The events in Colombia at the beginning of April have taken place with little media coverage outside of Latin America. In a world that focuses on war and mourns the death of their former leaders - usually by some reason more energy is displayed on the death of leaders who went to war than to peace - where the creation and recreation of expectation around these kind of events, take out our attention away from those that seem to promote hope around peace.
No wonder then why something like a non-nuclear, non- British conflict is not depicted on media as something relevant or salient. It is easier to sell news under threat and expectation, than a march of people dressing white clothing in a city and in a country that commonly sees its name confused (still figuring out if it is Columbia and Colombia?). Maybe war and death is cooler than peace? How many blockbusters are about heroes of peace or peace negotiations?
The Colombian armed conflict is not about the fight between the FARC and the Colombian Government. Colombia can be described more as a “sui generis” civil war, or as Colombians call it, an “armed conflict”. The amount of death and suffering caused by this conflict can be dramatic once we consider that between 1964 and 2010 between 50,000 and 200,000 people have died. Some sources estimate the amount of deaths between 1988 and 2011 are around 19,000 civilians and 52,000 fighters. And this does not account for the victims of sexual violence, wounded, mutilated and victims of psychological trauma. A conflict where drug trafficking is mixed with the presence of illegal armed groups that resemble warlords, paramilitary forces and guerrillas. If peace is achieved between the FARC and the government, there is still a long way to go.
Is in this context, the distinctions between criminal and revolutionary have been buried, and victims’ advocates have been confused sometimes with friend of the terrorists; peace advocates have been labelled as guerrillas in disguise, social mobilizations have been described as infiltrated by guerrillas. These contradictions go in hand with the argument of several Colombians who argue that peace is desirable but without the FARC. This shows the consequence of years of violence and the division of the country. What peace is and what it means, can to be confused with appeasement.
Since last year, the prospects for peace have been increased, as a new peace process has emerged in a particular context and with particular elements that could give the hint of a real serious process underway. Messages such as “we won’t leave the [negotiation] table until we reach a final agreement”, “the victory is the peace”, “the armed forces are getting ready for the consolidation of the peace”, among others show that key participants in the conflict, such as the government, the FARC and the Armed Forces seem to be supporting the process.
Initial approaches between the guerrillas and the government were secret, as several sectors of the Colombian society oppose the peace process. Also, so far, military operations have not stopped. This is a byproduct of the fear of the guerrillas not negotiating seriously, as they did in the peace process at the end of the 90’s. On the other hand the FARC has called several times for a negotiation under a ceasefire, and have expressed their willingness for peace to such a point that in the stage of these secret conversations were being held the former leader of the FARC, Alfonso Cano, was killed in a military operation. Yet the FARC kept the conversations and the push for the negotiations.
Nevertheless, a large segment of the Colombian population is not convinced yet of the peace process. Distrust feeds this process, as former president, Uribe - one of the most popular presidents in Colombia of recent years, and who engaged in a policy of all out war for 8 years - opposes the peace process and claims the peace process will be the defeat of the army, the “Cubanization” of Colombia and the destruction of the Colombian democracy (sometimes it appears that he is actually upset about the possibility of a peace process in the country). Independently of the claims and the polemics around the figure of Uribe, it is important to have in mind this context as a prelude of the events of 9 April.
The date is a symbol of war and violence, as the 9th of April was the date when the Liberal leader Gaitan was killed - some authors argue this is the starting point of the civil war - and is also the date that the Colombian Congress decreed as the day for the victims of the conflict. In the country with the world’s largest population of violently displaced people, this day should go not unnoticed.
The event was supported by a myriad of civil society organizations, Colombianos and Colombianas por la Paz, the U party (one of the parties of the current coalition in government), the Colombian president, the Marcha Patriotica (A political party linked with the FARC). In a country where civil mobilization and civil protest was labelled between 2002 and 2010 as terrorist when it didn’t suit the interest of the government of that time, social mobilization has a halo of suspicion over it, especially for the new generations of Colombians that disregard or ignore their own history, and especially when the Minister of Defense claims the mobilizations were infiltrated and supported by the FARC.
Therefore the march had importance in different angles: first, making visible the victims and the death of the Colombian conflict, in a country where 15 million people live under poverty, and where the violence burden is carried by the poor more often, and in the frenzies of soap operas Colombian citizens ignore their own reality.
Second, the march could increase the power of civil society to influence the peace process, as so far the conversations in the Havana have been an elite-elite negotiation. For example, the negotiator on behalf of civil society for the government has been historically the representative of the Industrials Association of Colombia.
Third and finally, the marches could push both the government and the guerrillas to commit seriously behind peace, if the government wants to succeed politically, and the FARC wants to maximize their gains with a peace process, a commitment towards civil society will make them more engaged with a serious peace process.
However, peace is a broader concept that goes beyond the negotiations happening in the country, as the ELN, and other groups that exert violence, such as private armies, and drug gangs erroneously called paramilitaries (they are on centralized organizations that obey to different interests) and lately relabeled as BACRIM, are not in the peace process, and they could be spoilers, or attack the process itself. The importance of people supporting the marches is a defence against these attacks, and a call for other groups to join the quest for peace. But first things first, shall we focus on future deaths, and death leaders? Or shall we devote more attention on reflecting on what is the legacy of wars, and attempts to avoid further blood and death.