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Expert: FARC Must be Free to Tour Colombia for Peace to Triumph

Carlos Medina Gallego says Colombians who have doubts about the peace process can only be won over with the help of the rebels.

In response to the controversy over the visit of leading members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia to a the town of El Conejo, Carlos Medina Gallego, an expert on the internal conflict in Colombia, argues that — instead of hindering these kinds of visits — dialogue between rebels and the public should be encouraged.

Gallego, a professor at the National University of Colombia who has written extensively about the armed conflict, told Contagio Radio in an interview Saturday that the success of the peace process depends on the Colombian public feeling confident that an agreement will actually bring peace to the country.

For Gallego, the only way that will happen is if all parties can freely visit and talk with communities to convince them that the peace process should be trusted.

Talks between the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, have been ongoing since 2012 and are in their final phase, with a deal expected to be signed in late March.

However, the peace process has hit what analysts inside Colombia consider to be one of its most significant stumbling blocks, after news emerged that members of the FARC peace delegation visited a town alongside armed combatants.

Right-wing politicians, such as former president and current Senator Alvaro Uribe, called the actions of the FARC “armed proselytism.”

The FARC responded by saying that it was an “unwarranted controversy” generated by politicians who have always opposed the peace process.

Gallego agreed with the FARC, saying that there are politicians who deliberately exaggerate these kinds of incidents in order to “show there are shortcomings in the process.”

Nonetheless, the Santos government responded to the controversy by banning FARC peace negotiators from visiting their camps.

Gallego argues that this is the wrong strategy. He believes that not only should the FARC be allowed to visit their guerrilla camps, but that they should also visit other communities to promote the peace process, just as the government does.

“The communities have many doubts, they have uncertainties about the process that will follow the signing of the agreement and the reach of the agreement,” said Gallego.

“Who better than the FARC — who have been operating in those territories, who maintain a relationship with the people of those territories — be those who illustrate the benefits the peace process and the realities of the agreements … to the population in the areas where they have been and where the conflict has taken place,” he said.

According to Gallego, who works closely with communities affected by the armed conflict, residents are concerned that the vacuum left by the exit of armed FARC combatants will be filled by right-wing paramilitary forces.

Residents must feel confident this will not occur in order to win their support for the peace process, argues Gallego, thus the intervention of the FARC is indispensable.

“I believe it is important that the negotiating table … come to an agreement to create a unified communicative discourse directed at Colombian society,” said Gallego.

As for the controversy over the appearance of FARC leaders alongside armed guerrillas, Gallego reminded the public there is no bilateral cease-fire in place. “The FARC are under a unilateral cease-fire … and it would not have been prudent for this organization to have attended as if they were covered by a bilateral cease-fire and as if there was zero risk,” he said.

Despite the controversy over the presence of armed combatants, the tone of the event with the FARC delegation was decidedly festive, with speeches emphasizing the coming and much hoped for peace.