Teresita Gaviria still remembers the last time she saw her son Cristian, a 15-year-old with ambitions to be a medical doctor, alive.
It was early on Jan. 5, 1998, and he was setting off with a friend on the nine-hour drive from his hometown of Medellin to the Colombian capital, Bogota.
The pair never arrived. They were stopped en route by right-wing paramilitaries, who attempted to forcibly recruit the unwilling young men.
It was only years later that Gaviria learned the true horror of Cristian’s last moments; a jailed and repentant paramilitary revealed that her son had been killed by being towed agonizingly along a dirt track. His battered body was then dismembered and dumped in a river.
Now Gaviria, 64, has a remarkable message for her fellow Colombians as they wrestle with the dilemma of how to turn the page on the longest running and deadliest civil war in the Western Hemisphere – including how to balance the competing imperatives of justice and reconciliation.
“You have to find a way to forgive,” says Gaviria, who was one of the representatives of the victims in Colombia’s official peace negotiations hosted in Havana, Cuba. “I know it is difficult but you have to move on.
Gaviria heads a group known as the Mothers of the Candelaria after the Medellin church where the bereaved relatives, whose children have fallen victim to all sides in Colombia’s complex, internal conflict, meet every Friday. The paramilitaries disarmed more than a decade ago but now it is the turn of the Marxist rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish initials of the FARC, to reintegrate into civilian life.
The FARC, after all, was the principal belligerent against South America’s most entrenched democracy ever since it was founded as the military wing of Colombia’s Communist Party in 1964. For much of that time it carried out an endless series of atrocities, including murders and car bombings, financing its bloodletting through kidnapping and cocaine trafficking.
According to official figures, the conflict killed 218,094 people – 81 percent of them civilians – and left some 5 million as refugees in their own country.
Under the terms of the peace deal, former members of the FARC are expected to own up to all their crimes and then be subjected to “transitional justice.” The trials will be administered by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, or JEP, an agency specifically established for the purpose.
The JEP is already sifting through the testimony of thousands of victims. Over the next decade, it is expected to try nearly 2,000 members of the Colombian police and military and around 3,500 former FARC fighters, including the group’s erstwhile leader and current presidential candidate, Rodrigo Londoño.
One of the harshest critics of both the FARC and the peace deal is hard-right former president Alvaro Uribe, whose father was killed by the rebels in a botched 1983 kidnapping. Now a senator, he has savaged the “eligibility” of FARC leaders to run in the elections.
FARC political candidates, meanwhile, have been met with death threats and furious protests, prompting the group to theatrically announce it was suspending its campaign in February, although its electoral activities do not appear to have stopped.
Ironically, however, Gaviria’s desire to forgive rather than Uribe’s preference for crushing the FARC militarily appears to be winning out.
“There is a massive diversity of views,” says Ivan Briscoe, the Bogota-based Latin America head of the International Crisis Group. “But the sense that only through negotiation and compromise can you bring about peace tends to be much stronger in those areas that suffered the worst violence.”
Colombia’s predicament echoes similar crossroads for other Latin American societies, including Argentina, Chile, Peru, Guatemala and El Salvador, as they have struggled to turn the page on brutal dictatorships or savage internal conflicts. In each country, there have been fierce political battles about the degree to which reconciliation requires perpetrators of serious human rights abuses to be held accountable – or effectively amnestied – for their crimes.
Yet the current presidential front-runner, albeit by a small margin in a splintered field, is himself a former leftist rebel: Gustavo Petro, who served as mayor of Bogota after laying down his arms in the 1990s. Many experts expect his lead to evaporate once the field of presidential candidates consolidates. Londoño, meanwhile, is registering between zero and 2 percent support in most polls.
Petro had been a member of the M-19 revolutionary socialist group that was once second only in size to the FARC. His political career is proof, many say, of the power of reconciliation. However, the M-19 was very different from the FARC. While the latter has massacred thousands, the former carried out more targeted assassinations. Arguably its most famous subversive act was stealing the sword of Simon Bolívar, the 19th century hero of Spanish-speaking South America’s independence from Spain.
One of Petro’s former M-19 comrades, Antonio Navarro Wolff, who is now a senator, has a straightforward message for those angered by the FARC’s transformation into a political party: “Don’t vote for them. It’s that simple. The FARC are probably not going to have very many members of Congress anyway. Welcome to democracy!”
Another risk for the FARC, whose spokespeople did not respond to requests for comment, is that the multibillion-dollar antipoverty and rural development programs it negotiated from the government as part of the peace deal may never be put into practice.
Despite that, there is a wide held belief that the FARC have passed the point of no return in their transition to civilian life and are unlikely to ever take up arms again.
“Leaving the transitional justice until after the elections has hurt the peace deal,” Navarro Wolff says. “But the elections were due this year and the basic elements of the deal, disarmament and political participation, are in place. Now Colombians must see if we can achieve reconciliation.”