The fate of a deal to end Colombia’s long war is in the hands of voters who nurse deep wounds and have ample reason to be suspicious of the rebels’ promises.
Gustavo Moncayo was a primary-school teacher when he got the news that every father feared: His son, an 18-year-old soldier in the Colombian army, had been kidnapped by rebels.
It was 1997, and the government had been fighting the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, for decades. Moncayo fought fervently for his son’s release, eventually quitting his job to march across Colombia and Europe to apply pressure. Twelve years later, Pablo Emilio was finally freed.
Now, the fate of a peace deal in which the rebels vow to lay down their arms, rejoin society and end more than 50 years of war is in the hands of Colombians like Moncayo, many of whom still nurse deep wounds and have ample reason to be suspicious of the rebels’ promises.
After four years of official talks, the Colombian government and the FARC emerged late Wednesday with an announcement that they had reached a deal to end the longest-running war in the Americas.
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Historic though it was, the announcement did not mean peace had officially arrived. President Juan Manuel Santos, who has staked his legacy on the talks, went on television shortly afterward to remind his country that Colombians must vote on the deal this fall.
Despite his years of pain and struggle, Moncayo said it was right to sign a peace agreement with the FARC.
“Looking behind means the past,” he said. “Now we need to think about the country.”
Passage of the referendum looks likely, but the margin has narrowed since last year. Most polls show the “yes” vote with a low-double-digit lead, though some surveys have shown the population split, leaving either outcome possible on Election Day.
For most, the question is not whether the war should end, but how. Even among those who want peace, many worry the deal will result in amnesty for the rebels after a 52-year war that has left 220,000 dead and displaced more than 5 million people.
Enrique Celis, whose brother-in-law, a Colombian soldier, was believed to have been kidnapped by the FARC in the 1990s, said he suspected his relative was still being held by the rebels.
“I’m voting ‘no’ because the FARC have been untruthful in the whole process,” Celis said. “This deal doesn’t get a real justice or reparations for the victims.”
Few families in Colombia were left untouched by the violence. A popular radio show allowed some relatives of the thousands of kidnapping victims to broadcast messages to loved ones, some of whom were held for years, on the off chance they were listening in the jungle.
Massacres — like one in 2002 in the town of Bojayá, where rebels killed 119 civilians while fighting paramilitaries — have been seared into Colombian memory.
The war also fueled what is now an enduring divide between Colombia’s farmers, whom the FARC swore to protect, and its city dwellers, whom the rebels terrorized with kidnappings and killings. The deal paves the way for the FARC to participate in mainstream politics, but many urban Colombians have a hard time picturing the rebels’ suddenly representing them or the country in any meaningful way.
“The FARC had no urban presence,” said Jairo Libreros, a professor at the Universidad Externado de Colombia who studies security issues.
As Colombians debate the referendum, FARC rebels are proceeding with deliberations of their own. The rebels are planning to hold their “10th Conference,” where the guerrillas are expected to critique the deal and approve it. Little of the deal will come as a surprise to rank-and-file fighters, to whom leaders have spent much of this year explaining it.
But there has been some dissent. In July, a faction of the FARC’s First Front in Colombia’s southeastern jungles said it would refuse to lay down its arms. The rebel leadership immediately issued a statement denouncing the dissidents.
Adam Isacson, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human-rights group, said that despite the security concerns this time around, the rebels seemed ready to hand over their weapons, a process that will take place with the aid of the United Nations if a peace deal is signed.
Perhaps the most contentious piece of the agreement is a “transitional justice” system in which former rebels could receive reduced sentences for disarming. Advocates say such measures are necessary to get the rebels to surrender, while critics say they allow the FARC to get away with past crimes, particularly ones related to the cocaine trade.
“The principal drug-trafficking group, the FARC, will not spend one day in jail for crimes in drug trafficking or kidnapping,” said Fernando Araújo, a senator from the right-wing Democratic Center party.
The deal has also left some human-rights advocates with mixed feelings.
José Miguel Vivanco, director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch, said that while he supported an end to the war, the deal had “seriously undermined this opportunity for a sustainable and just peace,” referring to past pledges made that serious crimes would be punished.