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After 52 Years, the War Between Colombia and the FARC Will End

Four out of five of the decades-long conflict’s dead were civilians

A Colombian man cries during a June 20 peace protest in Bogotá. (Agencia Prensa Rural (Flickr/Creative Commons)
smithsonian.com
Update, December 1, 2016: On Wednesday, Colombia’s government ratified a 310-page, revised peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC. Last month, an earlier version of the peace agreement was narrowly rejected by voters in a national referendum. This new accord was not put to a referendum, but instead went straight to Congress, the Associated Press reports.  Read about the 50 changes to initial agreement here. 

It's been called an "asymmetric" conflict—one that pitted a group of insurgents against their own government. But for the people of Colombia, the country's decades-long struggle against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, has meant one thing: war. Now, that war will finally end: As Sibylla Brodzinsky reports for The Guardian, FARC rebels and the Colombian government have brokered a peace agreement after 52 years of fighting.

Juan Miguel Santos, Colombia's president, announced that on October 2, the nation will vote on whether to accept the peace agreement, Brodzinsky writes. If the agreement is accepted, FARC will become a political party instead of a guerrilla group, dismantle drug operations in the region and pay reparations to victims. The government, in turn, will finance programs to bolster the economy of rural Colombia and open itself to smaller political parties.

The origins of FARC date back to the country's colonial past. Despite gaining independence from Spain in the early 19th century and becoming a republic in the 1860s, Colombians remained split over how the country should be run. These disagreements led to a series of conflicts between the country's Conservative and Liberal parties, including the Thousand Days' War, an 1899 civil war that killed an estimated 100,000 people. Foreign governments like the United States intervened in Colombian affairs for decades, installing multinational corporations within Colombian borders and even massacring striking Colombian workers.

After a long series of uprisings and armed conflicts, an outright civil war called "La Violencia" ("the violence") took place between 1948 and 1958. An estimated 300,000 civilians were killed, the military took over, and conflict between the country's rural workers and urban elites festered. But though the war technically ended, it never stopped for some. Despite the formation of a coalition between Liberal and Conservative, guerilla groups thrived in peasant communities that had been violently suppressed by the new National Front. In 1964, members of the Colombian Communist Party formed FARC to mobilize against the government.

The rebels' tactics were brutal: They funded their activities by ransoms obtained from kidnappings, developed a massive drug trade, committed violent atrocities against innocent civilians and committed rape and sexual slavery. Civilians took matters into their own hands, forming paramilitary organizations that clashed with FARC. By 2013, an estimated 220,000 people were killed in the conflict—and an estimated four out of five of those were civilian non-combatants.

Peace may not come easily—as Brodzinsky writes, the process could be derailed by other guerilla groups or organized crime. And even if Colombia decides to end the conflict, it will be impossible to forget the years of terror and violence that have shaped generations. Still, as Stephen Pinker and Juan Manuel Santos point out in a New York Times op-ed, the peace agreement would mark a major milestone not just for Colombia, but for Latin America.

"Today, there are no military governments in the Americas," they write. "No countries are fighting one another. And no governments are battling major insurgencies."

Peace cannot undo the underlying tensions that made Colombia's 52-year-long conflict possible—but perhaps it can open the door to better times for the country and the region. 

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