Colombians vote for peace after 50-year war

Standing down: Is the end to Colombia’s long and bitter conflict almost in sight? © PA

For half a century, Colombia has been blighted by its war against rebels. Now it has re-elected its president who is committed to peace talks, but will peace come at the price of justice?

They planned to destroy the communists once and for all. In May 1964, 1,000 Colombian soldiers attacked 50 rebels in the small town of Marquetalia. The move backfired spectacularly. The rebel leaders had already escaped and turned more people against the government than ever before.

Those leaders formed a new group called the FARC, who wanted a pro-peasant communist new order. For the last 50 years they have been waging a guerilla war from the country’s mountains and jungles. It has cost 220,000 people their lives and devastated those of countless more.

Colombia’s drug trade boomed in the chaos and the FARC started financing itself by producing cocaine. This helped to make Colombia the world’s biggest source of the drug in the 1980s. While it has declined in recent years, Colombia’s cocaine trade is still worth an estimated $10bn.

The FARC also kidnapped thousands of government officials, civilians and tourists in the hopes of gaining ransom money. While this is also now a much reduced problem, over 700 people are still thought to be in captivity and its negative reputation has cost the country billions in potential tourism revenue.

But now this bloody conflict may finally be drawing to an end. In the 2000s, a huge US-backed military campaign helped to reduce the FARC to around 8,000 men.

Then in 2012 the Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos began peace talks with the group. So far, it has agreed to curb its drug trafficking and the government has promised to redistribute some land to the peasants.

This angered many who say the government should not compromise with a group that has caused so much misery. A rival political party’s election campaign was based on a pledge to put an immediate end to the peace talks.

But last week Colombia went to the polls and gave Santos 51% of the vote. While a slender victory, it has been interpreted as an endorsement of the peace talks. After fifty weary years, many say peace is now almost within reach.

A farcical surrender

Some believe that while other Colombian presidents have perpetuated violence by refusing to compromise, Santos is showing great intelligence in finally bringing the FARC to the negotiating table. Now the army has weakened the rebels, it is time for the government to switch tack and pursue peace – a strategy that seems to be working.

Yet others reply that Santos’s peace comes at too high a price. Many want to see the FARC leaders imprisoned as part of any peace deal, but instead, Santos is letting them off the hook. The rebels are on the back foot, and it makes no sense for the army to stop now. It is a grave insult to all those who have lost family members in the conflict to do so.

You Decide

  1. Should Colombia compromise with the FARC?
  2. Is is it ever justifiable to let some people avoid punishment if it means that peace will come sooner for the country as a whole?

Activities

  1. In pairs, decide whether you agree with the statement ‘Peace should be pursued at any price’. List your reasons and compare with the class.
  2. Using the links in ‘Become an Expert’, make a country fact file on Colombia and its problems to present to your class.

Some People Say...

“We should all pursue peace, but not at any cost.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why should I care about what’s happening in Colombia?
The country is one of the world’s most beautiful, yet few dare to visit it now owing to the threat of violence or kidnapping. The risk has dramatically lessened in the last ten years and tourists are finally starting to explore it again. If a peace deal is reached, investment will return to the country and it may well start to thrive.
Is the FARC Colombia’s only real problem?
No. While the FARC is Colombia’s largest and most infamous guerilla group, there are other smaller organisations, as well as a host of drug cartels. One, known as the North Valley Cartel, is thought to have trafficked $10bn worth of cocaine. Yet since a peace deal in 2003, over 30,000 guerilla units have quit.

Word Watch

FARC
Las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. At the height of its power in 2002, the FARC controlled around a third of Colombia’s territory (although none of its urban centres).
Campaign
Since 2010, the US has provided $10bn, mostly in the form of military support, to aid the fight against the drugs trade. The money helped to swell the Colombian military and under former president, Alvaro Uribe, it began intense operations against the rebels.
Trafficking
Colombia is still the source of 43% of the world’s cocaine, although much of the trade has now moved to Peru. Farmers often grow the plant for a lack of alternatives, but as part of its deal with the Colombian government, the FARC is to help farmers get seeds for other crops.
Hook
Juan Manuel Santos’s closest rival, Oscar Iván Zuluaga, said he would stop peace talks and only resume them on the condition that FARC leaders turn themselves in for imprisonment.

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