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'Goodbye, Weapons!' FARC Disarmament in Colombia Signals New Era

As United Nations inspectors slammed shut a shipping container filled with rifles, fighters from Colombia's largest rebel group cheered on Tuesday morning when their leader declared that they had laid down their arms after 52 years of guerrilla war.

It may yet be some time before every weapon the rebels fired in Colombia is accounted for. But the ceremony signaled to the country that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish initials as the FARC, would no longer threaten Colombians as it had for generations.

"Goodbye, weapons! Goodbye, war!" Rodrigo Londoño, the FARC leader known as Timochenko, shouted to the fighters.

The rebels have abandoned their battle camps for demobilization camps like the one in a lush stretch of countryside near Mesetas – temporary settlements of tents and drywall buildings where the rebels have been slowly handing over their weapons, 7,132 at last count.

Some rifles will remain at the camps for security purposes until Aug. 1, the United Nations inspectors said, and rebel weapons caches were still being examined. But for the most part, the inspectors said, the disarmament is essentially complete.

The weapons have been packed for shipment out of the country, to be melted down and used to build monuments. Rank-and-file rebels will soon be free to trade their fatigues for civilian clothes and begin new lives. And the FARC is laying plans to become a political party, much like the parties that emerged from guerrilla groups in post-conflict El Salvador and Guatemala.

The Colombian government must now tackle a host of challenges under the complicated peace agreement with the FARC, which took years to negotiate. Special tribunals are to be established to settle war-crimes cases, and farmers are to be given incentives to stop growing coca leaf. (The rebels largely controlled the cocaine trade in Colombia.)

"The goal of ending the war has essentially been met," said Cynthia J. Arnson, the director of the Latin America program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "It's implementing the 300-plus-page document, with 100 different programs and strategies, that's going to be difficult."

Colombia's president, Juan Manuel Santos, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year for the peace accords with the FARC, but the deal remains highly controversial in Colombia. Voters rejected the accords by a narrow margin in a referendum last year, with many Colombians arguing that the fighters, who were promised amnesty, had gotten off too easily.

After the referendum, Mr. Santos got the Colombian Congress to approve a revised deal with FARC without submitting it to another referendum. But with his term scheduled to end next year, he has been under constant attack from conservatives, including critics who say that the FARC will not reveal all the weapons and cash it has hidden in the jungle, something analysts say is possible.

The ceremony on Tuesday offered Mr. Santos a chance to remind his country that peace with the FARC had been awaited by generations of Colombians.

"This is the best news for Colombia in 50 years – this is great news of peace," he said, adding that the country could now finally unify as a democracy. "Today we see the end of this absurd war."

At the FARC camp, in the Putumayo department of southern Colombia, about 460 fighters now spend their days contemplating the unarmed life ahead of them. They were glued to mobile phones this weekend, talking to families on Facebook and WhatsApp, which were unknown to most of the fighters before this year.

Shipping containers holding the decommissioned weapons sat on the camp's perimeter, watched and sealed by United Nations observers in baseball caps. Though Colombian Army Black Hawk helicopters occasionally flew overhead, the peace agreement forbids soldiers to enter the camp.

Many rebels complained about months of delay in getting building materials to the camp, leaving it looking like a construction site, and many fighters still slept outdoors in hammocks, as they had in the jungle during the war. If the camp-building process was so halting, they asked, how could they expect the rest of the peace deal to be carried out smoothly?

Disarming has proved difficult, too.

Naida López, 32, spent nearly two decades with the rebels, after the military killed her parents and she ran away. She said it was hard for her, as an orphan, to give up the protection of her weapon and her comrades.

"For every guerrilla fighter, their weapon has always been their most loyal friend, which has always accompanied them," she said. "Some people have names for their rifle."

Like many of the rebels, Ms. López is afraid of what might happen now that the former guerrillas must depend on the state for protection. She mentioned the last time the FARC experimented with political participation, running candidates for office under the Patriotic Union party banner, only to face massacres by right-wing paramilitary groups that the government failed to stop. Those groups still exist.

"They could kill us one by one," Ms. López said.

The rebels have found consolation and warmth in visits to the camp by loved ones they have not seen in years. Omaira Solarte, 32, saw her parents at the end of May, 18 years after she joined the FARC.

"Before, it was difficult to talk to your family," she said. "You would give away your position to the enemy."

Ms. Solarte intends to join the FARC's planned political party in a few months and work as an activist in the countryside, perhaps promoting rural health care. But in the meantime, she is worried about conditions at the camp, where she says the government has not provided adequate medical treatment.

"If we get ill, we are left alone," she said. "If that's how things are now, how will it be when we don't have our guns?"

Gaitan Duke, 33, said he was looking forward to getting to know his country without a weapon slung over his shoulder, perhaps to visit relatives or some of the country's indigenous communities in the interior.

He repeated a mantra heard widely in the camp – that far from surrendering, the rebels were transforming themselves for a new, democratic fight.

"We are not demobilizing," he said. "We are laying down our weapons to become an open and legal political movement."

[Source: By Nicholas Casey and Joe Parkin Daniels, The New York Times, Mesetas, Col, 27Jun17]

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