At a conference on the ongoing Colombian conflict hosted by the Mortara Center last month, a panel of policy experts discussed a war occurring more than 2,300 miles away — but one speaker brought the issue close to home.
“I myself also am a victim,” Camilo Azcarate, the event’s moderator and the manager of mediation services for the World Bank Group, said. “Both my father and my father-in-law were also killed in Colombia.”
The topic of discussion was the 52-year-long armed struggle between Colombian government forces and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a left-wing guerrilla movement founded in 1964. During the conference, Azcarte and other experts reflected on the prospects of future peace incumbent upon current negotiations between the government and the FARC, instead of the casualties of past fighting.
The conference was organized by Georgetown Por Colombia, a student organization that unites young Colombians with others to promote the country’s heritage, culture and positive image. Speakers included Fr. Leonel Narvaez, director of the Foundation for Reconciliation in Colombia, who spoke over video conference, Adam Isacson, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America, Mark Schneider, senior vice president of the International Crisis Group, Pamina Firchow, assistant professor of conflict analysis and resolution at George Mason University and Marc Chernick, director of Georgetown’s Center for Latin American Studies.
The Colombian conflict has claimed more than 200,000 lives since 1958, according to a 2011 report of the National Centre of Historical Memory, a Colombian government commission. Additionally, a 2015 Colombian government study estimated the conflict has displaced approximately six million people.
The FARC, fighting to dismantle the Colombian government, which it disparages as elite and corrupt, in favor of the rural poor, currently holds a force of around 7,000 fighters with 15,000 additional militants, according to the Americas Society and Council of the Americas, and is concentrated predominately in the remote rural areas in southern Colombia, according to the Crisis Group.
Previous attempts at peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC have failed, but the current talks taking place in Cuba are now progressing relatively quickly toward peace, with the United States Institute for Peace projecting that a final agreement could be in place by the end of June.
According to Chernick, this speed is a positive sign for the country, as the patience of the populace for the issue has waned.
“From my interviews, the government and the FARC are acutely aware that patience has basically run out in the country, that this can’t go until the end of the year,” Chernick said. “This will happen.”
Isacson agreed that a peace agreement is in the offing for Colombia, but worried about the immediate after-effects for the country.
“I share the optimism of my colleagues here that there will be an accord signed some time this year,” Isacson said. “I do worry exceedingly about what will happen the next day when suddenly the Colombian government loses its historic excuse for not governing and offering basic citizenship rights to people in vast areas of the country where the FARC aren’t there anymore.”
The FARC historically occupy lands in Colombia’s southern territory where rough terrain and jungles exist and are therefore difficult to administer with basic services. Schneider affirmed that the administration of these areas might be accomplished through the integration of the FARC as a rural police force, but tempered the claim with the question of feasibly implementing such a program.
“For example, the FARC might in fact become a part of a rural police, under the national security police, within the containment areas, but then there’s two rings outside that: how that’s handled and the role of the [United Nations] monitors in that,” Schneider said.
Beyond questions of disarming FARC rebels in the short term, Narvaez mentioned the challenge of building peace in the country in the coming decades that would require a shift from the common urge for revenge among Colombians against FARC fighters toward one of solidarity.
“If you are talking about the peace-building in Colombia, we speak about decades,” Narvaez said.
Jorge Rincon (SFS ’18), news director for Georgetown Por Colombia, plans to return to serve his native Colombia after graduation. Rincon said that although it is imperfect, the current peace agreement should move forward, and that he is hopeful for the future of his country.
“I have been an idealist for very long, and I truly believe that if we want to someday make peace and stop killing each other … that we need a peace treaty, and it might not be a perfect one, but it’s the one we have and I think that we need to keep moving forward with it,” Rincon said.
Georgetown Por Colombia President Andrea Diaz (MSB ’17) said that the peace process is significant to her because of the opportunity it offers to generations of Colombians after her.
“Generations like mine don’t know anything different — I don’t know anything about what peace feels like — and hopefully we’ll get there for our kids,” Diaz said.
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