“Obviously the government needs more dead and wounded” before it considers a ceasefire, said Ricardo Téllez, one of the FARC negotiators. “We want to save the country blood and save the country suffering. At any moment we’re willing to consider a bilateral ceasefire.”
Despite the rhetoric, many see this as the best chance for peace in the last half century. In Colombia’s Cauca province, which has seen some of the fiercest fighting, residents welcomed the news.
“The way out of this conflict has always been negotiations,” said Mauricio Capaz, with the ACIN indigenous organization. Since January, 44 indigenous leaders have been killed in his community and violence has been escalating, he said.
“It’s one thing to talk about peace,” he said. “But the reality on the ground is very different.”
Founded in 1964 with Marxist underpinning, the FARC found fertile ground among the rural poor. But they increasingly turned to drug trafficking and extortion to finance their survival. Thought to number about 9,000, the group has seen its ranks cut in almost half since 2001 amid military attacks and defections.
But Márquez, who’s the group’s second-in-command, warned the government not to misread the FARC’s willingness to negotiate.
“Those who talk about the end of the guerrillas, an inflexion point or a strategic defeat…are wrong,” he said. “And they confuse our willingness to talk with a non-existent manifestation of weakness.”
He also called the FARC’s use of small mobile guerrillas units “an invincible tactic.”
The real struggle could come once a deal is signed. This Andean nation will have to open its arms to thousands of guerrillas who have long been seen as the enemy.
The stigma of being a former fighter is hard to shake, said Alirio Arroyave, 55, who broke from the National Liberation Army guerrillas in 1991.
“If you look for work and say you are demobilized, you are not accepted anywhere,” he said. “You are shut out.”
More troubling, former guerrillas have been targeted by paramilitary groups and neo-paramilitary gangs, he said.
“In Colombia, it’s riskier to submit yourself to building peace than it is to participate in the war,” he said.
In 2005, when paramilitary leaders were given the opportunity to demobilize and confess their crimes in exchange for reduced prison sentences, more than 25,000 put down their arms. But thousands of others did not, and many of the holdouts form the backbone of neo-paramilitary criminal gangs. The Nuevo Arco think-tank estimates that former paramilitary fighters make up 80 percent of these new gangs.
If the FARC aren’t brought into the fold, similar criminal gangs could arise.
The peace process could also present legal challenges. Much of the FARC’s leadership is wanted on murder and drug charges. One of their negotiators, known as Simon Trinidad, is serving a 60-year sentence in Colorado for kidnapping and it’s unclear if he will be able to participate in the talks. But Colombia may risk breaking international law if it provides amnesty.
“I don’t know of a peace process in the world that hasn’t faced the issue of what to do with people who have committed war crimes and terrible violations of human rights,” said Cynthia Arnson, the Latin America Program Director at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “The question is how to both maximize the chances for peace and maximize the chances for justice.”
Special correspondent James Bargent contributed to this report from Medellin.