The Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, have agreed to work together to find and exhume the remains of tens of thousands of people who disappeared during 51 years of armed conflict.
The agreement — reached in Havana, Cuba — comes within the context of nearly three years of peace talks that accelerated last month with the announcement of a deal on the future prosecution of war crimes. That prompted an unprecedented handshake between President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC commander Rodrigo Londoño, as well as suggestions that a final peace deal could be signed by next March.
"This [agreement on disappearances] is a further sign that the negotiations are entering an irreversible phase, if not the actual 'home stretch'," Adam Isacson, a Colombia expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, told VICE News. "This is a late-period kind of accord."
An estimated 45,000 people have disappeared in Colombia since the conflict began in 1964. The majority are widely feared to be dead.
The Havana agreement, announced on Saturday night, commits the left wing rebels and the government to create a specialized unit to search for "people disappeared within the context of the internal armed conflict" after the final deal is signed. It also commits both sides to start "building confidence" by immediately sharing information about where the bodies of disappeared people might be found.
With both the state forces and the guerrillas guilty of dumping bodies in unmarked graves, often in mountainous jungle, the search effort is expected to be long and arduous.
The agreement foresees that the International Committee of the Red Cross will assist with the exhumations, and will help facilitate the handover of remains to families. It also mandates Colombia's existing Search Commission for the Disappeared to consult with victims groups and human rights defenders over the next four months, in order to prepare for the task ahead.
"Quick isn't good with exhumations," Lisa Haugaard, Executive Director of the Washington-based Latin America Working Group think tank, told VICE News. "They have to be really carefully done, and in coordination with family members…who have the pain of loss and the pain of not knowing. If implemented well this agreement could help address the pain of not knowing."
Haugaard emphasized at all the actors in the Colombian conflict have been responsible for disappearances. These include the right-wing paramilitary organization the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, that demobilized between 2006-2008. Though the demobilization was widely regarded as mismanaged and too lax, the confessions of ex-combatants did help to find nearly 9,000 bodies.
Colombian state forces have long been accused of collaborating with paramilitary groups and sharing responsibility for a portion of the disappearances they committed. There are also direct accusations against state forces such as the so-called False Positives scandal in which some 3,000 civilians were abducted and killed without trial between 2002 and 2008, before being declared to be guerrillas.
Human rights activists also believe that the FARC could help locate thousands of their victims in hidden mass graves, including many who were kidnapped for ransom but never returned alive.
Alongside the tens of thousands disappeared in Colombia since the rebels took up arms against the state half a century ago, at least 220,000 people have been killed and 6 million displaced, mostly civilians.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos took to Twitter to praise the latest accord. "Another step taken for peace," he posted.
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