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Citizens across Colombia react this week as the Havana Accord is signed by President Juan Manuel Santos and Rodrigo Londono, supreme commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Citizens across Colombia react this week as the Havana Accord is signed.


The historic deal to end Colombia's five-decade guerrilla war must now be put to a nationwide referendum. But as Stephanie Nolen writes, for those whose lives were forever changed by violence, letting go of the past is proving to be a battle all its own

The town council of Puerto Rico was 40 minutes into its weekly meeting, on May 24, 2005, when a shiny burgundy Toyota pickup peeled into the square outside. Masked guerrillas in the back of the truck began to strafe the walls of buildings around the plaza with gunfire; at the sound, people in the meeting leapt from their seats. "Mother of God, we're dead – they've got us!" one man yelled. A few ran for the back of the building, to try to scale the rear wall. Maria Luisa Celis remembers that, for the longest time, she couldn't move, or even stand up.

Then, finally, she ran, too. She dove into an opening in the wall for a stove that had not yet been installed. A member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the FARC, strode past her, shooting continuously. Beneath the roaring sound of the bullets, she heard someone calling her name, and stuck her head out slightly: A colleague who used a wheelchair had fallen from it and pulled himself into the hall. She leaned out, hauled him in, and the two of them lay crammed together in the nook.

When the shooting seemed farther away, she stuck her head out, and saw, in the hall, another colleague with blood pouring from his mouth, apparently drowning in it. "I wanted to scream for help for him – and I knew if I did, I would be killed, too."

Video Maria Luisa Celis, survivor of a FARC attack, describes the roar of gunfire during a guerrilla assault


Six minutes after the shooting began, the truck raced out of the square. The rebels set it on fire on the edge of town and escaped in canoes on the river. Seven people were dead, four of them council members; five people had managed to flee. And three inside were alive: a woman who was eight months pregnant and could not run, but coated herself in the blood of a dying colleague and lay still; and Ms. Celis and the man she hid.

That day, the council was meeting in a rented office space just 40 metres from the police station. "It was supposed to be strategic – secure," scoffs Ms. Celis, who turns 71 this week. The FARC had been on a campaign of killing anyone it saw as working with the state. The government had bodyguards posted outside. A police officer finally arrived 20 minutes after the guerrillas had left. "He asked if he could help me. I said, 'Help me with what? I'm alive, and not because of anything you did,'" Ms. Celis recalls, her voice rich with scorn. Police had hidden in a bunker for the duration of the attack. "I believe they were incompetent and frightened. Both."

She and the other survivors and their families were whisked by the military the next day to Florencia, a city two hours' drive away in the state of Caqueta in southern Colombia. She still owns a house in Puerto Rico, and two of her eight children live here, but she rarely comes back. "Too full of memories," says Ms. Celis, with an attempt at a smile that she can't quite manage.

The memories are a problem. On Sunday, Ms. Celis will vote in a national referendum on a peace deal between her government and the FARC. Negotiated in Havana, it was signed, with much pomp and emotion, in the Caribbean port of Cartagena on Sept. 26, by the president, Juan Manuel Santos, who has staked his political career on the deal, and Rodrigo (Timochenko) Londono, the supreme FARC commander, who is taking a big gamble of his own.

Already, in the few days since the deal, there is a sense of change in Colombia: The FARC celebrated the signing with a huge party at a camp in the bush about eight hours from Puerto Rico. Media were given free access to talk to the once-clandestine guerrillas, and suddenly ordinary Colombians saw them dancing, drinking and talking about their aspirations. Rebels, including many who were taken as children by the FARC, have been reunited with their families. They have signed up for Facebook, and sent messages to siblings who have spent decades unsure if they were alive.

But the peace deal is not yet law: President Santos pledged, when he began public talks with the rebels in 2012, that he would put any agreement they reached to a plebiscite. For it to pass, 13 per cent of the eligible voting population must vote Yes – that is, 25 per cent of all possible voters must vote, and just over half of them must say yes. This may sound like a low bar, but it is rare for more than 30 per cent of Colombians to vote on anything – there is deep mistrust of the state and its institutions on all sides of the political spectrum here – and on this deal, many people are ambivalent.

The conflict in context

Read more below: Stephanie Nolen explains who’s who in the peace process, Colombia and FARC’s long history of failed attempts at peace, and the history of violence on both sides.

The agreement between the government and the FARC was hailed by the rest of the world as a rare good-news story; United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and 13 heads of state attended the signing. It ends a war that has lasted 52 years and taken more than 220,000 lives, 80 per cent of them civilians – and had as hallmarks the use of land mines, forced recruitment of children, years-long kidnappings of civilians, and narco-trafficking.

The peace process is built on transitional justice and the recognition of victims' need for truth and reparative acts by those who harmed them. Experts on conflict resolution consider it one of the most progressive peace deals ever crafted. To many people outside Colombia, and indeed to many urban, educated Yes voters who have little direct experience of the war, it seems like an unequivocally good thing.

The Yes side has a considerable lead in the polls. Yet there are many Colombians who intend to vote No, and a great many more, like Ms. Celis, who, with just days to go before the vote, simply cannot decide.

"I will vote Yes for my family, to see peace finally," Ms. Celis said this week. Then a bit later: "It's very hard to believe in someone who has done so much against you, has hurt you so much." Then, a moment after that, she said, simply, that she can't trust the FARC: She has to vote against the deal.

"What if you vote yes and in six months massacres are still happening? What do you say then?"

The peace deal will almost certainly pass. But when it does, it is people like Ms. Celis, with her fear and her mistrust and her 11 years of anger at the loss of the colleagues she saw executed, who will be needed to make real peace in Colombia.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, left, shakes hands with FARC Rodrigo (Timochenko) Londono on Sept. 26 in Cartagena.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, left, shakes hands with FARC commander Rodrigo (Timochenko) Londono on Sept. 26 in Cartagena.


A deeply divided country, a polarized referendum

Alan Jara says that victims of the war must make a leap of faith. He heads the government's Victims Unit, which co-ordinates support and compensation for those affected of all sides in the war: of the FARC and other leftist rebels; of right-wing paramilitaries; and of the government itself, which has been complicit in abuses, and in failures to protect, as with Ms. Celis's council meeting. He is also a vocal proponent of the peace deal. "I'm with the referendum for many reasons: The conflict ends, no more victims, no more kidnapping, no more weapons. And most important, no repetition."

Mr. Jara, 59, has reasons of his own to mistrust the FARC: In 2001, he had recently finished his term as governor of a southern province and was working for the United Nations when the FARC kidnapped him and held him hostage in the jungle for seven and a half years. The effect of the gruelling conditions in which he was held are etched on his face and in his bent, frail frame. But he says that, because Colombia's peace negotiations were built around the rights and needs of victims, and because he and other victims were flown to Havana to address negotiators directly, the deal contains all the essential elements they need.

"Truth – to know what happened, where, how – where are the disappeared, and if you killed them, where are the remains – it's fundamental for reconciliation," he said in an interview in his airy office in Bogota. "Next, reparations – yes, material, but more than that: acts of recognition and responsibility, to ask forgiveness and express contrition. Dig out land mines, rebuild schools. They committed to this in the accord. And third, a guarantee of non-repetition. How? By ending the conflict and taking their arms. With these, I accept a justice that is not total, that is transitional."

Many of those most harshly affected by the conflict are the biggest champions of the Yes vote, Mr. Jara says. "Victims haven't watched the war on TV, victims have lived the war themselves and so they understand what it means to end war," he says softly. "They understand what it means not having more war, more weapons, kidnapping, victims – one who suffers understands this better."

Some of the most vocal opponents of the deal are politicians who have little direct experience of the war – and, perhaps inevitably in a deeply polarized country, the referendum has become politicized. The No campaign is headed by former president Alvaro Uribe. He and President Santos were once close – Mr. Uribe launched an eight-year military offensive against the FARC that weakened but could not destroy the guerrillas, and Mr. Santos was the defence minister who handled much of it. Today they are bitter political rivals, and Mr. Uribe is campaigning for No, saying that Mr. Santos is selling out the country, letting murderers walk free, because he wants a Nobel Peace Prize.

But there are other No voters with more subtle concerns. When Lina Ortiz was 13, she lived in Huila, the next province east of Caqueta. Her dad was a police officer posted to a small town, and on Christmas Day in 1998, they drove to see him – she, her mother, and two sisters: a five-year-old and a baby born just 40 days before. They were there when the FARC began what would prove to be a series of attacks on police stations: first automatic weapons fire, at which Ms. Ortiz's mother stuffed the girls under a bed, and then, a grenade. Ms. Ortiz's legs were sticking out, and the grenade landed on them. That saved her sisters. "It's only a miracle that we aren't all dead," she says.

Lina Ortiz, who had one leg amputated after being caught in a FARC attack on a police station in 1998, intends to vote No in Sunday’s referendum.

Lina Ortiz, who had one leg amputated after being caught in a FARC attack on a police station in 1998, intends to vote No in Sunday’s referendum.


As Ms. Ortiz lay bleeding, a FARC fighter with a bandana over the lower half of his face walked into the room. "I begged, 'Help me!' He put the gun to my forehead and said, 'I'm not here to help anyone.'" But he didn't shoot her, and walked out. Another woman visiting the station carried her to the town's plaza, where a man put tourniquets on her legs. The local doctor would not come out to help – he was afraid of the FARC. The hospital had nothing to offer her but saline solution; the FARC had looted the medicines. No one could drive her out, because the road was mined. The siege at the police station lasted until 4 a.m. She was helicoptered out four hours later.

Ms. Ortiz recovered, but had one leg amputated, a devastating blow for a child who had always been a star athlete. When she got home, her parents could not afford a prosthesis; the state would not help, and her school would not take her back with one leg.

The fierce-willed Ms. Ortiz overcame all that: She got through law school; persuaded a foundation to donate a prosthetic for her; wrote to thank the donor – who turned out to be the head of a major multinational and found her a job in the company, where she has sailed up the corporate ranks. She has a charming boyfriend (he is voting Yes; they don't talk about it).

At 30, she is once more an athlete. But the thing she can't bear is seeing FARC leaders in the media.

"It was really hard when I heard they were negotiating – I stopped watching the news, it would make me cry. It seemed incredible that the victimizers were going to have more opportunities than the victims themselves."

Ms. Ortiz's first problem with the Havana Accord is that its structure makes it unlikely that FARC members will go to jail. Over the next 180 days, if all goes as planned, rank-and-file members will gather in collection zones and turn over their weapons. They will begin reparations work, such as road construction, be given access to psychological support and education programs, and eventually job training. Meanwhile, commanders, particularly those deemed to have been responsible for crimes against humanity, will testify before a special court, which will have access to the vast prosecution dossiers that have been used to convict FARC leaders in absentia for massacres, forced displacement, sexual violence, forced recruitment of children and other war crimes.

If the commanders are judged to have told the full truth, they will undergo "deprivation of liberty" for five to eight years, by the terms of which their movements will be restricted, and be sentenced to perform repair work, such as demining, for some years. If they are not seen to have told the full truth, they will proceed to a second stage, where they can disclose fully, and serve between five and eight years in a regular jail. If they are judged to still be withholding, they will have a last chance in court, where the sentence will be 15 to 20 years in prison.

There is widespread expectation in Colombia that the FARC leaders will testify fully at the first level. "They're criminals, they're barbarians – but they're not fools," says Alfredo Rangel, a senator with Mr. Uribe's Democratic Centre Party. "They will go before the judge and say, 'Okay, show me the list, I'll just sign.' They're all going to walk away."

Mr. Jara says he gets nothing from seeing the FARC leaders in jail; Colombians benefit when the killing stops, and fighters are put to work rebuilding the country and demonstrating a desire for reconciliation.

Ms. Ortiz vehemently disagrees: The deal is built on impunity, and it violates Colombia's commitments under international law on war crimes. "We can't have the message that it doesn't matter what you did – because they committed atrocious crimes. If you kill someone on the road, you go to jail, and that doesn't give the person back to their family but they do get a sense of justice. Here, there's just the guerrilla being rewarded for all the pain they caused."

With the signing of the peace deal, the FARC transitioned from armed movement to Marxist political party. They will be guaranteed five seats in both the senate and the lower house for the next 10 years, regardless of how many votes they earn in the next two elections. (A Colombian who is convicted of a crime that merits a jail term cannot run for political office; this law won't affect FARC leaders who testify fully in the first phase of the special court.)

"If they're going to hold political power, they should be elected, not given seats," Ms. Ortiz says. She also believes it is unfair that the accord does not require the FARC to turn over the hundreds of millions of dollars it has made from narco-trafficking. The deal relies on the FARC to give up all its arms, yet leaves them with the resources to return, potentially, to being a fighting force at any point.

"It's a profound offence," she says. She is investigating options to leave Colombia, even if that means she cannot practise law, because she cannot bear to be here and see the peace deal implemented.

Ms. Ortiz make clears that the war must end; she knows that the FARC insurgency has proved impossible to end militarily, and there must be a peace accord of some kind. She would support another agreement, with different conditions: jail terms for leaders, no political rights for the FARC, she says.

Mr. Jara has a simple response. "This is not the ideal accord. But it's the possible accord."

FARC rebels watch the signing broadcast at an encampment in the remote Yari plains.

FARC rebels watch the signing broadcast at an encampment in the remote Yari plains.


Talk of forgiveness, questions of responsibility

The FARC's roots stretch back to a decade of civil war, known in Colombia as La Violencia, that began between two political parties in 1948. When it ended, a Communist named Manuel Marulanda began to organize peasant farmers neglected by the government into communities, not far from Puerto Rico. They were attacked by government troops in May, 1964, and in response began to organize into a guerrilla force that became the FARC. The organization eventually had forces across the country, carried out bold attacks on the capital, Bogota, and was one of the most significant organizations in the global drug trade.

Over the past two weeks, the FARC moved many of its fighters to the camp on a baking, scrubby plain, in a place called Yari in southern Caqueta. They held a five-day conference to debate the accord, at the end of which the organization unanimously voted to support it – and then threw a celebration as the signing ceremony was live-cast from Cartagena. A big crowd, of fighters and people from neighbouring villages who support them, gathered in the field before the giant screen, and let loose a raucous cheer as Mr. Santos and the FARC commander put down their pens and clasped hands.

Members of FARC watch the broadcast of the Havana Accord’s signing at El Diamante rebel camp in Caqeta on Sept. 26.

Members of FARC watch the broadcast of the Havana Accord’s signing at El Diamante rebel camp in Caqeta on Sept. 26.


Then the leaders spoke, and when it was his turn, Timochenko first expounded on the need for a Marxist economic model – and then he lowered his notes and said this: "On behalf of the FARC, I sincerely offer forgiveness to all the victims of the conflict for all the pain we may have caused in this war." It was awkward, ungenerous phrasing, but the guerrilla leader spoke the word perdón, forgiveness, which to most Colombians had seemed unthinkable until the moment he did it.

In Yari, there was a choked gasp in the field at that word, and a sort of electric shiver ran through the crowd. Many of the fighters here, on their last day as guerrillas, felt they owed no apologies. "The principal victimizer is the government," said a guerrilla named Yuli, a few hours before the signing. "It's not that we've never accidentally killed a civilian – it has happened, but accidentally. But this person has not been our target. For example, in a shootout near a village, many times, or an attack on a military base or a police station, there have been civilians there. Some of them have been affected, that's what happens – but our main target has never been the civilian population." She went on to list massacres carried out by the government. "The one who needs to ask for forgiveness for the victims, quite simply, is the state, the Colombian government."

FARC member Yuli, 21, is happy with the accord, but says ‘we will keep being guerrillas until we see that the government really is complying.’ STEPHANIE NOLEN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Yuli is 21; she has been in the FARC for two years. She has strong hands, a wide grin and wary eyes. Her parents, like those of the great majority of FARC fighters, are campesinos, subsistence farmers. They could not afford to send her to school past fifth grade, defeated by the $3 cost of notebooks and the $15 uniform. Her eyes snap as she describes the conditions that families such as hers still live in, even as Colombia boasts one of the fastest-growing economies in the Americas. There is little trace of the state in her community in rural Caqueta, she says; the only way in and out, still, is by boat. And only the FARC seemed prepared to do anything about their poverty.

Yuli rejects the idea that the FARC ever targeted civilians – even in places such as Puerto Rico, where nearly everyone who worked in municipal government was assassinated in the course of a few years. Any politician who was killed, she says, was targeted because FARC intelligence found that they were collaborating with paramilitaries or the armed forces. "We as FARC, we can't and we won't ask for forgiveness from victims who deserved it, and who were our military objective," she says. "Accidents that have happened – we will recognize those mistakes."

Yuli was happy, that morning, about the new era, ready for the next phase – she wants to take advantage of the education program to get a high-school diploma, and she would like to be a lawyer, too.

But she wasn't ready to stop thinking of herself as a fighter. "We hope that the Colombian government complies," she said. "Because many times in other processes, in talks with the FARC, they haven't done their part of the deal. So we hope that they comply so that we can comply too. In the meantime, we will keep being guerrillas until we see that the government really is complying – you understand? Because we cannot live in illusions."

FARC rebel Cristobal, who has been in the guerrilla organization for 15 years, gets a haircut to prepare before watching the peace agreement signing ceremony.

FARC rebel Cristobal, who has been in the guerrilla organization for 15 years, gets a haircut before watching the peace agreement signing ceremony.


A deal with huge potential and a long list of challenges

A key government promise in the accord is to keep the FARC safe: The same soldiers who fought them until Monday will now provide security at the collection zones. Many FARC fighters doubt their commitment; and even if the military has sincere intentions, it may not have the capacity to protect its former enemy. In the coming months and years, FARC members may be targeted by criminal groups based on information they give the new Truth and Reconciliation Commission about killings or drug-trafficking, or by bitter family members whose families were killed.

Colombia has an array of armed criminal organizations (known as bacrim, from the Spanish bandas criminales) that are already moving into the vacuum created by the transition of the FARC. And while some senior members of the military participated in the peace talks and support the deal, many more are still embedded in a 1980s mentality focused on virulent fear of Communism, says Ariel Avila, deputy director of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation in Bogota.

"I wouldn't go [to a collection point] if I were a FARC fighter," he says bluntly. "This is a country with a great deal of fear on every side. In the same way people in cities don't believe the FARC will do what they said – stop narco-trafficking – the social base of the FARC believe the government won't do what it said they will, and they will be killed as they were killed in the past. There's a lot of fear and a lot of mistrust."

The Havana Accord lays out an ambitious plan of rural development, in which the government pledges to shift resources from conflict to the building of infrastructure, schools and health clinics. It also pledges to build participation of campesinos in political life. These promises are a recognition that the Colombian state, long controlled by a small elite of wealthy families, has failed many of its citizens; it was these disparities that led to the rise of the FARC in the 1960s.

Todd Howland, the representative in Colombia for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, which will play a key role in monitoring the implementation of the deal, says that Colombia's peace deal is unique for the weight it gives to victims' rights – but those same innovations will make it difficult to implement.

Mr. Howland is confident that the Yes side will win, and that the government will begin implementing the accord on Monday. But the new courts, the truth commission, the rural development schemes – they all have to be created and funded through legislation, Mr. Howland notes, and that won't happen quickly. International supporters have pledged funds, too (this week, Canada committed an additional $21-million to support implementation of the deal), but that money will also be slow to arrive.

Man in the middle

Read Stephanie Nolen’s profile of Frank Pearl, a Colombian-Canadian who played a crucial role in reconciling Colombia with FARC.

The FARC has pledged to help transition the network of farmers growing coca for cocaine production into legal crops. But the Mexican cartels that buy the product grown on small farms in FARC-controlled areas have large and growing proxy forces who have no desire to see the supply chain shut down, and they will move swiftly to take over FARC areas. And although the government commits in the accord to stopping the aerial spraying that destroys coca, and to helping farmers grow substitutes, none of that will happen in a hurry.

Despite all that, Mr. Howland sees huge potential in the deal. "You have real desire on the part of most authorities in these areas for positive change: Now we have actors that have been fighting for years, killing each other – they're willing to sit down together and say, 'How do we actually prevent violations of rights in these communities?' The local mayor meeting with FARC to talk about what actions FARC will do in terms of reparation for the community – that's just an amazing change."

And the blunt truth, he adds, is that it will not take much for the FARC's current support base to see their lives improve. "Right now, they have nothing. Going from nothing to something is not that huge an investment … It requires some of their rights to be respected; for them to be included in modern Colombia, for their kids to go to high school and maybe get a scholarship to go to university, for them to have drinkable water and go to a health clinic that has some medicine and right now has nothing."

Yet already there are spikes in violence in the areas where other armed actors are strong – leaders of indigenous groups, environmentalists and campesino movements are being brutally assassinated, by criminals intent on showing who the new power is. "These are the people who really are the hope of the country, wanting to protect the environment and create jobs that transform the economy," Mr. Howland says. But their positions of leadership make them a prime target.

The other key threat he sees to the peace deal is the power of the National Liberation Army (ELN), the leftist guerrillas who are in stuttering peace talks with the government but a long way from any deal. Mr. Howland predicts that some FARC fighters who do not agree with the peace accord, or who grow disillusioned if state promises do not materialize, will defect to the ELN, whose area of influence is already expanding. "They have a significant ability," he says, "to create an awfully large rock in the shoe of the peace process."

Ariel Avila of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation says that the real power of the peace accord is that it ends the justification for armed conflict in the country. "Violence no longer has political cover," he says. "There will still be killings, murders, but they will no longer have justification."

Maria Luisa Celis sits outside the building that the FARC attacked during a town council meeting she was attending in 2005. The building is now an ice cream and photocopy shop.

Maria Luisa Celis sits outside the building that the FARC attacked during a town council meeting she was attending in 2005. The building is now an ice cream and photocopy shop.


'Some of them were so young'

Maria Luisa Celis made a rare trip back to Puerto Rico a few days before the referendum. Towering ceiba trees spread shade over the plaza, the way they did on the day of the massacre. Today the council office is an ice-cream-and-photocopy shop, painted lime green. But Ms. Celis only sees the place where each council member fell. "Dios mio, some of them were so young."

Up the street is the house she abandoned when she left in 2005. She hasn't set foot in it. She received 380,000 pesos, about $170, in compensation from the state for the attack and displacement. A series of lawsuits against the government for its failure to protect her have yielded nothing. More than 200 people from Puerto Rico, the families of the targeted politicians, sought asylum in Canada after the killings, she says, but she couldn't go – her eight children and 19 grandchildren would not all come. And besides, she felt that her work was here.

That's one thing she would like to hear from the FARC at the truth commission: Why kill a town councillor? "I was tired of seeing people with no water, no electricity – it made me desperate. I said if there are ways to make it better, why don't we do it? I don't understand: Why kill them?"

Ms. Celis takes a seat on a green chair on the sidewalk. In the office next door, scrutineers are getting ready for the vote. People soon stop by: Daniela Fuentes, 21, the niece of a murdered mayor whom Ms. Celis knew well, greets her respectfully. Her whole family will vote Yes, but Ms. Fuentes says she's voting No: Her husband is a police officer who will lose his $80-a-month bonus if the deal goes through, and why should they earn less while the rebels go on the state payroll, she asks.

Ms. Celis nods. Then she sees Margoth Vargas, 51, the mother of the man Ms. Celis rescued in the massacre; they embrace briefly. "Even though they killed my brother last year, I'm going to vote Yes – I'm tired! Tired of war," Ms. Vargas says emphatically. Ms. Celis nods again.

Her son Mauricio Tafur, 40, comes to join her for coffee. He's voting Yes, too. "I don't want future generations to live like this. Saying no is like saying the status quo here is acceptable – and we're fine living like this."

Ms. Celis briefly puts her hands over her face.

"I won't vote," she says finally. "But I want peace for this country."


FARC fighters pose with their weapons after a patrol in the jungle near the town of Miraflores on Aug. 7, 1998.

FARC fighters pose with their weapons after a patrol in the jungle near the town of Miraflores on Aug. 7, 1998.


Who’s who

Alvaro Uribe: Colombia’s president from 2002 to 2010, Mr. Uribe waged an aggressive military campaign against the FARC that left the guerrillas weakened. Mr. Uribe has long been accused of close ties to right-wing paramilitaries that carried out massacres of civilians; he also oversaw the demobilization of more than 28,000 paramilitaries. He is a vocal opponent of the Havana Accord, saying it’s too lenient on FARC.

Juan Manuel Santos: Colombia’s current president, who is from one of the country’s most storied political families, was Mr. Uribe’s defence minister and point man on anti-FARC campaigns; thousands of civilians disappeared in the “false positive” scandal, in which innocent civilians were executed as rebels by the military he oversaw. But when he was elected president in 2010, he moved quickly to advance peace talks with the FARC that had begun under Mr. Uribe, and staked his political future on delivering a deal.

Rodrigo Londono: FARC’s current leader goes by the nom de guerre Timochenko. The U.S. State Department alleges that, before he assumed FARC’s leadership in 2011, he was the man in charge of FARC’s cocaine business. He is said to be a trained medical doctor; he received military training in Cuba and the former Soviet Union.

ELN: The National Liberation Army is now Colombia’s largest guerrilla organization. The leftist front opposes mineral and energy extraction that it says does not benefit the poor. It is two years into peace talks with the government, but the insurgency is expected to grow in size and influence with the demobilization of the FARC.

Manuel Marulanda: FARC’s founder, known as Tirofijo, or Sureshot, led the group for decades before his death of a heart attack in 2008. The FARC began in the 1960s as a self-defence group for campesinos, or subsistence farmers, who were being harassed by paramilitaries backed by the state. The revolutionary Marxist-Leninst ideology of the organization came later, by way of intellectuals who joined the movement.

Hugo Chavez: Venezuela’s socialist former president was an important but mercurial ally of the leftist FARC forces, who used Colombia’s eastern neighbour as a refuge and a corridor for their cocaine enterprises. He blocked the first attempts at peace talks under Mr. Uribe, afraid of losing influence. Mr. Chavez died in 2013.

Raul and Fidel Castro: Cuba’s former leader and its current president hosted the peace talks. They offered a place where FARC leaders felt safe, and used the talks to bolster their legitimacy in the region and with the United States.

How peace has failed before

There have been many previous attempts to make peace between the government of Colombia and the FARC, all of which ended in failure when one side or the other did not live up to its commitments.

Before the Havana Accord, both sides lacked the political will to make peace. The FARC used the processes as an opportunity to build its strength, while government initiatives lacked the support of the majority of the population.

1984: President Belisario Betancur attempted a deal with the FARC. The guerrillas created a political party, the Patriotic Union, which would be their face after demobilization – but its members were targeted for killing by government-backed right-wing paramilitaries.

1990: The government reached a peace deal with another leftist organization, the M-19 urban guerrilla movement, infamous for a 1985 attack on the justice building opposite Congress, in which 98 people died. Some M-19 leaders transitioned to become influential political figures.

1998: President Andres Pastrana oversaw a peace process in which the government created a "collection zone" in Caqueta, where the FARC forces would gather and control the territory, with the goal of reducing violence. Instead, the FARC cached arms and increased its revenue from narco-trafficking. The process fell apart in 2002. The backfiring of this peace plan led many Colombians to be skeptical of the current one, and drove the election of hawkish president Alvaro Uribe.

2002: Mr. Uribe was elected on the promise that he would use a strengthened military to defeat the FARC; he had huge financial backing from the United States, which called the FARC a terrorist organization and sought to diminish its role in drug-trafficking. He subsequently succeeded in badly weakening but could not wipe out the insurgency. He also initiated secret talks with the FARC about negotiations, and oversaw the demobilization of 28,000 paramilitary forces.

Blood on everyone's hands

Massacre of the Patriotic Union: A political party created out of some demobilized FARC members was stealthily exterminated between 1986 and 1991. More than 3,600 members were killed, including two presidential candidates, eight members of congress, and 11 mayors. It was never entirely clear who killed them: agents of the government or paramilitaries acting with government approval.

Kidnappings: The FARC waged two kinds of kidnapping campaigns. They took civilians: both low-profile ones, for ransom; and high-profile ones such as presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, for leverage. They also took military hostages, whom they held in barbaric conditions, often chained by the neck, in what were essentially concentration camps. At one point in the 1990s, the guerrillas held more than 400 military hostages.

Land mines: More than 11,000 people, most of them civilians, have been killed or injured by anti-personnel mines; Colombia has the second-largest number of buried mines in the world, after Afghanistan. Most were laid by the FARC, although right-wing paramilitaries also used them.

Massacre in El Salado: In 2000, right-wing paramilitary troops entered this town of 4,000. For two days they selectively executed people, then gathered everyone in the square and played music while they killed more, for a total of 60. Survivors were not allowed to bury the dead, and all were displaced. Soldiers in the town's military garrison did nothing to intervene.

Massacre in Bojaya: In 2002, FARC and paramilitary forces were fighting for control of this rain-forest town. The people took shelter in the church; the paramilitaries hid behind it. The FARC hit it with gas bombs and more than 119 civilians died. The military failed to intervene.

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Stephanie Nolen is The Globe and Mail's Latin America correspondent.

Follow her on Twitter: @snolen