Colombia's long civil war came to an official end Sept. 26 as President Juan Manuel Santos met with FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri AKA "Timochenko" to sign a formal peace pact at Cartagena's convention center. The ceremony, with dignitaries and attendees all clad in white, was witnessed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and 15 Latin American heads of state. A place of honor was held by Cuban President Raúl Castro Ruz, whose country has hosted the peace dialogue with the FARC over the past two years. On Oct. 2, the deal will go before Colombia's voters in a national plebiscite. but Timochenko has publicly stated that even if the accord is not ratified by voters, there will be no return to war. Santos is more equivocal, telling reporters in the prelude to the ceremony: "If 'No' wins, we will return to what we had at the start of this government six years ago. We return to armed conflict. That would be a catastrophe for the country."
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), born in 1964, claim to have 15,000 fighters now awiating demobilization, although the government believes this figure represents the movement at its height some 15 years ago and the actual number is less than half that. A 2013 report by Colombia's National Center for Historical Memory (CNMH), "¡Basta Ya!" (Enough Already), apportions blame for political violence over the years of the conflict that is believed to have cost some 220,000 lives. The FARC is held responsible for the big majority of kidnappings, at 24,482 compared to 2,541 by other armed actors. However, far more massacres were carried out by right-wing paramilitary groups—1,166 to the FARC's 342, with another 158 carried out by the official security forces and yet a further 295 attributed to "unidentified armed groups." (El Tiempo, Bogotá, Granma, Cuba, Sept. 26; El Pais, Madrid, El Nuevo Herald, Miami, The Guardian, UK, Sept. 25)
In a video released Sept. 12, FARC leaders offered an apology for the abductions. "We want to acknowledge, with the sentiment of humanity and reconciliation, that during the conflict the FARC also caused great pain with the retention of people for ransom," the rebel group's lead negotiator Iván Márquez said in the message. That day, FARC leaders met with survivors of the of 1994 massacre at La Chinita, Antioquia (Urabá region). In the massacre, members of the FARC’s 5th Front indiscriminately opened fire on party attendees, who were believed to be members of the EPL, a rival guerrilla group. (TeleSur, Colombia Reports, Sept. 12)
Hours before the Cartagena ceremony, Eamon Gilmore, the European Union delegate in the peace talks, announced the EU's decision to remove the FARC from its list of terrorist organizations. US ambassador Kevin Whitaker also said Washington will consider de-listing the FARC. He stated that it is "obvious that with a change in circumstances, for example the signing of peace, you need to reconsider how appropriate the designation is." (Colombia Reports, Sept. 26; El Espectador, Bogotá, Sept. 25)
The Cartagena ceremony was attended by a group of women from Bojayá, Chocó, also the scene of a FARC massacre in 2002. After the opening minute of silence for the victims, the Bojayá women sang a folkloric chant in which they praised the FARC's pending disarmament and called on remaining "violent ones" to also choose peace. "Hey Mr. President, what are you going to do about the other groups?," sang the women—a reference to the ELN guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups that remain in arms. (Colombia Reports, Sept. 26)
With the FARC's fighters set to demobilize, the country's largest illegal armed group is now the Urabeños paramilitary network, formally the Gaitanista Self-Defenses of Colombia (AGC). (Colombia Reports, Sept. 24)
And links between the paras and official security forces may yet persist. Days before the Cartagena meeting, the FARC held its 10th National Guerilla Conference in the Llanos del Yarí region, straddling Meta and Caquetá departments. There, Front 58 commander Joverman Sánchez Arroyave AKA "Rubén Manteco" charged that the army's Brigade XVII—formerly led by Gen. Rito Alejo del Río, who was convicted of paramilitary collaboration in 2012—continues to work with paramilitaries in Urabá. (Prensa Rural, Sept. 22)
The 10th Conference was attended by 24 FARC leaders serving time in Colombia's prisons, who were granted special leave. The fate of the 3,000 FARC members now imprisoned is another outstanding issue. Imprisoned FARC fighters have recently gone on hunger strike in protest over harsh conditions, and now await review of their sentences under the new system of transitional justice. (Prensa Rural, Sept. 21)