Gnarled beams and splinters of wood are all that remain of many houses in Toribío, a town high in the Andes that saw some of the worst of the violence in Colombia's war against the FARC, a left-wing guerrilla army. On one dwelling's surviving wall graffiti in bold yellow letters reads: "I hate your war." Over its 52 years, perhaps 220,000 Colombians died and 7 million were displaced.
Now, Latin America's longest-running military conflict is over. Last Wednesday, negotiators representing Colombia's government and the FARC announced that they had reached a final agreement after four years of talks in Havana.
Although violence subsided in recent years, especially after the FARC declared a unilateral cease-fire in 2015, the war's formal end will allow Colombia at last to become a normal country, and to focus its attention on improving the lives of its 48 million citizens. "Today marks the beginning of the end of the suffering, the pain and the tragedy of war," said Colombia's president, Juan Manuel Santos.
Now he will ask congress for a plebiscite on Oct. 2 to seek voters' approval. Meanwhile, the FARC will hold its 10th, and presumably last, congress as an armed group before transforming into a nonviolent political party.
Santos, and the FARC's top commander, Rodrigo Londoño-Echeverry (known as "Timochenko"), will sign the agreement, probably toward the end of September. Even before the plebiscite, the FARC's 6,500 troops and 8,500 militia will begin handing in weapons to U.N. observers.
Some of the six points covered by the pact gave negotiators little trouble. They agreed years ago on programs to foster development in rural regions, where poverty is rife and infrastructure is inadequate. The accord widens opportunities for small political movements, such as the FARC, to participate in elections. The FARC has committed itself to dismantling drug-trafficking operations, which channeled billions of dollars to the insurgents over the past 30 years, and to discouraging the cultivation of coca, the raw material for cocaine.
Far trickier was the question of how to bring to justice FARC fighters and pro-government forces who had committed crimes during the war. Under the agreement, the FARC is to help make reparations to victims of its crimes, which included kidnapping, mortar attacks on towns and villages and mass expulsions. It establishes a system of "transitional justice," under which FARC fighters who confess will be sentenced to up to eight years of "restricted" movement and community service, but not to jail. The same penalties apply to Colombian soldiers and civilians who admit to having committed atrocities.
These stay-out-of-jail provisions are the most contentious parts of the peace agreement and may yet cause it to founder. Many Colombians are enraged that the FARC will not face harsher punishment.
Opinion polls suggest the vote will be close.
For residents of Toribío and towns nearby, there is little disagreement about how to vote. "It's the people in Bogotá who say 'no' because they don't know what this war has been like," said Javier Escobar, a businessman and farmer in Corinto.
Already, Toribío is enjoying the blessings of peace. The government stopped bombing rebel camps after the FARC declared a cease-fire. Homeowners have started razing ruins in order to rebuild, helped by government subsidies. Children who were told to run home after school now gather in Toribío's shady square to do homework and share ice creams.
A "no" vote is not the only threat to peace. Colombia's smaller guerrilla group, the ELN, continues to kidnap civilians and bomb oil pipelines despite saying it wants to settle its conflict.
Another fear is that the government will renege on its promises to invest in infrastructure, health and education. A congressional committee estimates that the government will have to spend $31 billion on these and other peace-related projects, including reintegrating FARC fighters into society. The drop in the price of oil has slashed revenue. Santos plans to raise taxes, but not until after the plebiscite is over.