After more than half a century of armed conflict, the FARC is changing its guns for a place in political debates to contest power at the ballot box.
As Colombia’s largest left-wing guerrilla army marks its last anniversary as an armed movement, leaders have warned that the group may not be able to reach an impending Tuesday deadline to hand over all the weapons of its 7,000 troops, suggesting that the process — plagued with challenges caused by government incompetence — is likely to take considerably longer.
In a press conference in Bogota, FARC leader Jesus Santrich said Friday that although the situation is currently being discussed in talks between government officials and rebel leaders, it’s likely that the scheduled 180-day disarmament period will likely need to be extended for another 60 days.
“If there is good will on the part of the government I think (the FARC’s laying down of arms) can be done in two months porque we have the willingness, all the weapons are registered,” explained Santrich, adding that he was unable to elaborate on specific “conclusions” until the FARC-government commission wraps up its talks in the coming days.
Santrich’s comments come not only days ahead of Tuesday’s originally-scheduled end of the disarmament process, but also as the rebel army celebrated its 53rd anniversary Saturday — its last anniversary with weapons.
Marking the date, FARC member Andres Paris noted that this year’s anniversary “means the end of one long struggle” and the “ beginning of another” as the rebel army prepares to transition into a political party. As FARC chief peace negotiator Ivan Marquez put it, the group’s “march toward peace and reconciliation is irreversible.”
The FARC was founded in 1964 on the heels of a decade-long violent period that took a heavy toll on rural areas of the country. Amid a crackdown on self-organized communist communities seen as a threat to elite interests, the FARC emerged directly from rural roots as a group of campesinos turned to armed struggle to to fight systematic inequality.
After over half a century of internal armed conflict, a landmark peace agreement reached last year between the FARC and the government through four-year-long negotiations paved the way for the rebel army to begin its 180-day, U.N.-monitored disarmament process. On Dec. 1, the FARC took its first steps toward reorganizing as a legal political party — which will debut in the 2018 elections — by leaving behind its military strategy and moving to transition zones across the country to prepare to lay down its arms once and for all and reintegrate into.
The FARC has criticized the government for shirking its responsibilities in preparing the transition zones and failing to provide even basic amenities, warning that it could delay the process. Troop members complained that conditions were better in the group’s remote jungle positions than in the government-provided camps, which lacked promised potable water, bathrooms, and other facilities. Meanwhile, a spike in deadly paramilitary violence and a spate of killings of progressive social leaders has threatened to derail the budding new era of peace.
Although the FARC’s laying down of arms isn’t the first demobilization process of an armed group in Colombia, it is undoubtedly a significant one, heralded as bringing an end to the longest-running civil war in the western hemisphere. Though plagued with challenges on a fragile and slow path to stable and lasting peace, the FARC’s disarmament marks a critical turning point in Colombian politics, with revolutionary ideals to soon contest power at the ballot box, not on the battlefield.
“The laying down of arms isn’t easy for the guerrilla members. The gun, with all the negative baggage it has for Colombians, has been for them company, protection, power, status. It’s also been a source of identity,” wrote Colombia’s Semama magazine. “A guerrillero without a gun stops being one.”
In the final days of the laying down of arms, some 7,000 FARC members are on the brink of reintegrating into society, trading their guerrilla fatigues for civilian clothes and taking up roles vastly different from the ones they played in their rebel jungle camps. But stable and lasting peace that Colombia hopes to build won’t depend only on the FARC and the government upholding their respective sides of the historic peace deal — society as a whole has a part to play.
“The entire country must contribute so that their reintegration goes well,” Semana’s article continued. “Because on that depends to great extent what, as the agreement says, stable and lasting peace may be.”