Chicago Tribune: Colombia’s chance for peace

SEPT. 28, 2015 — Colombia has a shattering history of violence. In the early 1990s the city of Medellin, a trafficking hub for cocaine, was the murder capital of the world. Then there’s the FARC, the leftist guerrilla army, fighting a brutal civil war that has claimed 220,000 Colombian lives since 1963.

But old wounds can heal in South America.

The drug wars receded years ago (Pablo Escobar is dead and Medellin wants your tourism dollars). Now the soldiers of the FARC are ready to come down from the hills. After three years of talks, Colombia’s government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (that’s the FARC) say they have a formula to end their conflict.

If the agreement sticks — still an “if” — the last of the big rebel insurgencies in Latin America would be over, with a clever twist: Guilty parties among both rebel and government troops who confess to war crimes would get leniency. But they would not get amnesty. Soldiers in other conflicts, from Nicaragua and El Salvador to South Africa, talked and walked.

The decades of chaos and killings in Colombia involve a tangled web of combatants and bad guys: the rebels, government forces, right-wing paramilitary groups, drug lords. Add a century or two of partisan strife and class warfare between peasants and landowners, and Colombia is a vibrant country where peace never sticks around for long. Here’s the best chance to change the dynamic.

While the deal has many components, the crucial one is about seeking justice. Rebels long insisted they would not accept punishment for fighting what they considered a just war. But many Colombians, traumatized by the killings, kidnappings, torture and bombings, despise the FARC and want to see the rebels pay.

The compromise agreement, reached in Havana last week, won’t be finalized until next year and requires ratification. It would induce fighters from both the rebels and government to acknowledge their crimes before a special tribunal. If they hold nothing back in their testimony, they would avoid jail time, agreeing to serve five to eight years of restricted liberty — some form of farm work or other community service as a way of making amends. If they are caught lying to the tribunal, they could serve 20 years in jail.

There’s a lot of vague sketch work in the agreement that could allow soldiers to accept a light sentence and slink away, or never show up at all. They’d have a place to hide: among drug gangs that still thrive. Some Colombians are incensed by the deal-making. Former President Alvaro Uribe, whose tough military actions helped draw the FARC to the table, said treating loyal government soldiers and “terrorists” as equals before the law amounts to a sellout. On Twitter, Uribe has trashed the deal using the hashtag “agreement of impunity.” Some human rights officials also question whether “restricted liberty” goes too easy on killers.

But the fact is Colombia didn’t defeat the FARC, so this is a negotiated settlement, not a surrender. There is also an imperfect track record of the government holding combatants responsible for war crimes. Some paramilitaries demobilized in exchange for lenient treatment and some Colombian soldiers have been convicted in civilian courts of committing human rights violations. Colombia expert Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America tells us that if confessions get soldiers and rebels five years of restricted liberty instead of decades in prison, “many of them will go for that.”

Tribunals and truth commissions have had mixed results bringing closure and justice to civil war victims. They worked in South Africa but struggled to move forward in Cambodia. They never got off the ground in Northern Ireland.

This is war-weary Colombia’s chance to put its past aside in a way that upholds respect for the law. Skeptics are right to point out the flaws and weaknesses of a stressed democracy. But if Colombia pulls off this peace deal, including real penalties to offenders, it puts the country on much stronger footing.

By Chicago Tribune