As Colombia's government and FARC rebels move forward with peace negotiations to end more than 50 years of conflict, a powerful opposition movement is demanding the process stop unless the guerrilla fighters are punished for their crimes.
Thousands of Colombians stormed through streets around the country Saturday yelling "paz sin impunidad" — peace without impunity — to urge the government to imprison FARC members rather than pardon them for violence committed during the war, El Espectador reported. Video and photos show huge crowds assembled in Bogata.
President Juan Manuel Santos has pledged to grant the guerrillas amnesty in exchange for their demobilization, and is discussing the details this week with FARC leaders during negotiations in Havana.
But former President Alvaro Uribe — a strong opponent of Santos — has rallied fearful Colombians against the amnesty for FARC fighters. Uribe, a highly controversial figure for his alleged allegiance with violent paramilitaries that have terrorized civilians while fighting the FARC, insists that the guerrillas are "terrorists," instead of a legitimate rebel group.
An Uribe-led protest in Medellin was Colombia's largest, and he used his Twitter account to publish images of crowds gathering around the country.
"Colombia wants peace, but without impunity," Uribe told the crowd in Medellin.
"We call on the army to support us by fighting and defeating the guerrillas, whether the government wants it or not," he said.
Opponents of the peace negotiations created a petition — which accumulated 1,500 signatures in two days — demanding that Santos punish the "terrorists" rather than giving them political clout.
"President Santos: you don't have to de-escalate any conflict because there is not a conflict," the petition said. "There are delinquents who merit the weight of the law. We don't want the perpetrators of kidnappings, assassinations and extortion to remain unpunished."
In spite of the opposition, peace advocates — including many people relieved by Santos' recent decision to resume the truce talks after the kidnapping of an army general temporarily derailed the discussions — have continued to campaign vociferously to support the amnesty proposal.
A virtual battle broke out on social media between the hashtags #PazSinImpunidad (Peace without impunity) and #YoApoyoelProcesodePaz (I support the peace process).
"If we want to speak of 'without impunity,' we first have to turn the face of justice to Uribe and his family," Senator Ivan Cepeda Castro tweeted, referring to scandals in which Uribe has allegedly been involved. "#YoApoyoelProcesodePaz."
Martin Santos, the president's son, also broadcast his conflict with Uribe on Twitter.
"Uribe is infuriated: he blocked me from his Twitter and sent me a direct message demanding respect," he tweeted. "I demand that he not assassinate this quest for peace!"
Follow Meredith Hoffman on Twitter: @merhoffman