President Juan Manuel Santos, right, with Defense Minister Juan Carlos… (Fernando Vergara / Associated…)
Ten years ago, peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia collapsed after the rebel group hijacked a plane and kidnapped a high-profile senator. Since then more than 20,000 rebels and paramilitary fighters have been killed in combat with military forces, according to the Washington Office on Latin America.
Now, the FARC says it is ready to negotiate and has renounced its long-standing practice of kidnapping for profit. Its promise to end abductions and to release 10 soldiers and police officers held captive for more than a decade in jungle camps are significant and welcome developments — and something the FARC never agreed to in past peace talks. But Rodrigo Londoño, who goes by Timoleón Jiménez as the guerrillas' top leader, says that the time has come.
Some critics will no doubt argue that the FARC's interest in negotiations is merely a ploy to buy time, not a sincere attempt to end the bloodshed. And their skepticism is warranted. On the other hand, the FARC is hardly the same fighting force it was in the late 1990s, when it controlled vast swaths of the country. Colombia's military, with the help of U.S. aid and advisors, has dealt major blows to the rebels. Many of the FARC's longtime senior commanders have been killed or captured. And desertions have thinned its ranks.
There are almost certainly people around President Juan Manuel Santos who would like him to consider a new military offensive against the weakened FARC. Fortunately, Santos shows no signs of pursuing such a strategy. He knows that in the nearly 50 years since the armed conflict began, military firepower alone has failed to deliver peace. And the FARC, though diminished, is still capable of inflicting great damage. Colombians — whether soldiers, rebels or civilians — continue to die each year. Millions of people have been displaced.
Santos has responded wisely. His presidential tweets have praised the FARC's decision as "important and necessary," though he has reiterated his demand for a cease-fire. He's right, of course, to demand more given the guerrillas' other abuses; they continue to use land mines, recruit minors and attack civilians.
Still, the FARC has made the first move. Now Colombians can only hope that both sides have learned from the past and that they seize this opportunity to bring about a much-needed end to a seemingly endless conflict.