Witnessing Colombia’s Peace
Witnessing Colombia’s Peace
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Marxist rebel leader 'Timochenko' sign the peace accord in Cartagena, Colombia, on 26 September 2016.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and rebel leader 'Timochenko' sign the peace accord in Cartagena, Colombia, on 26 September 2016. REUTERS/Colombian Presidency

Witnessing Colombia’s Peace

Crisis Group’s Mark Schneider sat among the sea of white blouses and Guayabera shirts gathered before Colombia’s president and FARC guerrilla commander as they signed their historic peace deal on 26 September 2016. Here he remembers the ups and downs of a decades-long struggle to end the country’s once-chronic war.

An end to Colombia’s 52 years of brutal civil combat was agreed with two signatures made with a pen fashioned from a single bullet. I felt privileged, sitting a few rows from the stage in the Colombian city of Cartagena de Indias on 26 September, to witness the moment when the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) Commander “Timochenko” and President Juan Manuel Santos each in turn picked up the bullet and formally committed to their peace treaty.

Perhaps the most dramatic moment, however, came when Timochenko broke an at times ideological speech to ask for forgiveness from the men, women and children who had been victims of FARC violence. That public request for pardon drew a standing ovation from guests including fourteen heads of state, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Organisation for American States (OAS) Secretary General Luis Almagro, Secretary of State John Kerry, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the European Union’s Federica Mogherini, a host of other dignitaries and thousands of Colombians stretching back as far as the eye could see. 

President Santos gave an emotional speech, tears welling up in his eyes at times. The crowd gave its second loudest applause when he thanked the negotiating teams who had labored in Havana for four years to produce the consensual document that would persuade the FARC to come down from the mountains, disarm and demobilise. That six-month process is to begin on 1 October, a day before the Colombian people will vote “yes” or “no” to the deal in a nationwide referendum. Santos praised peace deal’s guarantors Cuba and Norway, the first of which hosted the talks, as well as Chile and Venezuela, which act as witnesses to the peace process.

Crisis Group's Mark Schneider attended the signing ceremony in Cartagena, Colombia. CRISIS GROUP

As I sat there wearing a Guayabera, the traditional white Caribbean long-sleeve shirt worn instead of suits on formal occasions when the tropical heat hovers around 40 degrees centigrade, it was a moving experience to be together with and greet so many Colombians and others who had worked for peace for so many years. I had been invited by President Santos, whom I had met when he was a minister under three presidents, including former President Uribe, whom he succeeded and who now has become his most vitriolic critic.

I couldn’t help thinking back to earlier visits to Colombia going back decades, first with the State Department’s human rights bureau, then the Pan-American Health Organization, as head of USAID’s Latin America work during the Clinton years, with the Peace Corps and, for the past fifteen years, representing International Crisis Group.

It was a moving experience to be together with and greet so many Colombians and others who had worked for peace for so many years.

One of my first experiences was in 1985, when Colombia’s President Belisario Betancur was a key mover in the Contadora movement to try to end Central America’s conflicts. I came to meet with Colombian officials to talk about peace there and in the region. Just days later, however, guerrillas blasted their way into the country’s Palace of Justice. The attack put an end to the Betancur peace process with the FARC and the M-19 for several years.

Another visit to Bogotá came in the late 1990s shortly after President Andrés Pastrana’s first trip to Washington. Pastrana wanted an urgent joint effort to find an answer to the FARC’s very real military threat to Colombia’s democracy, and our U.S. delegation agreed. This gave birth to Plan Colombia, which was focused at least as much on rural development, strengthening the justice system and addressing inequality, as military aid. The U.S. Congress did shift what would ultimately become $10 billion in aid over the past decade more toward stopping cocaine trafficking or counterinsurgency. But key lines of action aimed at improving justice were kept open.

In January 2003, visiting with our Crisis Group Latin America team, events took a frightening turn. While meeting with President Uribe’s Vice President “Pacho” Santos, bombs went off at a parking garage close to a nearby police station. It shook the windows in his wood-panelled office. We were all startled and shaken. A few weeks later, the horrendous FARC bombing in the parking garage of the El Nogal Club killed some 36 and wounded 200. 

On nearly every trip to Colombia with Crisis Group, we met together with Catholic Church leaders and human rights groups, especially during Uribe’s first term, when the worst of the paramilitary violence took place. We discussed and reported on ways to make their offices secure and how to build an early warning system for human rights activists. Donors and the Colombian government have financed some protection schemes now for several thousand people under threat, but even this year dozens of activists and journalists have been killed. The message from these meetings was always the same: please press all parties to pursue peace.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos holds a pen made from a bullet signing an accord ending a half-century war in Colombia. CRISIS GROUP/Mark Schneider

Now that we have a peace treaty, everyone should be cognisant that implementing it won’t be easy. In 2007 and 2010, I travelled with Crisis Group to villages and towns after the paramilitaries supposedly had demobilised. Each time, community leaders told us the “paras” were still extorting and killing activists. They just had changed their name and now were loosely termed criminal gangs, known as BACRIM. Those same BACRIM will have to be confronted, or rural communities will once again become victims, and keeping the former FARC guerrillas demobilised – and protected – will be even more difficult.

That made me remember that for me and so many other outsiders, our experiences of a conflict could not compare to those of Colombians, who have lost 274,000 of their fellow country people killed in the conflict. On the stage in Cartagena was a group of women from the town of Bojayá, one having lost a leg and all having suffered other injuries during the FARC massacre in the town in 2002 when 79 people were killed. They sang of a future of peace. I thought of all of the sad memories of Colombians whose families had been massacred or displaced, whose sisters, mothers and wives had been assaulted, whose children had lost limbs to land mines. The perpetrators were the FARC, the paramilitary, and, at times, such as in the case of “falsos positivos”, the security forces.  

Colombia impact video cover.

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In this video, Crisis Group's former Colombia Senior Analyst Christian Voelkel explains Crisis Group's 14-year-long engagement in ending a half century of deadly conflict. CRISIS GROUP

I also thought of our own efforts on Colombia for Crisis Group. We’ve been working for this moment since 2002, through 35 analytical reports and hundreds of meetings. In 2012, we met in Crisis Group HQ in Brussels with Colombia’s High Commissioner for Peace Sergio Jaramillo on his return from making the Oslo announcement that real peace talks finally would begin in Havana. He asked for our continued reporting on challenges facing peace, from transitional justice to disarmament, and for international support for the peace talks.  

Santos himself mentioned our work in his speech to Colombians in 2015, seeking to bolster the case for a system of transitional justice that does not provide a blanket amnesty for crimes against humanity but instead offers a balance that recognises the requirements of both justice and peace. On the FARC side, Timochenko chose to make his public plea for forgiveness. But it was also one of the central recommendations in Crisis Group’s most recent report on 7 September, Colombia’s Final Steps to the End of the War.

The strongest argument for the peace accord was that it will end those losses for the next generation of Colombians. That should be the deciding factor in the 2 October referendum, even for those who say the accord is not perfect. It could never please everyone, since it was negotiated between two sides with divergent ideologies, narratives and interests. Luckily, they both shared one objective: to end the war.

The deal is better than most. When compared to the peace agreements where there has not been a military defeat of the insurgency – for instance in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Nepal, or Angola – more FARC guerrillas and more security forces who committed crimes against humanity will face criminal prosecutions, will be required to admit their crimes to a special tribunal, and then will face sanctions including restrictions of liberty of up to eight years. They have pledged to not merely halt but combat drug trafficking. And if they lie – including on whether they know of hidden illicit drug monies, or hostage ransoms – then the alternative sentences they might receive disappear and they go to jail for fifteen or twenty years.

The strongest argument for the peace accord was that it will end those losses for the next generation of Colombians.

Santos and the state have their own challenges, chiefly bringing the benefits of peace fast to high-risk communities, implementing land reform, and ending discrimination against Afro and indigenous Colombians. The experienced Jean Arnault, the new UN Secretary-General’s special representative, is well equipped to supervise the UN’s role of monitoring and supervising the six-month process of cantonment and disarmament. The UN will then have a follow-on political task of monitoring the other chapters of the accord.

The next phase of implementing the 297-page deal, assuming a now likely yes vote in the referendum, will test every ounce of the peacemakers’ managerial, political and leadership capabilities. I walked away from the ceremony with Rafael Pardo, who has served in the cabinets of many presidents, and will now be the minister in charge of the conflict’s aftermath. We stopped for a glass of rum and a cigar, confidently celebrating what he felt was a remarkable moment. While Pardo had no doubts about the incredibly difficult task ahead, we chatted with a high police officer with direct responsibility for security who argued that – unlike previous post-conflict failures in the 1980s – this time Colombia could protect the guerrillas after they disarmed and FARC is reborn as a political party.

The international community has stayed with the Colombian government through the last fifteen years of war. After sharing the 26 September’s thrilling moments in Cartagena, I hope that all of those heads of state and foreign leaders will return home and formally commit the funds and the energy to accompany the Colombian people for however much time it takes to complete their journey to peace. And that journey only truly begins with a “yes” vote this coming Sunday.

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