It sure took a long time. Many people don’t seem to know it, or remember it, but the conflict that is ending with the signing of a Peace accord in Colombia has been active for over fifty years. (How much the war has cost Colombia)
Fifty two, to be exact. The last four were devoted to a complicated negotiation that led the so-called Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) and the Colombian Government, led by president Juan Manuel Santos, to announce (three months after the initial deadline) that they have agreed to all the points of a peace accord and that both parts enter in a “definitive” ceasefire.
Although it is used so often, the word for that announcement is ‘historic’, but the peace the accord promises it’s still a long way ahead. The deal has face visceral opposition from several sectors of the Colombian political landscape, none as far-fetched as the one led by Álvaro Uribe, Santos’s predecessor and former allied, who has likened it to a surrender of the country to castro-chavism.
Formed in 1964 , the Farc started as a peasant army, but evolved over the years to a well organized army with close -and very profitable- ties with coca growing and trading. By the time it sat to the negotiation table for the last time, it was the largest of Colombia’s rebel groups, and it is estimated that it counted up to 10.000 troops.
The birth of the Farc followed years of growing tensions among the Colombian Government and organized peasant groups that were violently repressed in favor of large-scale industrial farming. (These are the agreements between the Colombian Government and the Farc)
It was in 1961 that Manuel Marulanda Vélez, who would be known in the years to come as ‘Tirofijo’ (‘Sureshot’), declared an independent peasant republic in the Colombian mountains. It was called ‘Marquetalia’ and it was immediately branded, both by the Colombian and the US Governments, as a potential point source for communism in the country.
In 1964, with help from US military, a wide operation was launched against Marquetalia. It is believed that over 15.000 soldiers attacked the village of only a 1.000 inhabitants. Marulanda escaped and, with over 40 of his men, founded what we know today as the Farc.
For many years, while the country fought a simultaneous war on drug cartels, the leftists guerrillas went from full attack to not too commited peace talks. In the 80s, many ‘political prisoners’ were freed by the Government of Belisario Betancur, who was elected on a platform based on achieveing peace. But the road to peace was cut by the M-19’s operation to invade the Palace of Justice, in Bogotá and the next President, Virgilio Barco, was elected on a very different platform.
Even after several years of right-wing violence against leftist leaders, and the extermination of Unión Patriótica (UP), a political party with very close ties to guerrillas, the M-19 movement reached a peace agreement and became a political party. It played a very active role in the process that gave Colombia a new constitution, in 1991.
It was not until 1998 that Colombia allowed itself to think of peace with Farc. Andrés Pastrana Arango was elected as president mainly on promises of bringing peace and signing an accord with the guerillas. For almost all of his term, he pursued negotiations and even cleared a portion of the country, roughly the size of Switzerland, to conduct peace dialoguies.
But even after high level meetings, including those of Pastrana and Marulanda, the process was interrupted several times on accusations from both sides and, eventually, Pastrana ordered the peace talks to an end and declared the cleared area a war zone. (The Colombian peace referendum, the next step)
Kidnappings were common and Farc were among the main responsibles. More often than not, they set up roadblocks on roads and kidnapped travelers. Many of the victims were kept hostage for years. In 2000, as many as 3,572 people were reported as kidnapped. Many more cases were never reported.
The disappointment and frustration with the Pastrana led negotiations cemented the people’s distrust on the will of the Farc to achieve peace. In 2002, Alvaro Uribe was elected president on a platform very much opposed to the one that elected Pastrana: to achieve peace in Colombia not by negotiation but by military defeating the Farc. The confrontation didn’t even wait until Uribe was sworn and, on the very same day of his inaugural ceremony, the guerrillas conducted an attack with explosives just blocks away from the presidential palace in Bogotá.
The war against Farc spread well beyond the borders. The capture of a Farc leader in Venezuelan soil, in 2005, opened a diplomatic conflict that could only be solved after a month, through talks in Caracas. The refugee crisis and the chemical aspersion of illicit crops caused another front of diplomatic animosity, this time with Ecuador.
With Alvaro Uribe elected for a second term as president, the escalation of war seemed unavoidable. Diplomatic tensions escalated as well. In 2008, when Colombian forces killed senior Farc rebel 'Raúl Reyes' on Ecuadorian soil, a diplomatic crisis began that led Venezuela and Ecuador to cut ties with Bogotá and even order the movement of troops to their borders.
This happened just a year after the Uribe administration freed many jailed Farc rebels, hoping that rebels would, in return, release hostages they had kidnapped. The decision proved to be a failure, because the guerrillas rejected it and asked for demilitarization of several areas.
The Farc received major blows during that decade, with several of their leaders killed by military operations.
According to a official report, aptly titled 'Enough Already', Colombia's internal conflict has claimed at least 220,000 lives since 1958. As many as four of every five victims have been civilian non-combatants.
Editor at EL TIEMPO