End of 52-year insurgency in sight as Farc signs peace deal in Colombia

Referendum to be held on accord to stop conflict that has cost about 250,000 lives

 Colombian soldiers patrol a street in Cartagena prior to the signing ceremony on Monday of a peace deal between the Colombian government and Farc. Photograph: Ricardo Maldonado Rozo/EPA

Colombian soldiers patrol a street in Cartagena prior to the signing ceremony on Monday of a peace deal between the Colombian government and Farc. Photograph: Ricardo Maldonado Rozo/EPA


A peace deal to end Latin America’s longest-running guerrilla insurgency was due to be signed late on Monday night after the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc (after its initials in Spanish), voted to abandon its 52-year armed campaign.

Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, and Farc leader Timoleón Jiménez were to sign the final agreement at a ceremony in the colonial port of Cartagena before 2,500 guests, including UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon and Cuba’s president, Raúl Castro, whose government hosted the tortuous four years of negotiations.

The ceremony follows unanimous approval of the deal by a specially convened Farc congress last week. A referendum on the accord will be held this Sunday, with polls indicating that voters will overwhelming approve the deal.

Farc’s 7,000 or so remaining fighters will turn their weapons over to the UN in return for limited amnesty, land reform and the right to participate in national politics.

Long the largest Marxist guerrilla movement in the Americas, Farc was a central participant in a half-century of violence that left an estimated 250,000 Colombians dead.

But even if it is approved by voters, the peace accord will not yet end Colombia’s civil war. The smaller guerrilla movement, the National Liberation Army, or ELN (after its Spanish initials), is not party to the agreement despite years in talks of its own with the government.

On Sunday, the ELN’s leadership announced that the group’s estimated 1,500 fighters would observe a unilateral ceasefire ahead of this Sunday’s referendum.

Announcing the cessation, ELN commander Pablo Beltrán hinted that the group was ready to end its own 51-year insurgency.

“For us, it is very valid to say that we are going in the same direction [as Farc]; on different tracks, but in the same direction,” he said in an interview with a left-wing website.

But the government of Mr Santos is demanding that the ELN free all its hostages before negotiations resume. The ELN’s leadership says it rejects any preconditions imposed by the government as the price for restarting talks.

Both Farc and the ELN funded their insurgencies through kidnap for ransom, as well as through participating in the country’s cocaine trade. Security analysts in Colombia have reported that, in parts of the country, Farc units unhappy with the peace agreement have switched allegiance to the ELN.

Hopes for lasting peace have also been tinged by fears that demobilised guerrillas faced with limited opportunities in civilian life might turn to crime. Previous peace agreements to end insurgencies in Guatemala and El Salvador were followed by huge jumps in criminal violence.

During the past decade, Colombia has seen its own wave of violence caused by criminal gangs descended from right-wing paramilitary groups that fought left-wing guerrillas, often alongside the military, before being demobilised a decade ago.

Some of these gangs have since co-operated with the guerrillas on drug trafficking. But there are fears that their violent right-wing origins could see them target Farc’s re-legalised political party, the Patriotic Union, through which its guerrillas will enter mainstream Colombian politics.

The party had some early success contesting elections in the 1980s, during previous peace efforts. But it was almost wiped out by a ferocious campaign of assassinations against its elected representatives, largely carried out by paramilitaries, which forced it back underground.