By: John Morgan LLM’18
The one thing we hadn’t expected was the visceral reaction. We had litigated before eminent judges, debated in parliaments, spoken at political rallies, but never had simply speaking to somebody so limited our ability to think properly. Across the table were two former FARC guerrillas; Raúl and Sofía. Each were in their fifth decade and showed signs of many years in the jungle; their faces lined, their hands wrought, their clothing unclean. They spoke earnestly and eloquently about the reasons they fought against the Colombian government for decades, their disgust for the inequalities in Colombian society, and their ambitions for the future. Yet the fact remained: their group had recruited child soldiers, kidnapped, murdered and terrorised civilians, and engaged heavily in the international cocaine trade.
FARC, at its peak, controlled 40% of Colombian territory, acting as government in those areas while waging war in pursuit of their Marxist ideology, against both official government forces and right-wing paramilitaries funded by Colombian elites. Late last year, the group signed a peace agreement with the government and demobilised. They are now an official political party with ambitions of copying the path of former guerrillas in other South American countries from the jungle to the Presidency. We had three hours in which to truly understand the thoughts of their fighters, and their ambitions for the future.
Neither regret taking up arms, but both were clear the time for such a struggle was over. Raúl, who had been driven to FARC by witnessing a massacre by paramilitaries on his trade union, confessed he still felt the same burning anger as before, but that he was more than anything a tired, timeworn man.
Sofía raged at the influence of the US government and corporations in the country, and said that it was their influence that had tipped the war in favour of the Colombian government. It was beyond doubt that their involvement in the conflict was driven by a genuine concern about the inequalities of Colombian society; concerns which remain unresolved as Colombia remains one of the most unequal countries in the world. Overwhelmingly, however, our impression was of a force which, while still angry, was simply tired of fighting.
Each retained a deep distrust of the Colombian elite; a refrain which was not restricted to the far left; we heard it continually throughout our visit from judges, academics, domestic and international NGOs, and regular citizens. We were given a stark reminder of the influence of this elite during our visit, when the Constitutional Court laid down a decision which exempted business and non-military state actors from the transitional justice court set up by the peace agreement. This, Raúl and Sofía alleged, was an ‘empire of impunity’ in which the financiers of the conflict would avoid trial, and showed that while FARC was committed to peace, the government was reneging on its promises. They ended with a warning: if the structural inequalities in Colombian society remain and the peace deal is not fully implemented by the government, then a new generation will rise up, once again, in pursuit of the equality FARC were unable to achieve. Such a fear is on the minds of many in Colombia, particularly as elections next year may install a government deeply opposed to the peace process.
After three hours, with many questions left unasked, and some posed left unanswered, our meeting ended. We had met with highly sympathetic representatives, who presented their struggle in the best light. We were unlikely to be wholly convinced, yet in polling last year, seven in ten Colombians agree with the central complaint of the new FARC political party: that inequality must be reduced. One poll even ranked FARC as more popular than the established political parties. With polling figures like those, it’s likely we’ll be hearing much more from Raúl, Sofía and their brigade in the years to come.
The GRS is an innovative teaching model for exploring the global nature of today’s most complex legal issues. These intensive research courses build toward the overseas field research visit when students and faculty jointly meet with primary stakeholders on key topics in public and private international law.
This piece originally appears in the 2018 Global Affairs Review.
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