London – Colombia officially celebrated on Tuesday the end of the country’s decades-long armed conflict after the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) laid down the last of their weapons.
In a short, symbol-filled ceremony, United Nations observers shut and padlocked the last containers storing some of the 7,132 weapons that FARC members have turned over the past few weeks at 26 camps across the country. Yellow butterflies were released and an AK-47 converted into an electric guitar rang out plaintive chords in honor of the long conflict’s victims.
“By depositing the weapons in the UN containers, the Colombians and the entire world know that our peace is real and irreversible,” Santos, winner of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, told an audience of former rebel fighters dressed in white shirts with cuffed hands shaped in a heart and a Spanish hashtag reading “Our only weapon are words.”
Though hundreds of FARC caches filled with larger weapons and explosives are still being cleared out, the UN on Monday certified that all individual firearms and weapons, except for a small number needed to safeguard the soon-to-disband camps, have been collected.
“In a world convulsed by old and new forms of violence, by conflicts whose protagonists appear irreconcilable … a successful process constructing peace in Colombia is also reason for hope and a powerful example for the international community,” said Jean Arnault, head of the UN peace mission in Colombia.
“Today is a very special day, the day weapons became words… I can say from the bottom of my heart that to live this day, to achieve this day, has made worthwhile being president of Colombia,” said President Juan Manuel Santos, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016. “Our peace is real, and it’s irreversible.”
Santos, who took office in 2010, began secret talks with FARC commanders that led to negotiations in Cuba and a final peace accord late last year. He is trying for a similar accord with the National Liberation Army (ELN).
There are concerns that the more-ideological ELN could fill the void left by the FARC’s retreat, although that smaller rebel movement has been negotiating a peace of its own for months.
“Today doesn’t end the existence of the FARC, it ends our armed struggle,” said Rodrigo Londono, the FARC’s top commander, who goes by his nom de guerre Timochenko.
“Farewell to arms, farewell to war, welcome to peace.”
Financed by drug trafficking, kidnapping for ransom and extortion, the FARC had about 17,000 combatants in the 1990s, capable of launching military attacks close to Bogota, the capital.
But the rebel group that began in 1964 as a peasant army demanding agrarian reform was battered deep into Colombia’s inhospitable jungles by a relentless military offensive that began in 2002 during Alvaro Uribe’s presidency.
The US-backed campaign improved security and helped the nation of 49 million people, once considered nearly a failed state, lure back investors and tourists.
Rich in commodities like oil, coal, gold and coffee, it is one of Washington’s closest allies in Latin America and has a long history of market-friendly governments.
Colombia is now one step closer to turning a page on Latin America’s longest-running conflict, which caused at least 250,000 deaths, left 60,000 people missing and displaced more than 7 million.
After years of thorny negotiations, the rebels reached an agreement with the government last year to give up their weapons and transition into a political party. But implementing the accord has been slow.
The initial deal was narrowly rejected in a national referendum, congress has struggled to pass laws implementing the revised accord, and opposition lawmakers are threatening to overturn key aspects of the agreement if they win the presidential election next year.
Presidential elections are scheduled for Colombia in 2018 and FARC is expected to field a candidate. It is also expected to become part of political life through parliament.
Conservative opponents of the peace deal, led by Uribe, have questioned whether the FARC movement has turned over its entire arsenal. He also fears FARC’s involvement in politics and partnership in rule.
There have also been calls to bring those involved in the decades of bloodshed to justice.