Colombians chose to continue fighting their 52-year long civil war on Sunday, after a referendum on peace with rebel group Farc failed to pass by less than a 1 percent margin. The unexpected result thrusts Colombia into an uncertain future.
President Juan Manuel Santos and Farc leader Timoleon "Timochenko" Jimenez signed the peace deal last week after four years of negotiations and extended it to the public for ratification. It lost 50.2 percent of the vote to 49.8 percent, meaning the pre-referendum polls were off, making the loss even more of a searing embarrassment to President Santos, who was suffering from dwindling favorability throughout the talks.
This war is the longest-standing Latin American insurgency — in context, the Colombian conflict is longer-lasting than the Cold War, and about double the length of the Vietnam War. Government concessions to the Farc may seem like a slap on the wrist — or worse, setting a precedent for other terrorist groups grappling for power — when the group's human rights record is taken into consideration.
Hailed both as the liberators of the poor and denounced as domestic terrorists, Farc has existed since the early 1960s, and their name is the Spanish acronym for Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
Lenora Quinonez, a junior at the University of Southern California who studied in Colombia over summer, noted that the Farc was initially conceived as a small Marxist-Leninist group, who banded together against the elite citizens who encroached on poorer citizens' land rights.
"It's considered a terrorist organization although it came about from combating land property rights," Quinonez said, "Colombian elites would take land from people, so this agrarian movement started, which eventually got violent."
And violent they became. The far-left group clashed with the government and right-wing paramilitary forces, and decades of bloodshed. Around 220,000 people were thought to have been killed during the conflict and almost five million displaced, according to a government-funded report. Peace talks were initiated in the late 1990s but they all fell through.
At this point, voting 'yes' to the referendum was favored by the international community, and the campaign was widely backed by both Colombian and international politicians. Even UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon rooted for the peace agreement.
The Colombian government planned to hand down lenient sentences in special-made prisons. In exchange for full confessions, fighters would not be imprisoned, but rather made to pay "reparations," according to CNN. Farc insurgents would disarm, and leaders of the group would be promised 10 seats in the Colombian Congress for upcoming elections. Quinonez believes these were common-sense measures.
"All the concession were necessary, Farc weren't at a serious disadvantage. There was no way to make them stand trial with no incentive." Quinonez said, "But I understand for some that was hard to see and accept; it looked like Farc was being given everything by the government."
But not everyone shared the current government's short memory. Former President Alvaro Uribe's father was killed during a Farc kidnapping, and he rallied energetically against the 'yes' campaign; he also targeted the guerrilla group heavily throughout his presidency. And in regions such as Medellin, which voted heavily against the peace deal, voters thought that innocent citizens were being handed a raw deal.
"People in these areas are saying 'We're not saying no to peace, we're saying no to the Farc,'" explained Briana Trujillo, a Colombian student at USC.
The vote can be broken down further by region. Areas directly affected by the warfare, such as Choco, were passionately pro-peace deal, which would ease the violence sooner rather than later. Other regions which were subject to extortion from Farc, like Casanare, had much less sympathy for the group. Large metropolitan cities, such as Bogota, broke away from their rural counterparts.
"In Bogota, they have no idea what's going on in those rural areas. It's a very different perspective when they haven't seen a Farc soldier before." Montanez said.
Daniela Silva, a Colombian junior at USC, has family members who have been targeted by the Farc, who were known for violent killings, their involvement in drug trade and kidnapping.
"My parents were confined to the cities because of kidnapping. My great grandfather had to pay armed gangs, or paramilitares, to protect his farm. My family lived in fear of urban terrorism carried out by the Farc," Silva said. "People stopped going to the Colombian outskirts. My uncle's country club was bombed. It was a very scary time during the '90s especially. My parents knew people that were kidnapped by the Farc. It was a time of fear and violence."
Colombia is stuck in limbo. For now, it appears that Farc leader Timochenko is going stick to the peace deal, but it is difficult to say how long it will last without the government holding up their end of the deal. Some Colombians are concerned that Farc may backslide back into violence, and lament the failed chance at peace.
Gabriela Toledo, a half-Colombian junior at USC, was disappointed at the apparent short-sightedness of voters.
"Colombia has been given a chance for peace for the first time in 50 years and it has been thrown away by people whose hearts have been hardened too much to give peace a chance," Toledo said.
Others believe that this gesture of peace from 48 percent of the population is a sign that public perception of the Farc is improving. Montanez noted that Colombians "showed interest in putting the war behind them and rebuilding Colombia." Although it seems the peace deal arrived prematurely, it is possible that Farc can soon lift itself out of the shadows.