BOGOTA, Colombia (Circa) - Take a look at this letter. This one, right below.
If I told you that was written by a FARC member - Colombia’s infamous guerrilla rebel group - would you believe me? It’s flowery, colorful. Almost childlike. Not what one would expect from a war-hardened Marxist guerrilla rebel, written from within Colombia’s dense jungles.
But indeed, this is a letter from a FARC member, to an average Colombian citizen. The letters speak of peace, acceptance, understanding. It’s all part of a letter exchange program called Cartas Para La Paz - “Letters for Peace.” Before I get into explaining what these letters are and the purpose they serve, let me back up and explain what the FARC are, first.
FARC is an acronym for the Spanish name “Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia” which, translated, means “The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.” They’re a communist/marxist guerrilla group that formed in the 19060’s, with the goal of equalizing Colombia’s notoriously disparate socioeconomic classes.
But the FARC gained notoriety for their violent and cunning tactics. They used kidnapping, murder, bombs, and various methods of torture to make gains in their fight towards equality in Colombia. As recently as 2012, the FARC were committing heinous acts against the people who stood in their way. In February of 2012, Colombian publication El Espectador reported this:
“For resisting to place a 'donkey bomb' in the [region] of El Palo, in the rural area of the municipality of Caloto, Cauca; the Farc sewed a peasant's mouth with wire, they lacerated his hands and gave him several stabs.”
Many countries, including the US, officially labeled the FARC a terrorist organization.
But in September of 2012, after waging war for over 50 years, both government and FARC leaders decided to pursue a peace deal. Leaders volleyed back and forth for months. The government offered the FARC these terms: agree to a complete ceasefire, hand in your weapons, and disband as a guerrilla group. In return, we’ll forgive your crimes and recognize you as a legitimate political party, with 10 representative seats in government.
The FARC complied. A ceasefire led to a complete disarmament, and in June of 2017, the FARC handed over all their weapons to the UN.
But the country became deeply, bitterly divided.
Both sides dug their heels harder. Conservatives are appalled at the notion that the FARC could walk free from their crimes, and even more so at the idea that they could have a hand in government. Liberals say they’re fed up with the war, and more than ready to embrace peace and move on.
(That was an extremely cursory overview of the FARC, and the peace process at large. It is a very complicated situation with many layers of history and considerations. These are the barest basics you need to know in order to put these letters into context.)
So, back to the letters.
Juana Oberlaender is the director of a company called Enlaza, which operates the Letters for Peace program. She came up with the idea of a letter exchange, pen pal style, after a peace referendum in October of 2016 failed to pass. The race was breathtakingly close, and yet highlighted how cleanly divided the country had become (a 50.2% majority voted no). Her thought process was, if we can bridge this communication gap, maybe we can help each other gain perspective on the “other side” and come to a faster resolution on the peace agreement.
The letters have been eye opening. Colombian citizens, from both sides of the political spectrum, have written of their desire to see a resolution. Many are loving messages to the FARC, encouraging them to embrace a life on the straight and narrow, to integrate as a productive member to Colombian society. At the time of filming this story, Juana and her team counted 700 letters back and forth.
But the FARC letters came back with a very different tone.
“Many of the letters came back very loving, but also, a lot of them don't understand why they're being forgiven," Juana says. "They don't feel like they need anyone's forgiveness because a lot of them firmly believe in the fight they've waged. That terrible things happen in war, that's just the reality, and they did what they had to do in order to fight for a more just Colombia."
Whether it's the response Colombian citizens were hoping to get, it definitely highlighted the ever-present disparity across Colombia. But, that's what Juana hoped for. A method of communication, be it to agree or disagree. But communicate, at the very least.
"What we're doing right now is using these letters as a really important tool that allows us to reflect on the importance of the dialogue and reconcilliation in Colombia."
The letters didn't solve anything. The peace process is still an ongoing issue in Colombia. But they did bridge a communication gap, over 50 years in the making. In March of 2018, the peace process again suffered losses in an election primary. And in May of 2018, a presidential election could be the make or break moment for this arduous peace process.
Check out some of the other topics we covered during our time in Colombia. These Colombian citizens say they're ready to move on from the stigma of Pablo Escobar, but the world won't let them. Did you know that Escobar's former drug mansion, Hacienda Napoles, has been transformed into a family-friendly amusement park? Seriously. And these women, who sell sweets to tourists on the streets in Cartagena, are using a centuries old recipe that dates back to their ancestors in the slave trade.
Because we're definitely craving an adventure this year.