Updated 6 months ago

After Five Decades of War, Colombia Signs Peace Agreement With Rebels

In a Caribbean resort city, far from the jungles where guerrilla battles once raged, the Colombian government and the country’s largest rebel group signed a peace agreement on Monday evening.

The ceremony, held in Cartagena, brought an end to a 52-year-old war with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, whose Marxist insurgency marked the last major war in the Americas.

“What we sign today is a declaration from the Colombian people before the world that we are tired or war,” President Juan Manuel Santos said in his prepared remarks, “that we don’t accept violence as the means of defending ideas.”

It was a moment perhaps reminiscent of the Good Friday Agreement that ended the conflict in Northern Ireland or the Oslo Accords that promised peace in the Middle East. And it was an image that generations of Colombians had yearned to see on their soil: A sitting president shaking the hands of the very rebel leader whom government forces had once hunted in the mountains, as the two sides pledged a future of peaceful politics.

“Let no one doubt that we will now pursue politics without weapons,” said Rodrigo Londoño, the top commander of the FARC, offering an apology to the war’s victims.

Soon, the choice will be in the hands of the Colombian people, who have the last word. Mr. Santos, who as defense minister ordered offensives against Mr. Londoño’s forces, has called for a referendum vote on Sunday to ratify the accord he has signed. Polls indicate that it will coast to victory by a wide double-digit margin.

The FARC’s war against the government marked one of the first left-wing insurgencies in Latin America, a struggle that would inspire guerrilla movements from Cuba to Nicaragua. While the conflict gradually diminished, the group’s fighters, in the tents and hammocks of their hide-outs, continued to preach Marxist armed struggle until early this year.

“This was like the stars that have burned out years ago — but still you can see their light for many years afterward,” said Bernard Aronson, the American diplomat who worked as an intermediary during the talks. “This is what the FARC had become.”

The war tore the social fabric of Colombia. Decades of fighting brought the rise of paramilitary groups who massacred civilians and burned villages. The FARC eventually turned to the profitable cocaine trade to finance its insurgency, while shaking down rural people and terrorizing city dwellers with kidnappings and killings.

All told, some 220,000 people lost their lives and more than 5 million were displaced.

Many argued that the time had come at last to end generations of unrest.

“Who could oppose that people go back to using the land? That there are no more children in war? That the mines be removed?” said Armando Benedetti, a Colombian senator and longtime supporter of the peace deal.

Yet the agreement has faced stiff criticism, most notably from Mr. Santos’ predecessor as president, Álvaro Uribe. Mr. Uribe is widely credited with the crackdown that brought the FARC to the negotiating table. He has since become the leader of the movement to sink the deal through the referendum, saying that the government had gone too easy on the guerrillas and calling Mr. Santos a “traitor.”

“With these agreements, there is neither justice nor truth for the victims,” said Mr. Uribe, who is now an opposition senator in Congress, in a Twitter post.

In coming months the FARC will hand over arms to United Nations inspectors, beginning a process in which they will begin a life as ordinary Colombians. In return, the country will agree to a “transitional justice” system in which, according to Mr. Santos, rank-and-file soldiers will be granted amnesty or given reduced sentences for crimes they committed.

The rebels held what they called the 10th Conference last week, where many began to plan their future. Guerrilla fighters donned T-shirts and attended outdoor concerts as they voted to end their insurgency. Many saw it as their first step toward a life after their rebellion.

The process of reconciliation will continue in Colombia, long after the signing ceremony and even the referendum, as the country pulls together.

Yet the survivors must live with their memories of war.

There are those like Yolanda Perea, who as an 11-year-old in 1997 was living in the village of La Pava when a guerrilla entered her home, which had no door, walked past her five siblings and her grandfather, and raped her with a gun pointed to her head.

Ms. Perea did not know she had become pregnant until another guerrilla beat her and she had a miscarriage. Days later, she said, several more guerrillas arrived and fatally shot her mother.

Ms. Perea eventually had two children. She lives in Medellín working with a nongovernmental organization that protects women’s rights.

She is planning a “yes” vote for the referendum.

“I don’t win anything if I continue to hate,” she said. “I have to vote yes because peace depends on each of us. There are more of us who are good, and we simply have to keep fighting for a quiet country for our children and grandchildren.”

The accord was celebrated in other cities around the world. At a gathering in Times Square, David Oliveros, a 19-year-old college student from Bogotá who is studying biochemistry at Columbia, choked up as he described the peace agreement. “I’ve never lived in a country in peace, without war,” he said. “It’s a moment I’ve waited for all of my life.”