SAN VICENTE DEL CAGUÁN, Colombia: After 52 years of conflict, Colombia’s FARC rebels open what leaders hope will be their last wartime conference on Saturday, where they will vote on a historic peace deal with the government.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a Marxist guerrilla group launched in 1964, will hold its 10th national conference in El Caguan, its Switzerland-sized stronghold, to ratify a peace accord hashed out in nearly four years of talks.
The week-long conference marks the first time they will discuss peace instead of war during such an event. If all goes according to the FARC leadership’s plan, it will end with the group’s relaunch as a political party.
The FARC, which today has an estimated 7,500 fighters, concluded the peace deal with the government on August 24, followed by a bilateral ceasefire.
The Colombian conflict, which has drawn in other leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and criminal gangs, has killed more than 260,000 people, left 45,000 missing and forced nearly seven million to flee their homes.
If the conference approves the peace deal, as expected, FARC leader Timoleon “Timochenko” Jimenez will sign the agreement with center-right President Juan Manuel Santos on September 26 in the Caribbean port of Cartagena.
The 297-page document comprises six separate deals: justice and reparations for victims of the conflict; land reform; the FARC’s relaunch as a political party; disarmament; fighting the drug trafficking that has fueled the fighting; and implementation and monitoring of the accord.
Jimenez flew in for the conference this week from Cuba, where the peace talks were held.
Arriving at the conference site in the vast Yari plains, several hours from the town of San Vicente del Caguan, he underscored the event’s importance.
“Everything we are now doing will help us achieve our goals,” he said, stepping off a helicopter provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross, according to the guerrilla media outlet Noticias Nueva Colombia.
Countdown to referendum
Some 200 FARC delegates, including 29 members of the general staff and delegates elected by the rank and file, will vote on the peace deal.
The conference is set to mark another first: FARC leaders will be meeting not in secret, but with the authorities’ full support in the presence of around 900 people, including 50 guests and some 350 journalists from around the world.
The conference is set to take place in a brick building the guerrillas hastily constructed amid tall grass.
The peace agreement must still be approved by Colombian voters in a referendum on October 2 — a step Santos insisted on to ensure the full legitimacy of the process.
Recent opinion polls put the “Yes” vote ahead, though the latest — released on Friday by pollster Datexco — found support had fallen by 9.5 percentage points, to 55.3 percent, since the previous week.
The “No” camp had 38.3 percent, it found.
The government has yet to open peace talks with a smaller guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army or ELN.