This long-troubled South American nation on Thursday laid out a road map that just might lead to peace for the first time in a generation.
During a ceremony in Cuba, President Juan Manuel Santos and the head of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas, Timoleón Jiménez, witnessed the signing of a ceasefire and disarmament agreement that will go into effect once an over-arching peace deal is approved.
“This is a historic day,” Santos told the room packed with dignitaries. “After 50 years of confrontation, attacks and pain, we’ve put an end to armed conflict with the FARC.”
Santos said the final deal would be signed in Colombia, and not in Havana, where the negotiations have been held for almost four years. Earlier this week, he said he hoped the final agreement could be inked by July 20.
Even though a bilateral ceasefire won’t go into effect immediately, Thursday’s agreement was being hailed as the effective end of the confrontation. In his speech, FARC leader Jiménez, better known as Timochenko, said the signature was tantamount to “the last day of the war.”
“The Colombian armed forces that grew enormous during the war will now play an important role in peace,” Jiménez said. “They were our adversaries, but going forward they’ll be our allies.”
During the ceremony, Santos gave the bearded guerrilla leader a pen made out of a bullet casing, saying “bullets wrote our past, but education will write our future.”
Under the agreement, however, it will be months before the Marxist guerrilla group, which was founded in 1964, will turn over all its weapons.
Five days after the final pact is signed, FARC troops — thought to number about 7,000 — will gather in 23 “zones” and eight “camps” to begin the reintegration process and handing in their weapons. Six months after the deal, the last of the weapons are supposed to be turned over to the United Nations, which will use them to build three peace “monuments.”
The one-time guerrillas will then emerge from the camps as unarmed civilians.
Thursday’s deal also included measures to protect former combatants once they re-enter society, and it requires the government to step up efforts against criminal gangs that have sprung up from the ashes of demobilized paramilitary groups.
In 1985, amid another peace attempt, the FARC and other leftist groups formed a political party, only to see more than a thousand of their members gunned down.
Retired police Gen. Óscar Naranjo, who is on the government’s negotiating team, said that finding a method of protecting ex guerrillas was one of the most difficult issues of this round of negotiations.
“We had to come up with security measures that inspired confidence,” he said. “They needed absolute certainty that they won’t be victims of assassination attempts or aggressions.”
The parties finally settled on a formula that will create personal security teams comprised of police, security personnel and former FARC members.
The ceasefire and disarmament are just one of six points of the larger deal. Negotiators have already reached tentative agreements on rural development, transitional justice, the FARC’s participation in politics and its role in helping eradicate the drug trade. They’ve also signed agreements on providing symbolic and material reparations to victims.
There’s no turning back from this peace process. Peace is a victory for all of Colombia but also all of our Americas.
Cuban President Raúl Castro
Thursday’s event was attended by U.N. General Secretary Ban-Ki Moon, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, among others.
“There’s no turning back from this peace process,” Cuban President Raúl Castro said at the event. “Peace is a victory for all of Colombia but also all of our Americas.”
In downtown Bogotá, crowds gathered around large-screen TVs to watch the ceremony, hugging and singing the national anthem.
But not everyone’s ready to embrace the idea. Former President Alvaro Uribe, who remains enormously popular and influential, has questioned the concessions made in Havana.
“The word peace has been wounded by allowing people who are responsible for crimes against humanity like kidnapping, car bombs, recruiting children and raping girls to be elected to public office without spending a day in jail,” he wrote in a letter. “These prizes to criminals only generate more violence.”
Santos has said Colombians will have a chance to vote on the deal before it goes into effect and Uribe is organizing opposition to it.
Although smaller guerrilla groups exist, like the National Liberation Army, or ELN, the FARC are considered one of the last truly viable guerrilla groups in the Americas. The government estimates that the half-century fight with the organization has cost more than 220,000 lives and left more than 6 million displaced.
“I am pleased that, after more than four years of intensive talks, the Colombian government and the FARC have achieved breakthroughs on some of the most challenging issues before them,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement from Washington. “Although hard work remains to be done, the finish line is approaching and nearer now than it has ever been.”
Since 2000, the United States has provided $10.3 billion in aid to Colombia, much of it to support military anti-drug and guerrilla efforts.
The White House has requested $391 million in aid for fiscal year 2017 — a 23 percent increase over 2015.
Despite Thursday’s announcement, there are still risks to the process, said Bogotá’s Conflict Analysis Resource Center.
There’s likely to be continued political pushback against the deal, particularly in the run up to a national referendum to approve the agreement. And there’s the possibility that other armed groups will use violence to try to derail the accord by killing political leaders or through terrorist attacks.
“We’ve seen these types of actions in the past in other peace processes in Colombia and other countries,” the conflict analysis group wrote. “We believe this is a minor risk, but not a negligible one.”
After Santos shook the hand of his longtime foe, Jiménez, he said the country would have to learn how to leave in peace again.
“We’ve grown accustomed to the horrors of war. It became part of our everyday life,” he said. “With what we’ve signed, we can turn this very long and tragic page of our history.”
This report was supplemented with content from the Associated Press