LIMA, Peru — In a few short words, a commander of Colombia’s armed-to-the-teeth Marxist rebels has revived hopes that an end may finally be in sight for one of the world's longest running conflicts.
“We’re not ruling it out,” Pastor Alape responded when a journalist asked if the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) would accept its members being put on trial for human rights abuses.
Pastor Alape — his battlefield name — is one of the FARC's five lead negotiators in peace talks with the Colombian government in Havana. In the recent interview, he also talked at length of the need for forgiveness and for the truth to come out regarding the country’s brutal half-century-old insurgency, the longest in Latin America.
The reporter asked if the rebel group would allow fighters to serve custodial sentences “not necessarily in a traditional jail.” The commander responded: “If the country defines in this [truth] commission that we need to find a formula of that kind of scenario, we will surely take that into account.”
The admission is something of a bombshell in Colombia.
The Havana talks have inched forward since President Juan Manuel Santos first secretly reached out to the FARC in 2010. Since then, a series of thorny issues have been negotiated and agreed upon, including land rights for the poor, the FARC’s participation in elections, and drug policy.
But one major stumbling block has remained throughout: the possibility that the rebels might be convicted for their part in a civil war they launched in the mid-1960s and which has cost an estimated 220,000 lives.
The FARC has always insisted none of its members would be tried, never mind end up behind bars, for alleged crimes against humanity.
In a determined — his critics say desperate and defeatist — effort to find peace, Santos has even proposed a special kind of “transitional justice.”
That might allow rebels, as well as right-wing paramilitaries and members of the armed forces, convicted of murder or other serious abuses to carry out community service instead of jail time.
Yet the president has been backed into a corner by international human rights law, which doesn’t allow any kind of amnesty for such serious offenses. He’s also been under heavy pressure from his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe.
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Now a senator, Uribe is a hard-right politician whose own father was killed by the FARC during a botched kidnapping in the 1980s. He believes Colombia’s elected government should crush the guerrillas rather than negotiate with them.
But Alape’s comments have drawn a cautious welcome from one unlikely — and influential — source: the head of a group of families of the FARC's victims.
Rafael Mora Castro, executive director of the National Association of the Kidnapped and Disappeared, agrees with the rebel commander that the first priority is not punishment or retribution but truth, including the fate of 260 Colombian FARC captives whose whereabouts remain a mystery.
They include Mora Castro’s own son, Juan Camilo, 27, who vanished without a trace while running an errand in a Bogota suburb in 2006. It is thought the FARC kidnapped him for his accounting skills.
“We have heard the news, that they [the FARC] are suggesting a parallel system of justice and we have to view this as part of the negotiations, as an attempt by the FARC to rebuild public trust in the peace process,” Mora Castro told GlobalPost.
“Our priorities are first the truth. We have to know the truth about what really happened; then justice and finally, if possible, reparations.”
“Forgiving is fundamental. Without it, you are consumed by hate. But it also requires the perpetrator to recognize what they have done and to ask for forgiveness.”
Justice, Mora Castro added, might well mean community service rather than prison.
But first, the peace talks need to recover the momentum lost after recent deadly clashes between the FARC and the Colombian military killed dozens of soldiers and rebels.
If Alape’s comments signal a wider shift by the FARC on the issue of justice, then maybe, just maybe, a brutal civil war that has been raging since the 1960s can soon come to an end.