MEDELLÍN, Colombia - Top former members of the FARC rebel group in Colombia issued an unprecedented apology this week to victims. The long-awaited gesture was part of a reconciliation effort to heal the wounds left by a bloody armed conflict with the government and paramilitaries that left thousands of people dead and displaced millions.
“We want to say that kidnapping was a huge mistake, that we can only regret what we did,” said Rodrigo Londoño - a former leader of the now demobilized FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrilla army.
“Kidnapping only left profound wounds in the souls of those who were affected and destroyed our legitimacy and credibility.”
Finally, after decades of civil war, former FARC leaders are appearing before judges of a special court set up to hold them responsible for their crimes. The court was created as part of Colombia’s 2016 peace agreement between the then-rebels and the government of then President Juan Manuel Santos as part of a transitional justice scheme to end the civil conflict. By submitting to the court, ex-FARC members and other war criminals can confess their crimes in exchange for a reduced sentence.
But since the agreement was signed, former guerrilla commanders have been reluctant to recognize their crimes, something that has long been resented by the families of victims.
“This is a big first step in the right direction,” says Kyle Johnson, co-founder and researcher at the Bogotá-based Conflict Responses Foundation, a non profit that focuses on peace implementation and environmental conflict. “They’re recognizing this caused severe harm in people’s lives. But there’s still a long road ahead. A lot of victims want the truth, not just an apology.”
Colombia’s armed conflict began as a peasant rebellion in the 1960s when farmers built an anti-government self-defense force. In the 1980’s, the FARC adopted drug-trafficking as a way to finance its struggle. By the 1990s, the conflict escalated further when paramilitaries (many of them connected to the government) formed to combat the guerrilla army, and they too joined in the cocaine export craze.
Decades of fighting between the FARC, paramilitaries, and government security forces left 212,094 people dead and seven million displaced. The FARC developed a notorious reputation for kidnapping top politicians and cattle ranchers, setting landmines and recruiting children. Colombia’s Center for Historical Memory, which seeks to dignify Colombia’s victims, reports that the FARC was responsible for 24,482 kidnappings between 1970 to 2010.
“We’re ready to assume all of the responsibility that corresponds to our participation in the armed conflict,” said Carlos Antonio Lozada, a former top commander with a seat in the senate representing a new political party formed by ex-members of the group. The political party is also called FARC.
Some Colombians resent how the accord has permitted rebels like Lozada to walk the halls of congress before serving a prison sentence. President Iván Duque’s government won the 2018 election on a platform to reform the special peace tribunal, arguing that it was too soft on ex-members of the FARC and failed to serve enough justice for victims.
Meanwhile, not all former commanders adhered to the deal. At least three top leaders broke off and fled the country. They are regrouping and pledging to fight against a state they believe hasn’t upheld their side of the bargain.
Cover: Guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known by the Spanish acronym FARC, on patrol in 2000. Credit: LUIS ACOSTA/AFP via Getty Images)