Colombia's president and the head of the country's biggest rebel group signed an agreement on Monday ending a half-century of conflict, though Colombian voters could still reject the deal in a referendum on Sunday.
President Juan Manuel Santos and Rodrigo Londoño, the leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (the FARC) who is better known by his alias Timochenko, used pens made from the casings of bullets used in combat to sign the accord that took four years to negotiate.
Around 15 heads of state from Latin America, as well as UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, and Secretary of State John Kerry, were in the walled colonial city of Cartagena to witness the ceremony in which almost everybody wore white.
After both the president and the rebel leader had signed the peace accord on a white stage, Santos gave Timochenko the gift of a pin of a white dove, before they warmly shook hands to applause.
The deal includes pledges of joint operations by the government and former rebels to eradicate landmines and search for some of the thousands who disappeared in the decades of war that killed an estimated 200,000 and forced millions from their homes.
It also now requires the estimated 7,000 remaining FARC members to congregate in special UN-monitored camps and hand over their weapons within six months. The melted-down weapons will be used to make three monuments to peace, at the same time as the FARC transforms itself into a political party.
Peace further promises special courts that are supposed to ensure that FARC members who committed atrocities in the war face justice, albeit of a relatively lenient kind if they confess. And it commits the government to carrying out a reform that addresses unequal land distribution in a nod to the rebel army's roots as a peasant uprising in 1964 within the wave of Latin American insurgencies inspired by the Cuban revolution.
The FARC grew into one of the biggest, with as many as 20,000 fighters and the capacity to control large swathes of Colombian territory, though this influence would diminish in the face of US-backed military offensives and proliferation of ruthless state-backed paramilitaries. The FARC would also tarnish its own reputation and rhetoric of social justice through its use of child soldiers, and the way it raised funds through industrial-scale kidnapping, routine extortion, and the cocaine trade.
The sense that the rebels are getting off too lightly is so widespread that some fear a Brexit-style upset in Sunday's referendum on the peace deal that would plunge the country into uncertainty. While most polls suggest the deal will be easily approved in Sunday's referendum — a Gallup poll from last week suggested 67 percent would vote "yes" and only 32 percent "no" — others have shown a much tighter margin.
President Santos has warned that a "no" vote would mean a return to armed conflict. Rebel leader Timochenko, however, told the Observer newspaper on the weekend that there would be no return to war if voters reject the deal.
"Nobody must doubt that we will be practicing politics without weapons," Timochenko said during Monday's signing ceremony. "We are going to fulfill the deal, and we hope the government will do too."
The FARC's apparent willingness to give up its weapons, aside from a few rogue units, has been widely described as the end of the last major Latin American insurgency from the Cold War era.
But even assuming the deal is ratified on Sunday, Colombia is still home to another important guerrilla group formed in the same era — the National Liberation Army, or ELN, said to have around 2,000 fighters. Though the ELN has flirted with following the FARC's footsteps with peace negotiations, some observers have suggested it may be anxious to have at least a spell in the spotlight as the continent's biggest remaining guerrilla army.
There is also concern that the demobilization of the FARC will spark conflicts in areas the rebels once dominated as the ELN and other armed criminal groups and drug cartels, some of them formed from a core of former paramilitaries, compete to fill the vacuum they leave.
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