“The Virtue of the Word:” Former Colombian Guerillas Reflect on the Struggle for Peace

On March 9, 1990, fighters from Colombia’s M-19 guerrilla group assembled beneath the towering statue of Simon Bolivar in the center of Medellin to mark their own personal farewell to arms. Exactly 25 years later, many of the same faces returned to the same site to mark the anniversary of the historic M-19 peace accord and to call on those involved in Colombia’s current peace talks to follow their path to peace and reconciliation.

In the shadow of Bolivar – venerated as “The Liberator” of Colombia – the ex-M-19 guerrillas stood shoulder to shoulder with veterans of Colombia’s past peace processes; the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), the Medellin popular militias and even the right-wing paramilitaries of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). Their shared message was directed at those currently negotiating peace from within the ranks of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN), and the Colombian state: Now is the moment for Colombia to leave behind the bloody legacy of more than half a century of armed politics.

“I believe this is going to be the year of peace,” said Luis Guillermo Pardo, a former member of the M-19 command in the state of Antioquia. “There are differences between our process and this one, but today we are showing the FARC and the ELN that peace is possible, we did it, we are still alive and we are still struggling for peace.”

The M-19, or 19th of April Movement, was born out of the allegedly fraudulent presidential election of 1970, when former dictator General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla went to sleep on April 19 as the apparent President-elect and woke on the 20th as a defeated candidate.

With the PR flair that would come to define their insurgency, the M-19 announced their arrival with the audacious robbery of Simon Bolivar’s sword from a Bogota museum. “Bolivar is not dead. His sword has broken through the cobwebs of the museum and will launch itself into the conflicts of the present. It is in our hands. And it is pointed at the exploiters of the people,” read the message they left behind.

The group captured the imaginations of the country’s youth in a way the FARC and other guerrilla groups never had and began recruiting heavily among students and disaffected youth in Colombia’s cities.

“The M-19 was a guerrilla group that was very intellectual and it was urban,” said Pardo. “We had commanders that were very symbolic, thoughtful, lucid.”

Whereas the FARC was seen as authoritarian and dogmatic, the M-19 offered something open and exciting, a difference embodied by their leader Jaime Bateman with his wild hair, quick smile and slogan “the revolution is a party.”

However, the party was not to last.

By 1985, the M-19 had an estimated 2,000 fighters and was Colombia’s second biggest insurgency after the FARC. Despite the death of Bateman in a plane crash in 1983, they were riding high. But then the leadership decided on yet another spectacular operation; they would storm the Palace of Justice in Bogota, home to the country’s Supreme Court, and place President Belisario Betancur on trial for breaking his promises over peace talks.

Betancur refused to play their game, instead ordering the army to retake the palace. The operation ended in an orgy of blood and fire, leaving over 100 people dead – among them 11 Supreme Court judges – and the reputations of both the guerrillas and the army in tatters.

The seizure of the Palace of Justice was a disaster for the M-19, losing them popular support and costing the lives of several key leaders.

While the guerrillas were reeling from this setback, they were also facing a more insidious threat – the influence of drug trafficking.

“Drug trafficking was permeating every sphere of society, and that included the guerrillas,” said Augusto Osorno, another ex-member of the M-19 leadership in Antioquia.

The M-19’s first forays into the world of drug trafficking backfired spectacularly. When they kidnapped the family members of leading narcos, cartel leaders formed a paramilitary death squad that hunted the guerrillas down.

However, despite this episode, the M-19 maintained a relationship with the most notorious trafficker of them all, Pablo Escobar, although the extent of their collaboration with “El Patron” remains fiercely debated today.

With the dream of overthrowing the government rapidly receding and fears about the corruption of the movement by narco-money growing, when President Virgilio Barco Vargas reached out to the M-19 to offer a negotiated exit, the rebel leaders entered into talks.

“We decided to begin a peace process because we saw there were conditions to broaden democracy in Colombia and we believed that the war was saturated, at least for the M-19,” said Pardo.

For Osorno, the negotiations were a revelation, offering the chance to sit down and talk with their enemies face to face and to reflect on what they were trying to achieve and the mistakes they had made in their struggle.

“You have to listen and to speak so that it is not just guns that are heard, that it is not the rattle of rifle fire that is listened to but the virtue of the word,” he said. “With the word we began to understand that we could come to an agreement.”

On March 9, 1990, the peace accord was signed and the M-19 began to demobilize. However, while the armed revolution was over, for many of its leading figures the political work was just beginning.

Their first task was to help draw up a new constitution for Colombia, with the M-19 playing a central role in drawing up a document widely seen as one of the most progressive constitutions in the region – in theory at least, if not always in practice.

Many then launched political careers, and since demobilizing, former M-19 guerrillas have been elected mayors, governors, congressmen and senators and stood in presidential elections. Among them is Gustavo Petro, who currently holds the second most powerful political office in the country – mayor of Bogota.

Augusto Osorno was elected to the Antioquia Assembly and has worked at the ministry of the environment, while Luis Guillermo Pardo helped found the M-19 Democratic Alternative party in Antioquia, has held several public positions, including Medellin Peace Advisor, and is the president of a local NGO.

For Osorno, while post-conflict life hasn’t always been easy, the results vindicate their decision to abandon the armed struggle.

“The constitution and these [political] advances in Colombia have shown us that arms cannot continue to be an instrument of political struggle,” he said. “Arms have become the biggest obstacle to constructing democracy.”

This message was echoed by all of those gathered in Medellin to mark the anniversary of the peace deal, who called on the FARC, the ELN and the government to take inspiration from their successes and learn from their mistakes.

Negotiations between the FARC and the government are now into their third year, and following agreements on rural reform, political participation, the drug trade and a soon to be announced proposal on victims’ rights, talks have now turned to how to end the conflict.

The process is taking place under conditions that have changed dramatically since the M-19 demobilized in 1990. The FARC, fuelled by drug money, extortion and kidnapping grew into a formidable military machine and even after a US-backed military onslaught reduced their numbers by around half, they still retain an estimated 8,000 fighters.

However, while the FARC have garnered far more military power than the M-19 ever could, they have little popular support, as their public legitimacy drained with every new act of indiscriminate violence, criminal behavior and victimization of the civilian population.

Although times have changed, the former M-19 members believe their experiences contain valuable lessons for the government, the FARC, and their smaller cousins in the ELN – who have been engaged in informal negotiations for the past year.

For Osorno, the lessons from the M-19 negotiations for the government are clear; it is not enough to demobilize a guerrilla army, they must also ensure the departing insurgents do not leave behind a vacuum, whether it is territorial, economic or in the lives of former combatants.

“The state has to fill theses spaces where the guerrillas were,” he said. “If the state doesn’t appear these spaces will be filled by criminal groups.”

Pardo, meanwhile, aimed his message at the FARC, calling on the guerrillas to take note of how the M-19 has continued its political struggle without arms despite violence against leftist politicians and activists in Colombia.

“For peace, you have to risk everything, if not it doesn’t make sense,” he said. “You have to risk everything for what you love, for what you desire, if not, life has no meaning.”

The ceremony in Medellin ended with former guerrilla fighters and a politician convicted of paramilitary collusion singing the M-19’s official song, the Hymn for Peace. Twenty five years ago, the song may have seemed a strange choice for an armed and violent insurgency. But now, it sounds about right.