How are Colombia’s rebels preparing for peace?

The Marxist rebels are on the verge of entering Colombia's electoral arena, but much work lies ahead in building a viable political party.

Ricardo Mazalan/AP
Rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, cheer during a concert by the Southern Rebels guerrilla band in the Yari Plains on Sept. 18, 2016.

Colombia looks poised to bring a formal end to its five-decade war against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels, with polls showing that a majority of the public, as well as the rebels’ rank and file, will probably ratify a newly finished peace accord.

And as the FARC prepares to lay down its weapons, it’s already taking the first steps toward transitioning into an electoral force. At this week’s 10th and final wartime conference in the remote Yari Plains, rebel fighters are reuniting with their families and organizing into commissions that will work out details in coming months on the future party’s platform and strategies, reported El Tiempo.

“This is a very arduous process,” says Nazih Richani, a political scientist and director of Latin American studies at Kean University, in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor. “It’s going to take them not just months but maybe years to complete this transition.”

Under the terms of the peace accord, the FARC’s new party will be guaranteed five seats each in both houses of Colombia’s legislature in the 2018 elections, though their representatives won’t get a vote. Another 16 seats will be reserved for activist leaders from areas currently under FARC control, with other political parties that hold seats in the legislature barred from running there.

The group’s entry into the electoral sphere comes under the framework that would expand the political arena of a country that has often been a hostile one for leftists, meaning the FARC may not be the only beneficiary of the deal’s political reforms.

Among other things, says Robert A. Karl, an assistant professor of history at Princeton University, who specializes in 20th-century Colombia, the deal would create more equitable structures for government financing of political parties, and kick off ID campaigns to mobilize the vote in areas disenfranchised by violence and a lack of state presence.

“It’s opening up the field a little bit more,” he tells the Monitor.

The group’s future may lie with its milicias urbanas, youth affiliates of several thousand members who run logistical support for the FARC from cities and college campuses, including arranging for deliveries of medicine or medical treatment for injured guerrillas.

“It has to break away from its isolation in rural areas and break into urban centers,” says Dr. Richani. “FARC leadership has to rely on these young people who currently form part of the milicias urbanas. These are the ones who could be the new intelligentsia, if you wish: the cadre of the political party in the city. They have to rely on them as a core group and push them to leadership positions.”

The facets of the negotiations in Colombia are being championed by some observers as a model for future peace talks. Kristian Herbolzheimer, a conflict resolution expert with UK-based Conciliation Resources, telling the Monitor in August that the country had achieved a “significant innovation”:

The Colombian negotiations were the first in the world to include a formal role for victims of the conflict in the process itself, with individuals who suffered at the hands of different armed groups meeting directly with negotiators. 

"I don't think there's ever been negotiations where victims were speaking face to face with perpetrators," Mr. Herbolzheimer says.

Under the agreement, members of the FARC who committed and confess to war crimes – including kidnapping, recruitment of minors, and indiscriminate attacks on civilians – will be sentenced to up to eight years of "effective restriction of movement." What that means exactly will be left up to a special tribunal to decide, but could include community service.

But this isn’t the first time the FARC has agreed to demobilize and try their hand at electoral politics. In 1985, the guerrillas joined forces with leftists of various stripes, including Colombia's Communist Party, and formed the Unión Patriótica (UP), which by the following year had become the country’s third-biggest party. What followed was an extraordinary wave of violence, with several thousand UP members targeted by right-wing paramilitaries, drug traffickers, and in some cases, members of the military and government.  

“We know of nowhere in the world where a single political party is being annihilated in such a systematic manner,'' Camilo Castellano, a researcher of a Bogota Jesuit rights group, told the Monitor in 1994.

The Ministry of Defense denies claims of human rights abuses. “Those are totally false,'' says Jaime Vasquez, a ministry spokesman. “The armed forces have no official policy of eliminating the UP or participating in politics.''

But an entire town that elects UP mayors and town councils may be slated for reprisals. The gold mining center of Segovia was attacked by a death squad in 1988 after a UP mayor and town council took office. For 45 minutes on the night of Nov. 11, gunmen calmly and randomly shot down 43 people drinking in bars, shooting even children and dogs.

Although their shots actually ricocheted off the police station, and the death squad had to pass an Army battalion to enter and leave Segovia, both institutions claim that they heard nothing. The Army was exonerated, though a soldier was arrested slipping death threats under the mayor's door the night before the massacre.

That violence effectively succeeded in quashing the UP. And throughout negotiations in the present accord, the murder of union, indigenous- and land-rights activists has stirred trepidation among rebel leaders. Since the completion of negotiations in late August, five more activists have been killed, according to AFP.

“The killing of union leaders, peasant leaders is still going on now,” says Richani. “This is part of not only the FARC’s future, but also that of the whole democratic movement in Colombia.”

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