BOGOTA, COLOMBIA - A permanent cease-fire took effect in Colombia on Monday, a major step in bringing an end to 52 years of bloody combat between the government and the country's biggest rebel group.
The commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia announced Sunday that his fighters would cease hostilities beginning at 12:01 a.m. as a result of the peace accord the two sides reached at midweek. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos made a similar announcement Friday, saying the military would halt attacks on the FARC beginning Monday.
"Never again will parents be burying their sons and daughters killed in the war,'' FARC leader Rodrigo Londono said Sunday night from Havana, where peace talks aimed at ending one of the world's longest-running conflicts have been taking place since 2012. "All rivalries and grudges will remain in the past.''
In areas hit hard by the conflict, the first daybreak in a half century without the threat of combat was celebrated even as residents struggled to get their heads around the 297-page peace accord, copies of which were distributed in national newspapers over the weekend.
In San Vicente del Caguan, which was at the center of a Switzerland-sized demilitarized zone where unsuccessful peace talks were held more than a decade ago, Mayor Humberto Sanchez said few people put much faith in the FARC's promises. The town suffered for years from periodic attacks and extortion kidnappings by the FARC and residents displaced by the violence were unfairly stigmatized as rebel collaborators.
Sanchez's right-wing Democratic Center party, headed by former President Alvaro Uribe, is opposed to the accords but the mayor said he is willing to initially give the guerrillas the benefit of the doubt and overlook his own losses.
"We all want peace, but it's not enough just to sign a document,'' said Sanchez, who was kidnapped and held captive for months by the rebels in 2006. "We have to make sure the government keeps its word to the FARC and the rebels keep their word to Colombians.''
Colombia is expected to hold a national referendum Oct. 2 to give voters the chance to approve the accord, which would all but end political violence that has claimed more than 220,000 lives and driven more than 5 million people from their homes over five decades. Polls say most Colombians loathe the rebel group but will likely endorse the deal anyway.
A number of security challenges remain, most notably the refusal of a smaller rebel group to disarm and the continued existence of well-organized criminal gangs dedicated to drug trafficking. But peace negotiators, back in Bogota briefly Monday before returning to Cuba to discuss the next steps with the rebels, could barely contain their enthusiasm for the progress already made.
"If a single Colombian life is spared because of this accord it will have been worth the effort,'' Peace Commissioner Sergio Jaramillo said.
Top FARC commanders are planning to gather one final time near San Vicente del Caguan in mid-September to ratify the deal.
Under the accord, FARC guerrillas are supposed to turn over their weapons within six months after the deal is formally signed. In return, the FARC's still unnamed future political movement will be given a minimum 10 congressional seats - five in the lower house, five in the Senate - for two legislative periods.
In addition, 16 lower house seats will be created for grassroots activists in rural areas traditionally neglected by the state and in which existing political parties will be banned from running candidates. Critics of the peace process contend that will further boost the rebels' post-conflict political power.
After 2026, both arrangements would end and the former rebels would have to demonstrate their political strength at the ballot box.
Not all hostilities are ending under the deal with the FARC.
Nicolas Rodriguez, the top commander of the much-smaller National Liberation Army, published a statement Monday saying his guerrillas aren't yet ready to sign a deal, though he wished the FARC success in its transformation into a legal political movement.
He said there are "clear differences'' with the FARC's positions and argued that "we do not see a clear willingness for peace on the part of the national government.''
After a year of exploratory talks, the government and National Liberation Army announced in March that they would initiate formal peace negotiations. However, the effort fell apart almost immediately over Santos' insistence that the group renounce kidnapping and release all captives.
Frank Pearl, the government's top envoy to the talks, repeated those conditions Monday.