Thick clouds stopped Juan Manuel Santos’s helicopter from landing. Photograph: Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images
UN observers check weapons handed by the Farc as part of the peace process. Photograph: HO/AFP/Getty Images
Joe Parkin Daniels in La Elvira-Friday 16 June 2017
As part of a historic deal between the government and the leftwing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc, the rebel group this week handed over a second cache of weapons to the United Nations for decommissioning.
President Juan Manuel Santos and guerrilla commanders had been due to attend the event in the rural municipality of Buenos Aires, where just two years ago, Farc fighters ambushed and killed 11 government troops.
But the event was hurriedly reconfigured when thick clouds stopped Santos’s helicopter from landing, and instead, dignitaries and rebels gathered in the city of Cali, about 40 miles away.
Despite the logistical hiccups, however, Thursday’s ceremony means that 40% of the Farc’s arsenal has now been decommissioned, marking another success in a peace process that has at times stumbled.
“Today is a historic day,” Santos said. “What we have witnessed … is something that just a few years ago the country would not have believed possible.”
Colombia’s 53-year conflict has left 260,000 dead and nearly 7 million displaced, with atrocities committed by all sides, including state-aligned paramilitaries. Most of the victims are civilians.
The peace accord – which had to be ratified in congress last November after failing to pass a public referendum two months earlier – stipulated that the Farcdemobilisation would be complete by 1 June.
That deadline was postponed by two months after delays setting up reception camps for the former fighters. Even today, many rebels are still living in improvised tents, sleeping under mosquito nets and tarpaulin.
“The government hasn’t helped us out where it promised it would,” the Farc’s southern bloc commander, who goes by the alias Martín Corena, said in a recent interview at a demobilisation camp.
This week’s ceremony means that the rebels have now laid down 40% of their weapons, and the remainder of the group’s arms are due to be handed over next week.
But the decommissioning process is also behind schedule: the Farc were supposed to have handed in 60% of their weapons by Wednesday, and there is still uncertainty surrounding how many weapons the rebels still have.
The UN says it registered more than 7,000 firearms over the past few months, with at least one weapon per Farc member, but earlier this year, the rebels surprised the UN when they announced that they had 949 weapons caches scattered around the country.
And despite what the government and Farc see as steady progress, opponents of the deal have continued to criticise the process at every step.
With one eye on next year’s presidential elections, Colombia’s hardline right has been ramping up rhetorical attacks against the Farc, accusing members of hiding funds to support their political movement – and to avoid contributing to reparations to victims.
The size of the rebel army’s war chest has been debated for years, with estimates ranging wildly. In 2014, Forbes put the Farc’s annual income at $600m, gained through drug trafficking, illegal mining and extortion, among other activities. The Farc maintains it has little cash left after feeding and equipping thousands of fighters.
During the event on Tuesday, one of the Farc’s commanders, Jorge Torres Victoria – better known by his alias, Pablo Catatumbo – warned of the security threat facing Colombia and its fragile peace process. “Paramilitarism is the biggest threat to peace,” he said, in reference to myriad criminal groups that spawned following the demobilisation of the AUC, a federation of anti-insurgency paramilitaries, more than a decade ago.
The Farc, along with many on the left in Colombia, says these groups maintain a political component. Successor groups have claimed responsibility for a recent spate of murders of leftist activists around the country.
Despite the step toward a full disarmament, retrieving the remaining weapons from rebel arms caches scattered around the country would not be easy, said Adam Isacson, senior associate for defence oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America.
“Getting to all those caches before other criminal groups or Farc dissidents do will be a huge challenge for Colombian authorities and the UN mission.”