How will FARC peace talks play out in rural Colombia?

Successful peace talks could mean the end of nearly five decades of fighting between the FARC and the Colombian government, when civilians and rural communities were often hit the hardest.

William Fernando Martinez/AP
Members of Colombia's government team for the peace talks with Colombia's Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), Humberto de la Calle Rangel (r.), stands next to Peace Commissioner Sergio Jaramillo (c.), as he waves before boarding a plane to Oslo, at a military airport in Bogotá, Colombia, Oct. 16, 2012.

The hairline cracks in the white walls of Victor Salas’s concrete house tell the recent history of guerrilla violence in this southwestern Colombian town.

Every time a car bomb explodes near the police station several blocks away, each time a grenade gets thrown at a nearby shop, a new crack appears, Mr. Salas says.

Cracks run throughout the otherwise flawless house.

Corinto is one of the towns that have been hit hardest by a recent surge in attacks by the rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, ahead of peace talks with the Colombian government. Set to launch this week in Oslo, the talks could put an end to nearly five decades of conflict between the Colombian government and what started as a Marxist-inspired peasant uprising, but which has left tens of thousands dead and millions more displaced.

Many analysts are calling the meeting Colombia's best chance for peace in the history of the conflict. Three previous attempts in the past 30 years ended in bloodshed and violence. But the new balance of forces in the conflict – the government possesses a renewed legitimacy and the rebels are at their weakest in decades – has led the two side to lay out a concrete five-point agenda. The agenda includes issues discussing disarmament and the possibility of political participation for the demobilized guerrillas.

“We have to accept that it won’t be easy to end a half century of armed conflict,” says Alejo Vargas, a political science professor at the National University. “But despite some uncertainty, which is normal in this type of process, there is room for optimism.”

But the optimism surrounding the talks, which will start in Oslo and then move to Havana, doesn't mean the peace negotiations will move forward without challenges. Some observers are concerned about issues of transitional justice, the participation of broader Colombian society, and that continued fighting could derail the entire process.

'Keep your head down'

For the residents of Corinto and other municipalities throughout the Colombian countryside who have lived in the shadow of the FARC for decades, it’s hard to imagine the mountains and jungles without a guerrilla presence.  In the mountainside village of Calandaima, living near FARC guerrillas is “normal,” says a stout, ruddy-cheeked woman who gave her name only as Estela.

“They don’t go around in uniform anymore like they used to, but everyone knows who they are,” she says, adding that FARC guerrillas often try to entice teenage boys and girls to join their ranks.

“They use psychology on them to convince them,” says Estela.  She is grateful that none of her three young sons have joined, but says she knows plenty of villagers who have.

Local nongovernmental organizations that work with the rural population here say many boys and girls are not just enticed, but taken against their will. Salas heads a municipal office that receives complaints about rights abuses. He says few peasants are willing to denounce the forced recruitment or other abuses by the FARC for fear of retaliation. “If you want to stay, you keep your head down,” he says. 

Estela has stayed in her village despite the constant combat between the guerrillas and the Colombian Army.

“It’s really hard. I’m always nervous,” she says.

The latest firefight took place earlier this month. The first explosions started in the middle of the night, around 1 a.m. Estela and her boys hid under the beds, as they always do, until the fighting subsided later that morning. They then went to the fields to pick coffee, but around noon the bullets started flying again. She and her sons threw themselves to the ground but could hear bullets ricocheting off the trees, she says.  

Three-stage process

If the peace talks in Oslo and Havana are successful, Estela and millions of other rural Colombians may one day be able to harvest their crops without fear of gunfire. For the first time peace talks with the FARC are focused on ending the fighting, rather than trying to fix all that is wrong in the country. In previous peace talks the agenda tried to take on everything from Colombia’s dramatically disparate income distribution and the health-care system to public education and foreign policy. 

This time around, the two sides have laid out a three-stage process. The first step: secret talks in Havana earlier this year where the agenda for the formal negotiations was decided. The second phase: the talks in Oslo and Havana where the smaller guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN) may also join the process. The third part is no doubt the lengthiest part of the process: building peace beyond the negotiation table and implementing what is agreed upon during the talks.

In order to achieve a sustainable peace, the talks need to lead into a "wider social process aimed at tackling the problems affecting the countryside that provide the backdrop for the conflict," the International Crisis Group noted in a recent report.

"Peace is a political construction," says Leon Valencia, director of the Nuevo Arco Iris think tank in Bogotá. "That's what comes after a demobilization."

Not everyone is hopeful

Another reason analysts say talks may be successful this time is that the timing is right. Unlike past attempts at peace negotiations, the FARC is entering talks severely weakened by a decade of sustained military operations against them. These initiatives have been supported by billions of dollars in US aid, primarily aimed at bolstering the Colombian military. The number of FARC fighters has been reduced by roughly half, and several top leaders have been killed or captured over the past decade. Colombia’s coca crops – the raw material used in making cocaine and a major source of funding for the FARC – have also decreased.

But not everyone is hopeful negotiations are the best path toward peace. A police sergeant in Cauca Province who survived a FARC car bomb that killed three policemen last year says the government is making a mistake by sitting down with the FARC.

“They’ll never lay down their arms until they’re crushed militarily,” he says.

Despite the government’s upper hand, a battlefield victory over the FARC is not likely. The rebel group has seen a resurgence since 2008, showing the type of resilience that has allowed it to survive for so long.

Though the talks move Colombia in the direction of peace, the government has insisted that there will be no cease-fire during the negotiations. It has continued operations against FARC camps, while the rebels continue to target security forces.

But as is often the case, civilians are paying the price. On Sunday a man and his 3-year-old son were killed and nine others injured when FARC guerrillas set off a bomb in the eastern province of Arauca.

'Handing out pardons?'

With peace talks getting under way, victims of the FARC, particularly former hostages, are demanding to be heard by the negotiators.

“None of the government negotiators at the table have suffered from the war and they are going to end up handing out pardons in our name,” Sigifredo Lopez, a politician who was held for seven years as a FARC hostage until his release in 2009, told a group of victims and their families in central Bogotá on Sunday.

Kidnapping was one of the hallmark crimes committed by the FARC and made Colombia the kidnapping capital of the world in the late 1990s. Last February, as part of secret talks with the government that paved the way for the peace negotiations, the FARC publicly renounced the practice and declared it had no more hostages.

But hundreds of relatives of FARC kidnapping victims are still demanding to know the whereabouts of their loved ones, who they say were taken by the FARC and have not been heard from since. Silvia Serna has no doubt that the FARC’s 26th Front is holding her son, Edson Paez. He was kidnapped in September 2011, and even after Ms. Serna sat down face to face with a FARC commander to negotiate her son's release, paying 200 million pesos (about $110,000), she says he's still being held. 

Though not on the public agenda, analysts say negotiators will have to discuss issues of justice and how both FARC leaders and the rank and file will pay for the crimes they committed. In addition to kidnapping, those crimes include laying land mines, rape, forced recruitment, forced displacement, and massacres.

While 77 percent of Colombians support the peace process according to one survey, 78 percent say they want to see FARC members pay for their crimes behind bars.

A constitutional amendment passed last July establishes a system of transitional justice that would be applied to the FARC in the case of a demobilization deal. It could allow for alternative sanctions other than prison time for rebels.

Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of Human Rights Watch, said it would be “permissible” for Colombia to offer sentence reductions to convince the FARC to disarm. “But a peace agreement shouldn’t be a pretext for full impunity for all sides,” Mr. Vivanco said.

Marta Cecilia Herrera, whose twin 27-year-old daughters and two sons-in-law were taken away by the FARC’s Teofilo Forero Column in 1997 says she can forgive the FARC for whatever they did with them as long as she knows the truth. “They can return them to me dead or alive, but I want to know what became of them.”

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