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  HOME | Colombia (Click here for more)

Colombia Struggling amid Unheeded Lessons of 30-Year-Old Rebel Demobilization

BOGOTA – More than three years after a peace deal was inked by the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas, the South American country still faces major challenges in striving to leave behind its long legacy of political violence.

The current risks stem from the failure to protect the lives of demobilized FARC fighters, social leaders and human rights defenders, dozens of whom have been killed, and from the decision by Ivan Marquez and other dissident rebel leaders to return to the armed struggle.

Meanwhile, another guerrilla organization, the National Liberation Army (ELN) remains active and efforts to pursue a peace process have thus far been fruitless.

Amid these present-day difficulties, a three-decade-old peace deal between the Colombian government and the now-defunct 19th of April Movement (M-19) on March 9, 1990, serves as a reminder of the viability of negotiated solutions to armed conflict, even though that accord also was marred by the assassination of the M-19’s leader, Carlos Pizarro, a few weeks after it was signed.

That urban guerrilla organization was notorious for its brazen armed actions: the robbery of more than 5,000 weapons from a military base, the siege of the Dominican Republic’s embassy in Bogota, the theft of South American independence hero Simon Bolivar’s sword and the takeover of the Palace of Justice – a dramatic 1985 attack that gripped the country and led to a military raid that left nearly 100 people dead.

Colombia should have learned the lessons from the peace process with the M-19, 41-year-old congresswoman Maria Jose Pizarro, daughter of the slain leader of that insurgency, told EFE, accusing the government of failure to comply with the promises made to the FARC.

“What we should’ve learned, and perhaps we haven’t as a society, is the need to protect and live up to our agreements and firmly reject killings, like that of my father, like demobilized FARC fighters are experiencing today, or social leaders who are being slain,” she said.

Both the M-19 and the FARC saw the peace agreements they signed and the handover of their weapons as an avenue for entering politics.

“The issue of political formation was very strong within the M-19, and the whole organization had been determined to demobilize no matter what,” said Pizarro, who is now a lower-house lawmaker affiliated with the left-wing Lista de la Decencia coalition, which staunchly opposes conservative Colombian President Ivan Duque’s administration.

Given Colombia’s long-entrenched political violence, Vera Grabe, an anthropologist and former M-19 guerrilla, said she is not a believer in “absolute peace.”

“I don’t believe in absolute and total peace, that we’ll finally achieve peace. That’s not real, and even less so in Colombia,” she said. “I believe in imperfect peace, in a peace that’s continually constructed.”

Grabe, who became a lawmaker after demobilizing, said realism was a big key for the M-19 in its transition from a rebel army.

“The M was romantic but also realistic, and was focused on what was viable and possible. That’s why, when we started to see that war wasn’t the path, we got out,” she said.

Another former M-19 fighter-turned-politician and presidential candidate, Antonio Navarro Wolff, who currently is the leader of the Green Alliance party, told EFE in an interview at his party’s headquarters that the accord that guerrilla group reached with then-President Virgilio Barco’s administration on March 9, 1990, was “so successful that in the elections for the (1991) National Constituent Assembly a third of (that body) was from the M-19 Democratic Alliance.”

“It was a historic moment because we crafted the constitution that’s also about to mark its 30-year anniversary,” said the politician, who lost a leg below the knee and suffered facial nerve damage in a grenade attack in 1985.

He sees key differences in the agreement signed with the M-19 and the one agreed with the FARC.

The one inked three decades ago was widely accepted by all sectors of the country, he said, whereas “with the FARC there’s been systematic opposition from the time of the negotiations; in our case, everything was resolved with pardons and political participation.”

Pizarro said for her part that it is regrettable that it took so long to reach a peace agreement with the FARC.

“The M-19 laid the foundation for the later demobilization of the FARC,” she said. “I wish it had happened many years earlier so a lot of unnecessary bloodshed would’ve been avoided.”


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