Last Tuesday 19 January, announcing their request for a 12-month United Nations mission to monitor a bilateral ceasefire and rebel disarmament, the Colombian government and the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) moved significantly closer to ending the longest running armed conflict in the western hemisphere.
Described as a “transcendental moment” by Humberto de la Calle, the government’s chief negotiator, the request has yet to be agreed by the UN, but both sides are confident they will sign a final peace accord by March 2016.
Speaking to the Associated Press, de la Calle said the proposal was an “unequivocal demonstration of our desire to end confrontation”.
An end to the conflict?
If granted, the mission would comprise unarmed observers from Latin American and Caribbean nations, which de la Calle said should satisfy wider Colombian concerns about the sincerity of the FARC’s intentions to disarm and to discontinue their roles in drug-trafficking and extortion.
Since 1964, more than half a century of conflict between left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, and the Colombian army has left some 220,000 dead, 40,000 disappeared, and five million displaced.
Peace negotiations between the government and the FARC began in November 2012 and have included several unilateral ceasefires by the rebels and an agreement to discontinue the tactic of kidnapping.
Since 2003, some 31,000 paramilitaries have also lain down their arms. However, a controversial justice law passed in 2005 means that many are eligible for reduced jail terms of no longer than eight years, whatever the severity of their crimes.
After three years, negotiations between the government and the FARC are now at an advanced phase and seem likely to succeed where other attempts have failed.
After abandoning their stated aim of overthrowing the government, how will the 7000-strong rebel force adjust to peace?
From warfare to politics
Earlier this year, Associated Press journalist Jacobo Garcia visited a jungle-shrouded FARC camp in Antioquia state to gauge attitudes among guerrilla fighters.
“One thing is clear,” said Leonidas, a FARC commander in the 36th Front. “In this new phase the FARC is not going to demobilize, we are going to mobilize politically.”
This sentiment was echoed by Juliana, a rebel who has spent much of the last three years attending the peace talks in Havana.
“I want to prepare myself to get involved in politics and continue my association with the organization,” she said.
According to Garcia, none of the guerillas he met criticized the peace process. On the contrary, twice daily peace assemblies now augmented their military drills, indicating a willingness to embrace a final accord. Ideological convictions, however, remained as defiant as ever:
“This war is going to end without victors or vanquished but lots of suffering on both sides,” said Juan Pablo, a ‘paunch-bellied’ commander and son of a street vendor.
“It’s false to say we arrived defeated to the negotiating table. They dealt us some heavy blows, of course, but 51 years of war against an enemy backed by the most powerful army in the world (the U.S. army) has not made us cower, because the injustices that led us to take up arms are still occurring.”
Juan, like Juliana, hopes to engage with politics. His ambition after laying down arms is to return to his village and run for mayor.
Others, however, were more cautious about conventional political activities.
“Politics is a lot tougher than war,” said Anibal, another commander. “You pay for a mistake on the battlefield with your life, but an error in the field of politics brings down an entire organization.”
Ultimately, if the peace process is successful and the FARC manages to transform itself into a mainstream political force, it is likely to play an active role in the life of the nation, albeit at a local level.