The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Colombia’s rebels survived war, now they worry about surviving the peace

Commanders of FARC-EP delegation in peace-talks with the Colombian government Ricardo Telles, Ivan Marquez and Pablo Catatumbo attend a press conference on March 23, 2016, at Convention Palace of Havana, Cuba. (ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images)
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The Colombian government and leftist FARC rebels have been talking about a peace deal for more than three years, but the process appears to be stuck at a critical juncture: the part where they have to stop talking and actually make peace.

The March 23 deadline they agreed to last September has come and gone, and FARC leaders continue to rebuff attempts by president Juan Manuel Santos to set a firm date for the guerrillas to lay down their weapons.

The rebels have good reasons to be cagey. Once they become unarmed civilians, they will have to trust Colombian security forces — their mortal foes for the past 50 years — to protect them from the drug gangs, mercenaries and myriad others enemies who still want to kill them. And the government’s record has not inspired confidence of late.

Politically motivated killings in Colombia increased 35 percent last year, when 105 leftist leaders, community activists and labor unionists were murdered, according to a new report by the Conflict Analysis Resource Center, a watchdog group in Bogota.

These killings are considered toxic to the peace process, because much of FARC’s existence as an armed insurgency is based on its argument that the only safe way to profess Marxism in Colombia is with an AK-47 in your hand.

When FARC created a political party in the 1980s, La Unión Patriótica (Patriotic Union), its leaders were systematically wiped out by paramilitary assassins. Several thousand of its members were murdered, or fled to the mountains to take up arms.

The government's failure to protect the group is widely viewed as a huge setback for Colombian democracy, and the threat of another extermination campaign is very much on the minds of the FARC leaders negotiating their disarmament and possible return to electoral politics.

Colombian leaders and military officials insist they will fulfill their duty to protect the guerrillas once they lay down their weapons and return to civilian life.

“We are not going to allow another political extermination,” Guillermo Rivera, Colombia’s top human rights official, told reporters Saturday.

But at the bargaining table in Havana, FARC commanders and government negotiators are struggling to come to terms on the core elements of what they call "End of Conflict," namely, the conditions under which the guerrillas and their roughly 7,000 fighters will come down from the mountains to gather in protected "safe zones" and put down their weapons.

FARC and the Santos government have already agreed that a third party, most likely under the auspices of the United Nations, should receive the weapons, rather than the Colombian military. The two sides had also set a 60-day deadline for FARC to fully disarm once a peace deal is reached, though that too appears to be under renegotiation.

In an interview with Colombia's "Semana" newsmagazine, FARC commander Carlos Antonio Lozada said the guerrillas want a phased approach to disarmament that would start with explosives and heavier weaponry, but would allow individual troops to keep personal weapons for self-defense, even within the safe zones that will be under the protection of the military.

"We will give them up gradually, in groups, to the extent that there is progress on a series of unresolved issues, until we give up the last rifle," he said.

An armed camp of FARC troops webcasting speeches and publishing manifestos is not what the Colombian government has in mind.

The two sides also remain far apart about the number of safe zones, also called concentration zones, where FARC troops will camp out and wait for the Colombian public to approve or reject the peace deal, through a still-undetermined referendum process whose precise form is also a source of disagreement.

FARC wants to be able to conduct political activities during that time period, with access to Colombia's civilian population. But the government is firmly opposed to additional scenes FARC leaders engaged in "armed proselytism" like the one that raised an uproar last month in the town of El Conejo, dealing a huge blow to the talks.

Santos on Monday appeared with his top negotiators and repeated that he didn't want to be rushed into a deal with FARC that "isn't good for the Colombian people." Santos said his team will not allow FARC to engage in political activity before disarming, and the government insists on a "firm, precise, clear" date for that to occur, rather than the open-ended process the rebels prefer.

Violence in Colombia is at its lowest point in several decades as a result of an unofficial cease-fire between the guerrillas and the government. But with coca production surging again, Colombian authorities are struggling to contain the growth of powerful trafficking groups who are viewed as the biggest threat to Colombia's security if a peace deal is reached with FARC, the country's largest insurgent group.