As peace talks in Colombia advanced over the past year, 7,000 rebel fighters began slowly emerging from their jungle hideouts hoping for, if not a hero’s welcome, at least an outstretched hand from fellow Colombians tired of a half century of bloody combat. But with the peace deal’s stunning defeat in a referendum Sunday, the future of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia’s rebels is now in limbo just a few days after they unanimously ratified the accord and began planning a return to civilian life.
For now, a return to the battlefield in a war that has already killed 220,000 people and displaced 8 million seems unlikely. Within hours of defeat, FARC leader Rodrigo Londono reaffirmed the group’s commitment to peace, saying its only weapon going forward would be the power of its word. On Monday, he said his troops would honor its commitments to the government and stick by a permanent cease-fire.
Watch What Else Is Making News
The government has vowed the same and President Juan Manuel Santos quickly dispatched his negotiators to Cuba to try to salvage the accord. He also extended an olive branch to arch-rival former President Alvaro Uribe, inviting the hard-line conservative who led the opposition to the accord to join him in a bid to renegotiate and strengthen it.
But the rebels’ ambition, enshrined in a 297-page document that would have allowed them to avoid jail time and form a political movement with seats in Congress, is now at risk. As part of the deal, rebels who confess their crimes to special peace tribunals were to be spared prison sentences and instead perform development work in areas hard-hit by the conflict.
Colombians overwhelmingly loathe the FARC, who they blame for dozens of crimes from drug-trafficking and the forced recruitment of child soldiers to kidnapping and attacks on civilians. That hatred was only reinforced by Sunday’s results. The FARC always opposed Santos’ idea of a referendum and instead favored ratifying the accord in a constitutional convention.
“In all these years the guerrillas caused a lot of damage,” said Alcibiades Escue Musicue, the mayor of the mostly indigenous town of Toribio, where the FARC in 2011 carried out a bus bomb attack on a market, killing three people and injuring dozens. “At some point they must have calculated this could happen.”
That contrasts with widespread international support among foreign leaders who heralded the accord as a model for resolving disputes in a world beset by political violence and terrorism. Many heads of state, as well as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and US Secretary of State John Kerry, were present when Santos and the FARC leader signed the deal less than a week ago in an elaborate, emotion-filled ceremony in the historic city of Cartagena.
Noting that “democracy can be messy at times,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Sunday’s referendum “might be the latest example of that.”
“The good news is that all sides, including the voters, I think are still focused on trying to reach this negotiated peace,” he said.
But if the FARC was politically weakened by the referendum, it’s not clear how many concessions it is now willing to make. Nobody expects the rebels to turn in their weapons just to wind up in jail.
On Monday, Londono warned that the referendum’s results “don’t have any legal effect whatsoever” because the peace accord was signed and deposited for storage with the Swiss Federal Council as a special humanitarian agreement between warring parties under the Geneva Conventions.
“This confers it undeniable and irrevocable legal effects,” he said.
A FARC leader, who agreed to discuss the situation but only on condition of anonymity so as not to deepen divisions, said the rebels never had a Plan B for the accord losing in the referendum. Although the group’s commitment to demobilizing remains intact, the group isn’t willing to accept unilateral impositions by the government that go against its aim of building a political movement, the leader said.
In the absence of flexibility from the guerrillas, Santos’ options are few: He could ratify the accord in congress, taking the unpopular step of disavowing the referendum’s results, or call a constitutional convention, which might hand even more leverage to the guerrillas.
Bringing Santos and Uribe together might be harder than achieving peace with the FARC. Santos served as Uribe’s defense minister, when they worked together with the U.S. to drive the FARC to the edge of the jungles, but the two haven’t spoken for years and frequently trade insults.
In an encouraging sign, both leaders named three representatives each on Monday to initiate a dialogue seeking consensus on a way forward. Uribe also proposed granting an immediate amnesty for rank-and-file rebels who committed crimes, such as rebellion, that don’t constitute serious human rights violations.
“We’ll have to act quickly and put deadlines because the uncertainty and lack of clarity about what’s going to happen put at risk all that has been built so far,” Santos said in a televised address Monday night, in which he repeated his call for national unity.
A few dozen students marched outside congress Monday to cheer on Santos’ campaign to save the peace deal.
Despite the strong rhetoric, the FARC, having come this far in their transition to a political movement, may not want to scuttle the progress made during four years of grueling negotiations. There is a precedent in Colombia’s recent history: In 1989, another rebel group, the M-19, reached a peace agreement with the government only to see it derailed as it made its way through Congress.
Sen. Antonio Wolff, one of the leaders of the now-defunct M-19, said his rebel comrades decided to go ahead anyway and renegotiate the deal.
“It’s possible the FARC is in the same situation we were in and has already crossed a point of no return,” Wolff told The Associated Press.
“It’s not going to be easy, it’s not going to happen quickly, but it’s possible the FARC may accept a renegotiation,” he said. “We all have to campaign hard so that the FARC allows the peace negotiations to continue.”