Date: June 24, 2016
By Michael Ireland, Senior Reporter, ASSIST News Service (www.assistnews.net)
HAVANA, CUBA (ANS, June 24, 2016) -- The Colombian government and the Farc rebels have signed a historic ceasefire deal, bringing them closer to ending more than five decades of conflict.
The announcement was made in Cuba by Colombia's President, Juan Manuel Santos, and Farc leader Timochenko, as reported by the BBC.
The ceasefire is expected to pave the way for a full peace deal.
The BBC reported the longest-running insurgency in the Western Hemisphere has killed an estimated 220,000 people and displaced almost seven million. Thursday's announcement caps formal peace talks that started three years ago in the Cuban capital Havana. The agreement includes a timetable for laying down arms and a number of guarantees for the security of the guerrillas when they disarm.
Human rights watchdog organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) -- www.csw.org.uk -- welcomed the announcement of a ceasefire and an end to hostilities between the Government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) is a Christian organization working for religious freedom through advocacy and human rights, in the pursuit of justice.
CSW said the agreement also sets in place a plan for the demobilization of members of the FARC, the country’s largest illegal armed group. Previous agreements made as part of the ongoing peace process include provisions that those responsible for human rights violations fully confess to those acts in order to benefit from the possibility of reduced sentences.
Last week in Washington DC, CSW hosted representatives from partner organizations in Colombia; the Colombian Council of Evangelical Churches (CEDECOL); Justapaz, an NGO linked to the Mennonite Church; and Corsoc, a regional NGO in the north of the country linked to the Association of Evangelical Churches of the Caribbean (AIEC).
The delegation met with US Congressional offices and the State Department to express their support for the ongoing peace process with the FARC and to encourage pressure on the Government of Colombia to also put in place policies to address other actors in the internal armed conflict, including leftist guerrilla group the National Liberation Army (ELN) and far right neo-paramilitary groups and criminal bands.
According to CSW, churches and faith-based organizations affiliated with the Inter-Ecclesial Dialogue for Peace (DiPaz), including CSW’s partner organizations, have had simultaneous liturgical celebrations across the country.
CSW said all actors in the armed conflict have been responsible for major human rights violations, including violations of religious freedom. This includes hundreds of church leaders who were the victims of targeted assassination since 2000.
In a statement released to the media, CSW said it is hoped that the truth and reconciliation process that has been built into the peace agreement will bring clarity to thousands of open cases of murder and forced disappearance.
CSW’s partner organizations have overseen a national project, supported by CSW, documenting human rights violations affecting communities of faith. “It is hoped that this documentation will contribute to the investigations carried out as part of the truth process,” CSW said.
In the statement, CSW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said: “We welcome the news of a bilateral ceasefire agreement between the FARC and the government which includes a plan for the demobilization of FARC guerrillas. This represents an important step forward in bringing an end to a conflict that has left millions of victims over more than half a century of conflict. We support the call of our partners to the Government of Colombia to also pursue effective policies to address the other actors in the conflict, including the ELN and neo-paramilitary groups, both of which are responsible for ongoing human rights violations, including violations of freedom of religion or belief.”
BACKGROUND ANALYSIS ON FARC
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia -- Farc, after the initials in Spanish -- are Colombia's largest rebel group, according to analysis by the BBC. They were founded in 1964 as the armed wing of the Communist Party and follow a Marxist-Leninist ideology.
The BBC says their main founders were small farmers and land workers who had banded together to fight against the staggering levels of inequality in Colombia at the time.
While the Farc have some urban groups, they have always been an overwhelmingly rural guerrilla organization. The security forces estimate that there are between 6,000 and 7,000 active fighters within the ranks of the Farc.
They think there are another 8,500 civilians who make up the Farc's support network. This is down considerably from the estimated 20,000 active fighters they are believed to have had around 2002.
According to the BBC, the rebels are organized in small tactical groups that in turn make up larger fighting units which are organized in regional "blocs." They are controlled by the Secretariat, a group of less than a dozen top commanders who devise the overarching strategy of the Farc.
The Farc's top leader is Rodrigo Londono Echeverri, better known by his alias Timochenko. The Farc were founded at a time of brutal repression against any form of action considered subversive.
The BBC explained that Colombia has historically been a country which suffers from huge levels of inequality, where vast swathes of land are owned by a very small elite. This is partly due to the fact that the Colombian state sold off large tracts of land to private owners in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries to pay for its debts.
Some of the founders of the Farc had established an agricultural commune in the region of Marquetalia, in central Tolima province, the BBC said. Inspired by the Cuban revolution in the 1950s, they demanded more rights and control over the land. But their communist ideals were seen as a threat by big landowners and the state, which sent in the army to disband the commune, or Marquetalia Republic as it had come known.
The Farc says that it was after the clashes with the army in Marquetalia that they decided to make their struggle an armed one.
According to the BBC analysis, Colombia went through a 10-year civil war before the Farc were even founded. During the period known simply as La Violencia (The Violence), between 200,000 and 300,00 people are estimated to have been killed.
La Violencia was triggered by the assassination in 1948 of Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, a popular presidential candidate for the Liberal Party. His shooting in Bogota caused riots in the capital, which were followed by 10 years of conflict pitting the followers of the Liberal Party against those of the Conservative Party.The man who would later become the top leader of the Farc, Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda, had fought in La Violencia.
The BBC said human rights groups have often accused the Farc of forcibly recruiting poor farmers and children. The Farc say that everyone who joined them did so voluntarily. According to their own figures, there were 21 children under the age of 15 in their ranks in May 2016. Most of their fighters are from poor, rural communities and include both men and women of all ages. Some of those who have left the Farc speak of being lured by the promise of adventure and the kudos of carrying a gun.
The main enemy of the Farc have been the Colombian security forces. Farc fighters have attacked police stations and military posts, and ambushed patrols. But they have also blown up oil pipelines, electricity pylons and bridges and bombed social clubs.
Many of their victims have been civilians. They have included children who died when home-made Farc explosives fell short of a rural police station and hit a school, and thousands of people maimed by landmines laid by the Farc.
Thousands of people were kidnapped by the Farc for ransom. One police officer, Luis Mendieta, was seized in an attack on a police station in 1998 and held for 14 years before being freed by the army in a rescue operation dubbed Chameleon.
The Farc run their own cocaine labs, such as this one which was raided by the army and analysts think the Farc are among the richest rebel movements in the world. Guerrilla commanders have denied the group has stashed away large sums of money Colombia is one of the main producers of cocaine and the rebels get a large part of their income from drug trafficking or levying "taxes" on those who do. They have also resorted to extortion and kidnapping for ransom to fill their coffers.
The BBC said previous attempts at reaching a peace deal failed but there is hope this latest deal will be signed soon. The Farc have been hit hard by the Colombian security forces over the past years. The Colombian army and police received millions of dollars in funding and training from the US government, much of which they invested in fighting the rebels.
Many of the top leaders of the Farc were killed or died within the past decade. In 2008, senior rebel leader Raul Reyes was killed in a bombing raid and Farc founder Manuel Marulanda died of natural causes. In 2011, Alfonso Cano, who took over from Manuel Marulanda, was also killed in a bombing raid.
The number of active fighters also diminished from its estimated high of 20,000 to around 7,000 after thousands of guerrilla fighters were demobilized or killed.
The BBC stated the Farc themselves insist that they wanted peace all along but that the conditions were not right before. After three-and-a-half years of formal talks and another two of secret negotiations which preceded them, the rebels say they are ready to lay down their arms.
Photo captions: 1) Farc guerillas have been fighting for decades (Getty Images via BBC). 2) Farc insurgency has reportedly been financed by drug farms (AFP via BBC). 3) Michael Ireland.
About the Writer: Michael Ireland is a Senior Correspondent for the ASSIST News Service, as well as a volunteer Internet Journalist and Ordained Minister who has served with ASSIST Ministries and ASSIST News Service since its beginning in 1989. He has reported for ANS from Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Israel, Jordan, China, and Russia.