A man walks his dog next to a mural depicting former President Alvaro Uribe, in Bogota, Colombia/Photo: AP
Over 100,000 students and members of the general public took to the streets of Bogotá on Oct. 5 in support of the peace accords which had been rejected by razor-thin margin in a public referendum three days prior.
While expressing their support for the peace process, the protesters specifically criticized former Colombian president, Álvaro Uribe, calling him a paraco, or paramilitary, and letting him know that the people were berraco, Colombian slang for furious.
They chanted: “¡Uribe, paraco, el pueblo está berraco!” (“Uribe, paramilitary, the people are furious!”
The peace accords which Uribe helped to derail were the result of four years of negotiations in Havana, Cuba, between the Colombian government and leaders of Latin America’s longest running leftist insurgency, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, headed by Rodrigo “Timochenko” Londoño.
The FARC was formed in rural Colombia in 1964, when a group of farmers rose up in arms to challenge the landowner class and take political power. Since forming, the FARC has been at war with the Colombian army and the various U.S.-backed paramilitary groups that have formed to combat them. The 52-year armed conflict took a devastating toll on Colombian society, with 7 million people displaced, 267,000 murdered, and more than 46,000 disappeared, according to the Colombian government’s Register of Victims.
The majority of these human rights violations have occurred since 1999, when the United States pledged billions of dollars in foreign aid to help the Colombian army fight the FARC through counter-insurgency tactics. Dubbed “Plan Colombia,” the operation helped the army to decimate the FARC’s ranks, but it also forced Colombian civil society to grapple with the atrocities of death squads, disappearances and massacres. The U.S.-based organization Fellowship for Reconciliation documented 3,000 extrajudicial killings between 2000 and 2009 alone.
One of Uribe’s most controversial strategies was known as “false positives,” a system of extrajudicial killings in which Colombian security forces killed as many as 5,000 civilians and dressed them in guerrilla fatigues to boost their body count. Juan Manuel Santos, the current president of Colombia, who was recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the peace talks, was the country’s defense minister when the “false positives” scandal emerged in 2008.
‘The US bears a Tremendous Responsibility’
In the weeks prior to the peace accords referendum, Uribe upped his campaign in support of the “no” vote. Through his Twitter account, which has close to 5 million followers, he rattled out messages saying that the accords were full of trickery and lies. He tweeted videos with messages urging voters to “save the country, don’t turn it over to the FARC” and pleading with them to not “give the future of your children over to terrorism.” His political party, the Centro Democratico, produced a billboard that said: “Do you want to see Timochenko as president? Vote yes in the referendum.”
The peace accords would have guaranteed the FARC five seats in congress and five seats in the senate for the first two elections following the signing of the accord. Uribe and his supporters manipulated voters into believing that this would effectively help the FARC take over the nation and that the country would be run by “Castro-Chavistas,” referring to the socialist revolutionary leaders Hugo Chávez, the late president of Venezuela, and Fidel Castro, former president and prime minister of Cuba.
“The U.S. bears a tremendous responsibility for the fact that Colombians are convinced that the majority of the human rights abuses were committed by guerrillas and that the guerillas are the ones who are the ones most responsible for the civil war,” said Gilberto Villaseñor of the Washington-based human rights organizationWitness for Peace in an interview with MintPress.
Villaseñor added that while the FARC was involved in drug trafficking activities, it was the United States in the 1980s which coined the term “narco-guerrilla” as it sought to drum up support for its own counter-insurgency efforts.
A Campaign of Disinformation
Besides convincing voters that they should vote no based on their hatred of the FARC, Uribe supporters and other right-wing groups successfully launched a propaganda campaign of disinformation.
Among 50 voters interviewed in Bogotá on the day of the referendum, many said they voted no, citing their disapproval of issues that were not even covered by the peace accords.
“I voted no because they want to raise taxes, and both of my parents work to support us,” one voter said.
“I voted no because the ELN [the country’s second largest armed rebel group, the National Liberation Army] still exists, so why should we sign an agreement with the FARC when another guerrilla group is behind them?” another asked.
“I voted no because if the accords win, they will want to make our children be gay,” another suggested.
Evangelical Christians united with Uribe and mobilized shortly ahead the vote, encouraging Colombians to reject the peace accords because they would recognize and extend rights and protections to LGBT citizens. Intended to deliver a stable and lasting peace, the accords name various vulnerable populations whose rights must be respected, including people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.
Edgar Castaño, the head of the Evangelical Confederation of Colombia, which is affiliated with the Word Council of Churches, told the BBC that the peace agreements “threaten the family” because they “balance women’s values with those of LGBTI groups.” In the BBC interview Castaño estimated that 4 million of the church’s 10 million members would take to the polls to vote no.
While Evangelicals took to the polls in overwhelming numbers, millions of Colombians remained indifferent. The “no” vote won by just 53,894 votes, with more than 60 percent of Colombians of voting age abstaining from the referendum. And while many Colombians living abroad had fled the country as a direct result of the war, just under 14 percent of them cast their votes.
‘We’ll know the Truth and There Will Be Justice’
Much of Uribe’s campaign against the peace accords focused on the Transitional Justice Accord. This accord called for amnesty for those guilty of political crimes, but that amnesty would not extend to “crimes against humanity, genocide, serious war crimes, hostage-taking or other serious privation of liberty, torture, forced displacement, forced disappearance, extrajudicial executions, or sexual violence.”
Additionally, the accord would have restricted “the rights and liberties” of the armed actors involved in the conflict who confess to their crimes and “recognize truth and their responsibility.” Essentially, their movements would have been restricted for five to eight years, and they would be responsible for carrying out work which corresponds to victims’ needs, such as demining.
This, however, stands in stark contrast to the demobilization of the paramilitary forces of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC. That process, led by Uribe from 2003 to 2006, saw the group’s members served five- to eight-year prison sentences. During this time, it emerged that prominent politicians and business leaders had direct connections to the paramilitary forces. Human rights groups have argued that the AUC simply morphed into other paramilitary groups that continue to operate with impunity in Colombia today.
Human Rights Watch took surprisingly a strong stand against the recent peace accords. The international human rights NGO adopted a stance largely in line with Uribe’s arguments, stating that the justice agreement was too lenient on both former FARC combatants and members of the army.
“Looks like Colombians aren’t so eager to premise ‘peace’ on effective impunity for FARC’s and military’s war crimes” Kenneth Roth, the NGO’s executive director, tweeted when the referendum results came in on Oct. 2.
Roth and other critics of the accords have argued that the Transitional Justice Accord would ultimately result in impunity for those guilty of crimes.
However, many victims groups in Colombia have stated that their primary concern is uncovering the truth, especially in the cases of disappearances in which surviving family members still don’t know what has happened to their loved ones.
Speaking on the sidelines of the Oct. 5 peace protest in Bolívar Square, Jennifer Maria Cortero said her family believes her uncle was disappeared by paramilitary forces in 2003.
“If we find them [the disappeared], we’ll know the truth and there will be justice,” she said.
”But if none of this happens, there will never be neither truth nor justice and our families will remain always invisible to politicians and parties and groups on the fringes of the law.”
The Victims Voted Yes
While politicians and human rights leaders criticized and rejected the peace talks, the victims who have been worst affected by the war expressed their willingness to forgive and work toward lasting peace.
Geographical analysis of the elections showed that in the areas hit hardest by the armed conflict, such as Cauca, Chocó, Vaupés and Putumayo, the population voted strongly in favor of the peace agreement. Of the 81 municipalities most affected by the war, 67 voted for the peace deal, according to The Peace and Reconciliation Foundation.
Ninety-six percent of the residents of Bojayá in the largely Afro-Colombian state of Chocó voted in favor of the referendum. This came after a long process of reconciliation between victims of a massacre in their community and members of the FARC. On May 2, 2002, paramilitaries entered the community of Bojayá and hid behind a church, where hundreds of residents had also taken refuge. The FARC detonated a pipe bomb, which leveled the church and killed 79 civilians, including 48 children.
“We feel as if some Colombians weren’t sincere. Also, those who don’t live in rural areas have not felt the horrible terror, they don’t care about the war and that’s why they didn’t support [the peace accord],” saidMáxima Asprilla, a resident of Bojayá, in an interview with Pacifista, a VICE-backed initiative focused on the Colombian peace process.
On social media and in direct on-the-ground action, hundreds of thousands of Colombians have expressed their profound sadness to the rejection of the peace accords and their willingness to keep fighting for the passage of the accords.
Artists have covered the entire floor of Bogotá’s main public square, Bolívar Square, with white sheets of paper emblazoned with the names of the victims of the conflict.
“We can’t talk about a defeat for those who have a moral legitimacy within their territory to demand that their right to live in peace be respected,” José Antequera, a human rights lawyer, told MintPress ahead of a popular assembly held in favor of the peace accords.
Antequera’s father was killed during an extermination campaign against the Patriotic Union, or UP, a leftist political party which was formed after a similar peace process in the 1980s.
“There is an urgency to ensure that the war not be reactivated, and this urgency is not eliminated because of the devastating vote in favor of no,” he added.
For now, the FARC’s disarmament process is on hold, and so are the massive financial aid packages that many Western countries, including the United States, pledged to assist in the post-conflict process. This aid is intended primarily for the Colombian government, but will also fund stipends for guerrillas who demobilize.
The Colombian government announced on Monday that it will start negotiating peace talks in two weeks with the nation’s second largest guerrilla group, the ELN. Uribe has secured a place at the negotiating table and will push to limit the FARC’s access to political power and change the justice aspects of the agreement.
In the meantime, Colombia’s 8 million victims of armed conflict are waiting for the day when a lasting and stable peace can come and they can begin to rebuild their war-ravaged communities.