After decades of fighting, the Farc and the government appear to believe victory on the battlefield is impossible, and are holding talks in Oslo aimed simply at ending the conflict.
Under the jagged Andean peaks of south-west Colombia, a group of villagers gathered on a cloudy morning at the rural school, where they mixed cement to rebuild a classroom destroyed in March by a mortar shell.
The mortar had been fired by guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), aimed at an army outpost on the next hill. But, like many of the homemade explosives used by the rebels, it missed its mark.
This time, the villagers were lucky; there were no casualties. But after living under the shadow of leftist guerrilla groups for nearly 50 years, townspeople know that death can come from either side and at any time. “If you’re home, you hide under the bed,” says José Aurelio Medina, a community leader in Calandaima. “If you’re in the fields, you take cover anywhere. You wait for the fighting to stop.”
There is a chance now that the fighting could stop permanently, across Colombia. Peace talks between the Farc and the government of President Juan Manuel Santos begin this week in Oslo, Norway, and will then continue in Havana, Cuba, in what analysts say is the most serious effort yet to end one of the world’s longest-running civil wars.
Though the Farc is militarily weakened and government forces have the upper hand, each seems to have reached the conclusion that a battlefield victory is impossible.
Unlike previous peace talks, in which the two sides tried to address all that is wrong in Colombia, the talks are focused simply on ending the conflict. The agenda includes just five items: rural development, political participation, the end of armed conflict, drug trafficking, and the rights of the victims of the conflict.
“The fact that not all the problems of Colombia are being addressed at the table is positive,” says Kristian Herbolzheimer, a conflict resolution expert with Conciliation Resources, a non-governmental organisation in London. If successful, the talks will end in the demobilisation of the Farc’s 9,000 or so fighters and a period of peace-building will begin.
In a recent report, the International Crisis Group, another NGO, said talks would “ultimately need to lead into a wider social process aimed at tackling the problems affecting the countryside that provide the backdrop for the conflict”.
Monica Villota, the sociologist who runs Esfera Azul, an NGO dedicated to community organising in Cauca, lives in that backdrop, agrees: “It’s a complex conflict and the solution to the conflict will also need to be complex.”
The conflict plays out not just in the exchange of gunfire but in the day-to-day lives of the population. In areas such as Cauca, where the Farc are strong, people either submit to the local commander’s often arbitrary rule, offering up pigs, a day’s labour or even their sons and daughters when required, or they leave the area.
Victor Salas, a municipal official in the town of Corinto who deals with complaints about rights abuses, says he very rarely gets a complaint about rebel abuses even though the Farc dominate the mountains above the town and often mount attacks in its streets. “Around here, you have to know how to live,” he says. “If you want to stay, you keep your head down.”
Like the other illegal factions in the war, the Farc are largely fuelled by drug money, Colombia being still the world’s largest source of cocaine. But the war is rooted in centuries-old struggles for control over land and rich mineral resources, and in the fact that Colombia has one of the most unequal distributions of wealth in the world.
Redistribution has been left off the current agenda, as has the thorny issue of whether rebels should be made to pay for abuses they have committed: a string of crimes against humanity including rape, kidnapping, massacres and forced displacement.
According to one recent survey, 77% of Colombians support the peace process, but 78% want to see the Farc made to pay for their crimes. That sends a complicated message to negotiators in Norway and Cuba.
The agenda mentions the victims of the conflict and the need for truth, but pointedly leaves unaddressed the issue of how justice will be delivered. A recent constitutional amendment establishes a system of transitional justice, which Colombia’s attorney general has called a “conditional amnesty, even for serious violation of human rights”.
Kidnapping has also been a hallmark of the Farc but, amid preliminary talks with the government last year, the group publicly renounced the practice and declared it had no more hostages.
On Sunday, however, hundreds of relatives of Farc kidnap victims gathered in Bogotá demanding to know the whereabouts of their loved ones.
Sigifredo López, a politician who was held for seven years as a Farc hostage until 2009, said the victims had a right to be heard. “None of the government negotiators at the table has suffered from the war, and they are going to end up handing out pardons in our name,” he said.
Guerrilla abuses helped fuel the rise of rightwing paramilitary groups seeking to counter the rebels. Civilians have been caught in the middle: tens of thousands have been killed or have disappeared in the past 25 years, and nearly 4 million people have been forced to flee from their homes. About 6m hectares of land, an area roughly the size of Sri Lanka, were stolen by powerful landlords or rebel chiefs, or simply abandoned amid the violence.
Since a peak in the late 1990s, when they fielded 20,000 fighters, the Farc’s strength has waned after some of its leaders were killed or captured in a government military onslaught, which frightened hundreds of low- and mid-level fighters into deserting.
The group is now led by a less hawkish, more pragmatic generation of commanders; Colombia’s government, under Santos, is also more moderate than that of his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, who vowed but failed to crush the rebels militarily.
In the mountains of Cauca, the Farc’s Sixth Front and Jacobo Arenas Mobile Column still show their strength. Under the command of Sargento Pascuas, one of the last remaining founders of the Farc, the rebels rule the daily lives of farmers at gunpoint, oversee the planting of coca bushes, the raw material of cocaine, and carry out deadly attacks that are aimed at the military and police but which often claim civilian victims.
And the fighting won’t stop during the negotiations. The government has insisted military operations against the Farc will carry on, and the Farc continues to attack while talking about peace.
As much as he would like to see the Farc lay down their weapons, Medina is sceptical about the prospects for peace. “The Farc may negotiate peace,” he warns, “but if no one pays attention to the peasants, indigenous groups [and] social movements, other groups will come and take their place.”
The Farc make up just one – albeit the most powerful – of many armed groups that contribute to the violence in Colombia. If a deal is reached for the Farc members to demobilise, the country will still have to deal with other rebel, paramilitary and drug-trafficking groups, which thrive in a country where democratic institutions are weak.
• The National Liberation Army (ELN) is Colombia’s second-largest leftist insurgency. The Cuban-inspired ELN is believed to have 1,000 to 1,500 fighters. Its leaders have made public overtures to the government about beginning a parallel peace process to the Farc negotiations, or joining in. It is unclear how or when the group may be included in the talks. A failure to negotiate simultaneously with the ELN would leave an opening for some Farc fighters who decide not to lay down their weapons to continue fighting the government.
• The Anti-Restitution Army is a shadowy, paramilitary-style group that opposes the government’s programme to return stolen land to displaced peasants. It targets leaders of victims’ groups seeking restitution. At least 45 members of displaced communities seeking land have been murdered in Colombia since 2002.
• Rastrojos, Urabeños, Paisas: labelled by the government as emerging criminal bands, or bacrim, these groups are successors of demobilised paramilitary groups of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), which struck a deal to disarm with the Uribe government. While they are less ideologically driven than their predecessors, being dedicated mostly to drug trafficking, these neo-paramilitary groups continue to commit widespread abuses against civilians.
Source: The Guardian