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Colombia, Rebels Sign Treaty To End Latin America's Oldest Guerrilla War


Latin America's oldest guerrilla conflict finally ended today. Colombia's president, Juan Manuel Santos, and the leader of the Marxist rebel group the FARC have signed a peace treaty. More than 200,000 people have been killed in this war which began in the 1960s.

Reporter John Otis is in Cartagena, Colombia, where this deal will be signed, and he joins us now. John, does this really mean the end of this war?

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Well, you know, it looks like that it's going to be the case. It's kind of hard to imagine Colombia at peace sometimes because the war's been going on for so long. To give you more of an idea, I've met FARC rebels who say that both their parents and their grandparents were guerrillas. So I mean 50 years is really a long time.

But these accords are all about bringing the conflict to an end. The guerrillas are going to have six months to hand in their weapons to U.N. inspectors. They've also pledged to stop smuggling cocaine, which is how they helped finance their war. And they promised to help the army destroy land mines.

After that the FARC is going to try to form a left-wing political party, but the guerrillas are extremely unpopular because they've committed so many human rights abuses. So it's unclear whether their candidates are going to have much support.

SIEGEL: What's it like in Cartagena today?

OTIS: Well, it's, you know - there's a lot of people celebrating. It's a big triumph for President Juan Manuel Santos who's staked his presidency on the peace process. Many Colombians are very happy to see that the guerrillas are planning to disarm.

But at the same time there's quite a bit of resentment. There's been a lot of massacres and kidnappings carried out by both the FARC guerillas and paramilitary groups that worked with the army to go after the guerrillas.

To give you an idea, you know, there's presidents some diplomats here. But also three planes carrying hundreds of Colombian war victims landed here so they could witness the ceremony. These people include war widows, victims of landmines and people who spent years chained to trees in the jungle as guerrilla hostages.

SIEGEL: Well, considering the duration and the scope of the war in Colombia, do you think that a national reconciliation is possible there quite apart from ending the fighting?

OTIS: That's a huge question mark. Critics contend that without a vigorous prosecution of war crimes there can be no peace. But under these accords, the FARC guerrillas accused of massacres and other horrible crimes can avoid prison by confessing before a special tribunal. Now, government negotiators say if they had insisted on long prison terms for guerrilla leaders, they never would have disarmed in the first place.

But in any case, Colombians are going to be able to decide because next Sunday there's going to be a referendum on the peace accords in which they'll have the chance to vote either yes or no. But you know, even hear in Cartagena, which is the site of the peace ceremony, you can see cars driving around with bumper stickers on them urging people to vote no.

SIEGEL: John, does the government have plans to integrate 7,000 former guerrillas into Colombian society?

OTIS: They have plans, but it's going to be a huge challenge. Many rebels were just little kids when they joined the FARC, so they never had a chance to get much education or job skills. And also the FARC has a long history of kidnapping and extorting businesses, so that's going to be hard to reach out and try to convince business owners to give them jobs.

But at the same time, there's a danger of rejecting the FARC because some may decide, well, I'll just hang onto my weapon and continue drug trafficking and other criminal activities. So the government's working quite hard to try to convince Colombian society to extend a hand once the FARC does lay down its weapons.

SIEGEL: That's Reporter John Otis in Cartagena, Colombia. John, thanks. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.