposed links between Colombian right-wing politicians and paramilitary death squads. But in 2014, she returned and won her seat with the slogan, ‘Colombia Must Be Respected.’ She condemns atrocities on both sides.
“If you don’t kill them, which is what you have been doing for a hundred years, killing people, and using violence from the state and private to keep out some demands from the left, if we do a peace process, you’re not going to be able to use violence, neither the FARC nor the state.”
Outside the Colombian Senate, on a Bogotá street, a band was singing about the people’s pain and suffering. Colombia’s right-wing politicians say neither will end if, as proposed, guerrillas are permitted to run for political office.
Álvaro Uribe was Colombia’s two-term president from 2002 to 2010. Now he’s a senator who is one of the country’s most prominent voices railing against the peace talks. More specifically, he objects to the reintegration of guerrillas who he says are in essence being granted immunity despite documented human rights abuses.
He makes it clear he wants peace for his nation, but he objects to some of the more important proposals on the table.
“If those responsible for atrocities do not go to jail, this process will be a midwife of more violence,” Uribe told me at the Colombian Senate as that body debated the proposed peace accord with the FARC.
Uribe disparages his onetime defense minister, current Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. Santos has asked the U.S. to suspend drug warrants against the guerrillas and remove FARC from its terror list. Uribe says Colombia is making a deal with the devil.
“You would never give impunity to al-Qaeda, nor would you give impunity to ISIS,” he said referring the United States. “Why in Colombia (do) we have to accept impunity for the FARC?”
Recently, Santos told an audience in Washington, D.C. that he categorically rejects Uribe’s portrayal of the peace talks as flawed.
Guerrillas who confess to a truth commission will be sentenced to “effective restriction of liberty.” That term is vague but will not include jail.
Failure to confess, if discovered, could mean up to 20 years or more in prison. That directive applies to both soldiers, and paramilitaries who are or were members of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), an umbrella organization of paramilitary forces.
Paramilitary refers to private militia funded by landowners and business interests aligned with the army.
Right-wing Senator Paloma Valencia did not comment on the AUC, but said that unlike FARC, the Colombian army was serving the state.
“If you’re Colombian and you steal a bike, you are out of office forever and ever. But you’re saying, that if you are a terror member, and you kill people and you kidnapped people, and you recruit the children, you can go into office? That’s immoral,” said Valencia.
The Colombian army and its shadow paramilitary allies are also guilty of repeated war crimes, among them, murdering peasants they knew were innocent to meet a quota of guerrillas killed.
“Colombia deserves a better future,” said left-wing Senator Iván Cepeda. His father was a senator until he was shot to death in 1994. Two men on a motorcycle rode up to the car the elder Cepeda was traveling in. Two Army sergeants were convicted for the murder. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights concluded other army members were involved. Cepeda went on to found a victim support group and today he is a leading voice on the left. Yet he condemns FARC for co-opting his father’s name.
“We need a change of attitude,” he told me, referring to entrenched interests on both sides that want to preserve the status quo. “Peace is the basis of democracy,” said Cepeda.
Senator Claudia Lopez agreed with Cepeda’s call for a change of attitude. “We need to imagine what it’s like to take the risk to stop that conflict and to take the conflicts and challenges that are still going to remain,” she said.
“And that’s what is so important, that this peace agreement is signed, even if we have to accept hard things, hard things to swallow,” said Dario Hidalgo, the man whose cousin was killed by the FARC
One obstacle to peace is cash. Analysts suggest some guerrillas are so dependent on the cocaine trade that they won’t give it, or their weapons, up. Meanwhile Washington is actively engaged in the Colombian peace process. Both parties at the negotiating table have asked for the U.S. input in crafting a template for peace in Colombia.