COLOMBIA — one of the most dangerous places on the planet and epicentre of the global drugs trade.
But the South American country only occasionally breaks through the headlines now, because of attempts to end the 50-year-old war.
It’s the longest running such war, displacing 15% or 6.2m of its 48m-strong population, causing the deaths of a quarter of a million people and the disappearance of many more.
The name of Pablo Escobar — the cocaine king that controlled almost every part of the drugs trade and dictated a large amount of life in Colombia until his death in 1993 — has been resurrected in Narcos, the TV series that tells his story.
The role played by Irish volunteers fighting with Simon Bolivar to liberate the country from Spain in the 1820s was supplanted by IRA volunteers allegedly training with FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, around 2005.
But despite the lack of headlines, one of the most extraordinary political changes has been taking place in the country for the past three years with the end in sight as both the government, under President Juan Santos, and FARC agree a deal, brokered in Cuba.
This is not just a “hand in your arms and we will forgive you” deal, its a complex, wide-ranging plan that would see the country normalise, work its way out of the drugs trade, put land back into the hands of the dispossessed, the involvement of the rebels in politics and an amnesty for fighters except for those guilty of the worst crimes.
Eamon Gilmore, former tánaiste, foreign minister and leader of the Labour Party, has been asked to take his experience of cross-border diplomacy with Northern Ireland and represent the European Union’s foreign chief, Federica Mogherini as her international peace envoy.
This is the EU’s and Ms Mogherini’s first step in appointing a specific peace envoy and is similar to the role George Mitchell was appointed to in the Northern Ireland peace process by then US president Bill Clinton. Mr Gilmore’s role will mainly involve the next stage, bedding down the peace with the EU contributing what it can in funds and expertise.
He has visited Bogotá, the capital, and met with various people including President Santos who has agreed a deadline of March 23 for the signing of their peace deal, and plans to hold a referendum on it in June.
“The President made it clear to me they very much welcome the EU support for the process,” said Gilmore.
“The support is recognised in Colombia as the EU bringing an even-handed balanced support of the peace process itself.
“He made it clear that they want to start implementing the agreement once it is signed. There are a number of ways, materially and technically that the EU can help, including the agreed EU Trust Fund for Colombia.”
Both the EU and its member states will have a lot to contribute through programmes that have helped poorer European states such as with rural development, land reform. They will also have to help ween people off growing coca and substitute it for other crops.
Countries, including Ireland, also have practical experience of implementing post-conflict agreements, including those involving people in local government that he says can help.
“The people of Colombia have suffered so much, there is political will to resolve this now and also an opportunity for Europe to contribute in a very practical way to what is the only major conflict in the western hemisphere now,” he said.
One of the big steps making this possible was the joint agreement reached in September between President Santos and the leader of FARC, Rodrigo London known as Timochenko, on what is called transitional justice for crimes. They have also agreed to create a “truth and justice” commission to investigate the deaths and disappearances.
Not all the crimes were committed by FARC — there are many guerrilla organisations in the country and it is hoped that they too, including the ELN which is the most prominent will take advantage of the situation to lay down their arms also. Right-wing paramilitary groups set up to battle FARC are responsible for the majority of killings, tortures and disappearances according to the National Centre for Historical Memory.
However not everyone is happy with the agreement, with many victims seeing it as allowing the killers of their loved ones to get off free. The former president, Alvaro Uribe, has criticised the peace deal championed by his former defence minister, President Santos. His tough line against FARC is credited with bringing them to the negotiating table.
The agreement will also offer a challenge to the traditional approach to fighting against illegal drugs at a time when the United Nations is urging countries to reconsider their approach, to legalise and control them instead and divert the massive resources spent on fighting the drug traffickers to education and substitution. They point to the fact that the current situation is not helping anybody with producer countries like Colombia getting about 2.6% of the street value of the drugs — and the rest going to those further up the line in the more wealthy countries.