Very few conflicts last over half a century. Thankfully, one such conflict may be nearing its end after 51 years of protracted violence and national strife.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) began in 1954 as a militant group with an ideology of peasant Marxism-Leninism. In the 1980s during a period of increased power, they rebranded as FARC-EP, adding “ejército del pueblo” or “Army of the People” to their title. FARC has been referred to as “Latin America’s last major revolutionary group” and have been critical to the persistent violence in Colombia. The militants profit most through the illegal drug trade, which amounts to allegedly $500-600 million per year, and at one point they were thought to provide 50% of the world’s supply of cocaine. The group has also been associated with illegal mining, extortion, kidnappings, and instituting informal taxes in areas of control.
More than 220,000 have been killed in the internal Colombian conflict, and over 80% of the victims were civilians, according to a government sponsored report. The majority of violence and the overwhelming majority of victims are located in the countryside. Targeted assassinations, massacres, and hostage taking became a routine part of the political conflict for decades. Right-wing paramilitary groups created to counter FARC and independent criminal gangs have added to the violence while fighting rebels and pursuing their own agendas. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre asserts that Colombia has over 6 million internally displaced persons, second only to Syria. In 2005, Human Rights Watch stated that approximately 20-30% of FARC militants were recruited child soldiers.
FARC was among the initial organizations to be designated as a terrorist group when the United States first created its classification system in 1997. FARC is also listed as a terrorist organization by Colombia, Canada, New Zealand, and the European Union, but not by any other South American countries. In recent years, FARC has renounced kidnapping for ransom, released the last of its prisoners of war, and has participated in talks with the Colombian government to resolve the armed conflict once and for all. A separate, smaller Marxist revolutionary group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), which has undertaken similar activities to FARC in parallel is also undergoing peace talks with the Colombian government.
The most recent and thus far successful peace talks were initiated between the government and FARC rebels in 2012, focusing on six key points.
- Land reform
- Political inclusion
- Drug trafficking
- Victim rights / transitional justice
- Disarmament of rebels
- Implementation of the peace deal
All but the last two steps have thus far made significant progress as part of the ongoing talks in Havana, Cuba. A final document signing has been slated for the 23rd of March next year, and experts have been largely optimistic. FARC has vowed to leave their weapons in exchange for amnesty for low level fighters. Critics of the deal, including former president Álvaro Uribe, argue that the government is not doing enough to prosecute militants and their integration into Colombia’s political society will produce a negative backlash. Nonetheless, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC’s leader, Timochenko, have forged ahead in hopes of finally achieving a lasting peace. Timochenko has affirmed, “We are willing to take responsibility for our actions during the period of resistance.”
FARC has announced that once the final peace agreement is inked, it will lay down its weapons within 60 days. The format used in the peace plan, called the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, adopts elements from previous frameworks implemented in Yugoslavia and South Africa. Militants will be subject to prison sentences that can range from 5 years to 20 years depending on their level of cooperation. According to a briefing released by the International Crisis Group, “More than three years of confidential and public talks have built a shared sense that the transition is possible. … leveraging these gains and strengths is the most promising way forward.”
The transitional process has made significant process that should be hailed as a grand success because, if nothing else, of the achieved cessation of hostilities. FARC’s willingness to accept responsibility and the government’s stated commitment to due process should both be held to a high standard and monitored. Even after a peace deal is struck, there will still be much work to be done, including the removal of thousands of landmines throughout the country and the detention of FARC leaders. The legacy of the Colombian conflict will live on for years to come, but at least there is a greater opportunity for positive reconciliation that has been missing for over five decades.