In former FARC zones, Colombians hope for peace but grapple over vote

After almost four years of negotiations and an official peace accord between the government and the FARC, Colombians will vote this weekend on the future of peace. Few see it as an easy choice.

John Vizcaino/Reuters
Pedestrians walk under a banner supporting the Colombian plebiscite in downtown Bogotá, Colombia, Sept. 29, 2016. Citizens will vote 'yes' or 'no' on the peace deal this weekend.

Throughout the 52 years of war between government forces and leftist rebels, this small ranching and agricultural town in central Colombia has seen it all.

It was here that a small band of guerrillas in 1966 took on the name Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) that would become internationally synonymous with terror, violence, and destruction. Uribe was also home to two attempts at peace agreements, in the 1980s and late 1990s, both of which failed to endure. Throughout the past several decades, locals have been unable to escape the Army bomb raids, rebel assaults, and civilians caught in the cross hairs of the war taking place in their fields, backyards, and town square.

But this Sunday, Colombians in Uribe and across the country will have the opportunity to personally participate in the fate of a historic peace deal to end the war. Voters will cast ballots for “yes” or “no” in a plebiscite that asks, “Do you support the final agreement to end the conflict and build a stable and lasting Peace?”

The most recent polls show 66 percent of voters nationwide will approve the deal, sealing the final step in officially ending the war. But in places like Uribe, where it’s hard to find anyone who is not a victim of the war and where the FARC reigned through coercion, fear, and violence, citizens are struggling with the question of peace: whether this deal can truly be trusted, and at what cost peace would come.

“I've thought about it and thought about it and I still don't know how I will vote," says Debora Molano, a lifelong resident of Uribe whose two sons were killed by the FARC when they refused to be recruited. "When I have the ballot in front of me I will choose, yes or no."

If she votes “no,” she worries the guerrillas will go back to their camps and the Army will go back to fighting them. "The intense war will go on and I wouldn't like to relive that," says Ms. Molano. "But what if I vote yes and it doesn't work? If I vote yes will my sons rise up from the ground?"

Seeking forgiveness

In an apparent bid to garner support for the peace accord and show their remorse, FARC commanders have been on a forgiveness-seeking campaign in the run-up to the vote. In an unprecedented gesture, at the government-FARC signing of the peace accord on Monday, rebel leader Rodrigo “Timochenko” Londoño apologized for "the pain we may have caused."

Molano says it gave her goose bumps to hear the unprecedented – and unexpected – apology. "I couldn't believe it," she says.

On Thursday, chief rebel negotiator Iván Márquez presented the community of Bojayá, Chocó, where the 2002 bombing of a church killed 119 people, with a new crucifix. "With contrite souls we ask that you forgive us and give us the hope of spiritual relief," he said. Another similar event was scheduled for Friday in Apartadó, Antioquia, the site of a 1994 FARC massacre of 35 people.

The "no" campaign is spearheaded by Álvaro Uribe, a popular former president who once led an all-out offensive against the rebels. He criticizes the accord as being too lenient with the FARC: The deal allows rebel leaders to avoid jail time for alternate sentences of "effective restrictions on liberty" if they confess to their crimes such as killing, kidnapping, indiscriminate attacks, and child recruitment.

Mr. Uribe's party, the Centro Democrático, has said a “no” win would force the government and FARC to renegotiate the peace deal. However, both sides have said that the pact they reached after nearly four years of negotiations is the best agreement possible. 

The accord also allows demobilized FARC rebels to stand for elected office and guarantees them at least 10 seats in Congress in the 2018 legislative elections. “No” campaigners say this threatens to usher in what they call "Castro-Chavism," a plot to put Colombia on a socialist path like Cuba or Venezuela. "If Colombia approves the accord, it will be handing the country over to the FARC," says Eliana Gonzalez, a health-care worker in the city of Florencia, the capital of Caquetá Province.

Billboards have cropped up around the country, sending ominous messages about what the accord could mean. "Do you want to see Timochenko as president?" asks one poster. "Vote yes in the plebiscite."

But Luis Betancourt, whose house was destroyed in a FARC car bombing in the town of Corinto, in Cauca Province, says it's up to voters to choose their leaders. He plans to vote “yes” in the plebiscite, but says he would never consider voting for a former guerrilla. "I wouldn't like to see a guerrilla as mayor or governor," Mr. Bentacourt says. "But we as voters have the power."

A taste of future peace?

Towns and regions hard-hit by FARC violence over this decades-long war, like Corinto and Uribe, have already gotten a taste of what peace could bring. Since the FARC declared a unilateral ceasefire in July 2015, even before the peace deal was complete, the towns have seen dramatic changes. Attacks in Corinto have altogether stopped, and in Uribe, outsiders who once did not dare go to the town now venture in safely.

"Since the ceasefire, we see all sorts of people coming," says Molano. "Before, if someone wandered into [Uribe] they never left alive. It makes me so happy to see that anyone can come: a travelling salesman bringing his wares, people visiting."

But building peace is about more than silencing the guns. Only 33 miles separate Uribe from the next city, Mesetas, in Colombia's Meta Province. But the current state of the unpaved, crater-filled dirt road that unites them means that it can take more than five hours to make the trip.

"How can we have peace if we don't even have a road to bring in and take out products?" Molano asks.  

The peace accord includes provisions for a broad rural development program that aims to bring infrastructure, social investment, and governance to isolated communities long abandoned by the state. Colombians have heard these promises before. But in the past, the presence of the guerrillas in areas most in need of government attention made follow-through difficult, if not impossible.

If Colombians approve the peace deal, which requires turnout of at least 13 percent of eligible voters, the FARC's 5,800 fighters and an equal number of urban militia members will begin concentrating in 28 zones throughout the country. There, they will begin their demobilization and reintegration into society. They have agreed to hand over their arsenal of weapons to a United Nations mission, which will eventually destroy them.

Having lived all her life under the thumb of the FARC, it's hard for Molano to fathom. But, she’s trying.

"I hope God gives me strength to be able to say yes on Sunday," she says. "Because in my heart I want to, despite my doubts."

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