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The IRA, the US and Colombia's 50 years of violence

Peace talks between the Bogota government and FARC rebels have been under way since 2012.

Colombia Rebels A FARC, rebel stands guard on a hill before the release of two hostages in Montealegre, Colombia, Source: AP/Press Association Images

EARLY YESTERDAY, THE Colombian government announced that it will cease shelling positions held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC, taking a major step towards peace for the first time since 1964.

Peace talks between the Bogota government and the rebels have been under way since 2012 but President Jose Manuel Santos’ gesture was an unprecedented step towards ending the conflict, which has killed more than 200,000 people and displaced more than five million.

The origin of the conflict

Colombia Rebels Bags containing the bodies of alleged rebels, and seized weapons, are shown to the press at military base in Ibague, Colombia in 2014. Source: AP/Press Association Images

Fighting in Colombia has been ongoing since 1948, when populist president Jorge Eliecer Gaitan was assassinated. This led to a decade-long civil war that claimed over 200,000 lives and destabilised the country. In 1962, a US counterinsurgency team recommended the Colombian government attack communist groups which they claimed would attempt to wrest power from the US-supported government.

Special Warfare Centre commander General William P. Yarborough told the US Joint Chiefs of Staff that it should commit “paramilitary, sabotage and/or terrorist activities against known communist proponents” The Colombian army began attacking communist areas, attempting to reunify the country under the control of the national government. In response, the communist party, the PCC, formed FARC in 1964.

A shift in policy

Cuba Colombia Peace Talks Camila Cienfuegos, a member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) takes pictures of a press conference by FARC leaders. Source: AP/Press Association Images

At 1982 meeting, FARC altered its policy on fighting government forces. A boom in the cocaine market had seen their income rise dramatically and they moved from fighting in rural areas to attacking government forced in urban areas and regions rich in natural resources. This led president Belisario Betancur to negotiate a peace deal with FARC, which would last from 1984 to 1987. In this time, FARC members founded a political party, Union Patriotica (UP). The leftist party drew members from unions and among working classes, not just FARC members. In 1990, while talks were ongoing, government forces attacked a compound housing the FARC national executive. The government claimed this was because FARC was not committed to the peace process. Around 10,000 FARC soldiers fought government groups along 70 fronts between 1996 and 98.

Kidnappings and the IRA

ULSTER Sands Ireland RTX Niall Connolly, one of the so-called Colombia Three. Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

In April 2002, the US House of Representatives Committee on International Relations found that at least 15 IRA members had been travelling in and out of Colombia since 1998.

It added that the IRA had received at least $2 million in funding from FARC drug operations.

This followed the arrest of two IRA men and a Sinn Féin representative in Colombia in August 2001. The Colombia Three were charged with training FARC-EP members in bomb-making. They would eventually be found guilty of travelling on false passports, but not guilty of training FARC members.

That decision was reversed after an appeal by the Attorney General of Colombia and they were sentenced to 17-year terms. The men vanished while on bail and returned to Ireland.

The US

Colombia US Hagel Source: AP/Press Association Images

In 1994 kidnapped an American scientist, and in 1999 they killed three US humanitarian workers. This increased pressure from Washington on successive Colombian governments.

However, it’s not as if the murder of their citizens is what sparked US involvement. The New York Times reports that America has spend $9 billion helping fight FARC since 1964.

Colombia is strategically important to the US both for its location in Latin America and its role as a leading producer of cocaine. FARC is estimated to make around $300 million a year from drugs and other illegal activity.

Modern times

Colombia March Women hold up the phrase in Spanish: Life is Sacred, on the palm of their hands, during a peach march coined March For Life in Bogota, Colombia last weekend. Source: AP/Press Association Images

In 2008, hundreds of thousands of people marched on the streets of Colombian towns and cities, demanding the end of FARC violence. In 2009 and 2010, FARC would release soldiers and hostages, some held for over a decade.

However, that did not mean an end to violence. In 2010, FARC killed 460 soldiers.

At the same time, key FARC leaders were killed. On 26 February 2012, the FARC announced that they would release their remaining ten political hostages, releasing the men that April.

That would lead to the talks in Havana which started that August and led to yesterday’s major step.

The future

Colombia Attack Police officers and soldiers stand in front of the destroyed police station of Inza. Source: AP/Press Association Images

Political scientist Jaime Zuluaga said the peace process is going in the right direction. “This is an step forward, one of the most significant in recent months,” Zuluaga said. Analyst Ariel Silva of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation said Santos is pressuring the rebels to negotiate. “It is what any president would have done,” said Silva.

Negotiators seeking to end the more than five-decade guerrilla war at the talks in Havana are under growing international pressure to guarantee justice for crimes committed during the conflict.

Former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan warned during a recent visit to Havana that the International Criminal Court could step in if the final peace deal did not bring justice for victims of the war. Cuba and Norway are guarantors of the peace process. Now in recess, the full-fledged talks are due to resume March 17.

With reporting from AFP

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