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Last week was a big one for Colombia. The FARC (Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia) converted from a guerilla army to a political movement. The armed conflict started 53 years ago and has been ending since negotiations for peace began in August 2012. The most recent milestone occurred last Tuesday, June 27th when the United Nations certified the receipt of 7,132 individual weapons used by FARC soldiers, and declared them disarmed. The road to peace has been long, rocky and winding. Here’s where Colombia stands today and over the past 50 years regarding what has been deemed the longest armed conflict in world history.

How did the Armed Conflict Start?

In 1964, the FARC–EP (the EP stands for the town’s army) was established as the military wing of the Colombian Communist Party, in response to military attacks on rural communist enclaves.  The Colombian government had begun attacking many of the communist groups in the early 1960s, attempting to re-assimilate their territories. This was the aftermath of a ten-year period of bloodshed called The Violence that left more than 200,000 people dead.

The FARC had over 20,700 armed men in 2002. The number has fluctuated over the years depending on who’s doing the reporting and also influenced by a demilitarization process which has escalated since 2010. Currently 7,000 FARC soldiers and 3,000 militia, combatants who operate in civilian clothes, have to be demilitarized and reintegrated into society.

The FARC received its funding (estimated to average $300 million per year) from taxation of the illegal drug trade; illegal mining; kidnapping for ransom; bank robberies; and the extortion of large landholders, multinational corporations, and agribusinesses. From taxation of illegal drugs and other economic activity, the FARC was estimated to receive $60 to 100 million per year.

Damage Over the Years

Blaming all the damage and bloodshed on the FARC is easy but incorrect. In response to the FARC’s military and funding activities, business interests funded or formed paramilitary groups. These were right-wing in ideology and just as violent as the force they opposed, operating outside the law as much as the FARC has.

It’s worth noting that paramilitary groups have also derived a lot of funding from the illegal drug trade.

The armed conflict has always been a rural “war.” It took place in isolated territories in which the state had very little presence or control. The cities have been affected primarily by receiving the vast quantities of displaced. (Colombia is second world-wide to Syria with 12 million displaced). Those territories were already marginalized, inhabited mostly by afro-Colombians or indigenous groups.

The following is a broad list of the result of 53 years of armed conflict among the FARC, paramilitary groups and the government. The vast majority of victims have been civilians.

  • More than 250,000 people killed, more than 80% civilians
  • 1,982 massacres, mostly perpetrated by paramilitary groups, account for more than 11,700 people killed
  • 10,964 killed or injured by anti-personnel mines
  • More than 46,000 people forcibly disappeared. The total may be far more. (Some 30,000 people were forcibly disappeared during Argentina’s “Dirty War”)
  • More than 27,000 people kidnapped, mainly by guerrillas. Guerrillas kidnapped 25,482, while paramilitary groups kidnapped 2,541
  • 7.7 million displaced persons, mostly afro-Colombian and indigenous populations
  • 14,847 victims of sexual violence
  • 7,964 forcibly-recruited minors
  • Over 9,800 cases of torture

*Source: The National Centre of Historical Memory and The Victim Registry

Peace Negotiations & Agreement

After such an extended period in which advantage flip-flopped but could never be converted to clear victory by either side, negotiations became the next viable step.

President Juan Manuel Santos’ administration began negotiations with the FARC, led by Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri (alias Timochenko), in August 2012 in Cuba. There had been negotiations and cease-fires before. These latest negotiations advanced, at times strained and sometimes with violence continuing in the background.

The six thematic issues in the peace agreement are integral rural development, political participation, end of the conflict (including bilateral and definite ceasefire and cessation of hostilities, and surrender of weapons), a solution to the problem of illicit drugs, recognition of and reparations to victims; and ratification, implementation and verification.

Principal Milestones

  • August 12, 2012: Negotiations begin in Havana, Cuba. FARC initiates a unilateral temporary ceasefire.
  • September 2014: The Santos administration makes public the agreements reached up till that point as a transparency measure to end speculation and rumors about the contents of the agreements with the guerrilla.
  • December 2014: As a result of a high-level kidnapping committed by the FARC and the resulting increase in tensions and violence, both parties in Havana began talks on de-escalation of the conflict. Ultimately, the FARC instituted another unilateral ceasefire. This was the FARC’s fifth unilateral ceasefire since 2012, and the first indefinite one.
  • April 2015: The ceasefire ends when 11 government soldiers were killed in a FARC ambush, putting the peace process in jeopardy. Many people questioned why the FARC had seemingly sabotaged the de-escalation process. The FARC negotiators in Havana justified the attack saying that the army had been advancing with reinforcements against a guerrilla camp, and denounced ‘premeditated attacks’ by the military. Bombings by the government immediately resumed. Prior to this surge the country had been experiencing the lowest levels of violence in the conflict since 1984.
  • September 2015: Negotiations yield an agreement on transitional justice, considered the most important moment in the peace process to date as it resolved a particularly contentious issue. The agreement combined restorative justice with alternative sentences for guerrillas and agents of the State who had committed crimes against humanity and amnesty for those responsible for political crimes. The peace process was now considered to be irreversible.
  • June 23, 2016: The government and the FARC signed historic agreements including a bilateral ceasefire, cessation of hostilities and surrender of weapons.
  • August 24, 2016: The peace agreement is publicly announced.
  • September 2016: The FARC hold its tenth conference where the agreement was ratified.
  • September-October 2016: The peace agreement was signed by President Santos and FARC commander Londoño.
  • October 2, 2016: In a country-wide referendum, the peace agreement is defeated by 50.2% vote. The opposition, led by former president and current senator Álvaro Uribe contend that the accord does not punish the FARC sufficiently and object to the political role conceded to the former guerillas.
  • November 24, 2016: Revised peace agreement is signed.
  • December 2016: The modified peace agreement is ratified by the Colombian congress.
  • Tuesday, June 27, 2017: the last of individual arms are handed over to the United Nations certifying body. More than just a ceasefire, this milestone marks an end to the armed conflict. The FARC is officially declared disarmed and begins its transition to a political party.

What Peace Looks Like

President Santos was quoted in an interview as saying, “With the handing over of arms by the members of the FARC, it can be said with certainty that the conflict with the FARC is over. The FARC has ceased to exist as an armed group.”

Even Wikipedia’s entry about the FARC says they “were” a guerilla movement.

Currently FARC combatants are located in 31 camps around the country. Now begins their reintegration into civil society. But while individual soldiers have disarmed, hundreds of FARC arms caches, many of them booby-trapped, remain in hard-to-reach places throughout Colombia. These need to be accessed and emptied. The FARC is cooperating with UN certification personnel in identifying these caches for their elimination.

Throughout the country folks displaced by the violence are returning to their homes. A victims and land restitution law passed in 2011, recognized the victims of the armed conflict and entitled them to reparations, including land restitution.

Colombia’s multi-party system has about 20 distinct political parties. Within the 20, three or four dominate. The FARC, soon to emerge as a political party, has been promised five seats in the congress.

Colombia has officially entered a post-conflict era.

There’s a lot more to tell … on Colombia