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Colombian official visiting US next week to drum up support for FARC peace deal

By JIM WYSS | Miami Herald | Published: July 9, 2016

HAVANA — Oscar Naranjo, the former head of Colombia’s national police and one of the most lauded lawmen in the hemisphere, will be in South Florida next week to try to build support for a peace deal with the country’s largest guerrilla group.

In some ways he’s entering enemy territory. Many Colombian exiles are suspicious of the deal that will allow members of the FARC high command to evade prison sentences and become political players. The trip also comes on the heels of bad news: the specter of dissent among guerrilla ranks and a massive spike in the coca crops that finance the conflict.

Gen. Naranjo spoke to the Miami Herald in Havana, where he’s part of the government team that has spent more than three years trying to nail down a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Naranjo, 59, said he was eager to listen to the critics of the peace process “in Florida and everywhere else,” but he also asked that they be open to the idea that 60 years of armed conflict has failed to provide lasting solutions.

“Security for security’s sake is pointless unless it leads to the ability to coexist, and war for war’s sake is pointless unless it leads to peace,” Naranjo said during a break in peace talks last month. “What could never be forgiven is for society to feel condemned to perpetual conflict and not to see a solution other than armed confrontation.”

The trip comes at a time when peace in Colombia seems inevitable. Last month, the two sides agreed on a roadmap that will lead to a bilateral cease-fire and disarmament. And President Juan Manuel Santos has said the overarching peace deal might be finalized as early as July 20, though such deadlines have been missed in the past.

But Naranjo is also likely to face questions about potential fissures in the process. This week, reports emerged that the First Front of the FARC might not be willing to fall in line and disarm. On Friday, Attorney General Alejandro Ordonez — a longtime opponent of the peace process — said that the First and Seventh guerrilla fronts, representing about 750 soldiers, were resisting demobilization.

Whether that threat becomes a reality remains to be seen. And while Naranjo said no peace deal in history has been iron-clad, there are reasons to be hopeful.

The FARC “has a model of command and control — down through the hierarchy — that’s very different from other groups,” he said. “They’re more cohesive, and I would say that provides guarantees that there will not be a mass desertion … that will risk the deal we sign.”

Also on Friday, the United Nations said Colombia’s coca production had increased 39 percent in 2015, hitting an eight-year high. The area under cultivation doubled from 2013-2015, the report found.

Those skeptical of the peace process are likely to use that as proof that the FARC (considered one of the nation’s biggest players in the drug trade) have no intention of giving up the lucrative business, as the agreements require them to.

Naranjo argues that ending the conflict will be the best antidote to the narcotics trade. Much of the country’s coca cultivation and labs are in longtime conflict zones where voluntary crop-substitution programs weren’t viable, he said. Under the peace deal, the FARC have agreed to help eradicate the crops, and both guerrillas and government will be launching a pilot program on Sunday to do just that.

But when it comes to reducing violence, the peace process — even before a deal has been signed — is bearing fruit, he said.

When negotiations began in 2012, Colombia’s violent death rate was hovering around 36 deaths per 100,000 population, he said. Now it’s at 29 per 100,000.

“Even without reaching a deal you can tell we’re on the right path,” he said. “Far from seeing a spike in violence — despite not having a ceasefire — violence has fallen to the lowest levels in the last 37 years.”

Many of the deal’s skeptics, including Human Rights Watch and former President Alvaro Uribe, worry about impunity.

Once peace is finalized, many rank-and-file soldiers may be eligible for amnesty, but those accused of major crimes — including rape, torture and extrajudicial killings — will be eligible for sentences of five to eight years in locations other than prisons if they meet certain conditions.

While there are still few details about the exact nature of the detention program, the government has assured critics that those who go through the transitional justice program will be supervised, see their movement restricted and live in “conditions of austerity.”

“Just because someone doesn’t go to jail doesn’t mean there’s impunity,” Naranjo said of the judicial program. Those alternative sentences will only apply to people who tell the truth, offer reparations and guarantees of non-repetition.

 “You have to see it as whole,” he said. “There are alternatives that don’t require traditional punishments.”

In addition, the regular court system simply can’t handle the complexity and load of trying an estimated 7,000 to 9,000 guerrillas. “The ordinary justice system would be overwhelmed,” he said. “It would lead to a massive amount of impunity.”

Naranjo’s trip will also take him to Washington and New York. The U.S. has been a staunch supporter of Colombia, and the Obama administration has pledged $451 million to support post-conflict and drug eradication projects.

While the Andean nation has always enjoyed bipartisan support, Naranjo said negotiators also have their eye on U.S. presidential elections in November.

In that sense, the stars are “aligned,” Naranjo said. Obama and Santos are both promoters of the peace deal, and the FARC agreed to talks in Cuba at a time of a rapprochement between Havana and Washington, he said.

“We can’t let these stars become unaligned and enter different orbits,” he said.

If a peace deal is signed, it will still have to see approval in a referendum. And even then, there’s a long road ahead, Naranjo said.

“People think that you sign a peace deal and peace comes with it automatically,” he said. The government has insisted that the real work begins after the deal is in place.

“It’s one thing to end the conflict,” he said, “but starting from there, we have to build peace.”

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