By canoe, pickup, bus and mule, thousands of hardened guerrilla fighters were beginning to gather in 26 concentration zones Tuesday as they prepared to bring Latin America’s oldest and bloodiest civil conflict to an end.
Some 6,300 members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, are making the trek from their traditional battlegrounds to United Nations-controlled camps in what the government is describing as an unprecedented logistics operation.
“The news we’ve been awaiting for years is now a reality,” President Juan Manuel Santos wrote in a Tweet. “War with the FARC is over. They’ve quit existing as an armed group.”
On Tuesday, government officials said the mass movement of troops required more than 450 pickup trucks, 120 cargo trucks, 100 buses, 80 boats, 10 tractors and 35 mules.
“This is an enormous operation,” Sergio Jaramillo, the government’s High Commissioner for Peace, said during a press conference. “And the most important aspect is that … we haven’t had a single serious incident. There hasn’t been a single case of a member of the FARC not wanting to move.”
In the days leading up to the transfer, the guerrilla leadership had complained that the camps weren’t ready. And the group’s social media accounts on Tuesday were full of pictures of barren campsites where they complained there weren’t even trees to sling a hammock.
On Tuesday, Fundación Paz y Reconciliación, a nonprofit that monitors the conflict, said that 23 out of the 26 camps weren’t fully functional. In one camp, known as “La Y,” there is only water for 100 people, but it will have to house 500 fighters, plus the police and UN support staff, the group said.
Luis Vicente León, the head of the foundation, said it was worrisome that the government seemed so unprepared even though they had seven months to plan for this day. And he feared the government might not be prepared when the fighters emerge from these camps in six months as newly-minted, unarmed civilians.
“What’s going to happen to them?” he asked. “Where are the FARC going to live, what are they going to do, where are they going to work, where will they eat and sleep?”
Colombia has promised to help reintegrate the largely rural fighting force and is counting on help from abroad. The Obama administration had pledged $450 million to the effort, but there are concerns that commitment might be at risk under the Donald Trump administration.
Valencia, a former member of the National Liberation Army (ELN) who demobilized two decades ago, also said not enough was being done to secure the areas that the FARC are abandoning.
Of the 242 municipalities that the FARC were active in, armed groups have expanded their activity in at least 90 of them, he said. Among the groups filling the FARC’s power vacuum are the smaller ELN, criminal gangs, known here as BACRIM, and common delinquents. There are also at least four small groups of FARC defectors — thought to be comprised of 20 to 40 members each — that chose not to accept the peace deal.
Those criminal forces will make it difficult for the ex-guerrillas to return to their communities without getting sucked back into the cycle of violence, Valencia said.
Those fears are being compounded by the murders of community and political leaders, many of whom are seen as ideologically aligned with the FARC. While numbers vary, Paz y Reconciliación said that 96 community leaders were murdered in 2016, and nine have been killed this year alone.
“The guerrillas must be scared about heading back to those regions where they once waged war and where they will be trying to reincorporate [as civilians],” Valencia said. “If civilian leaders are getting killed, what’s going to happen to them?”
Colombia’s peace process has been rocky from the start — which is no surprise, considering the nation is trying to unwind a conflict that has been dragging on for more than a half century and has left more than 220,000 dead.
It took government and FARC negotiators more than four years of meetings in Havana to nail down a deal, and the first iteration of it was rejected on Oct. 2 by voters who were worried that the government might have given away too much at the bargaining table.
Under the deal, most of the FARC will receive blanket pardons, and those accused of more serious crimes will be able to serve their sentences outside of jails. The group has said it will keep pursing its goals at the ballot box.
Despite the flaws in the process, the Colombian peace deal has been an extraordinary accomplishment in a country that has long been synonymous with bloodshed and conflict.
Last year, Santos won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, and he will be hosting a convention of laureates this week. (Obama, who won the peace prize in 2009, is not expected to attend.)
“What Colombian could have dreamed this [peace] was possible?” Santos said on Tuesday. “Nobody ever thought we’d see the FARC walking in single file with their rifles on a way to a place where they will turn in their weapons and reenter civilian life, so that after 52 years of war we can have peace and tranquility.”
Follow Jim Wyss on Twitter: @jimwyss