KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Latin America's longest-running guerrilla war may finally be over. The Colombian government and Marxist guerrillas known as the FARC have been fighting since the 1960s, but now they have announced the outlines of a peace deal that they hope to sign in the next six months. The agreement was sealed with a handshake in Havana, Cuba, And it got a push from that now-familiar peace activist, Pope Francis. To talk about this peace deal, we are joined by John Otis. He reports for NPR from Colombia. And welcome to the program.
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Thank you very much.
MCEVERS: John, first, can you remind us what has this war been about, and how devastating has it been for Columbia?
OTIS: Extremely devastating. The war's been going on for over 50 years. It began in the mid-1960s, and since then, there have been a quarter of a million deaths. There have been human rights abuses all over the place. It's just been a terrible war, and its just been grinding on and on.
And one problem is that the FARC guerillas - they started out as sort of your typical Marxist guerrilla movement fighting for land reform, but over the years, they've morphed into more of a drug trafficking organization. And their profits from drug trafficking have allowed them to buy weapons and just continue the war even though it's sort of lost a lot of its ideology.
MCEVERS: So now these two sides have finally agreed on a path toward a peace deal. What's in the deal?
OTIS: Well, there's a lot of things in the deal, but the main sticking point had been what was going to happen to members of the FARC guerrillas who were involved in grave human rights abuses. And yesterday in Havana, where the peace talks have been taking place, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced that they had struck a deal to have a form of transitional justice to deal with FARC members involved in human right abuses. And that's opened the door to get a final peace treaty that President Santos says he hopes will be signed within six months - in other words, March 2016.
MCEVERS: Well, yeah because it used to be that to end a guerrilla war, you would - you know, both sides would get sort of a sweeping amnesty, and nobody would be held accountable. I mean, now you talk about this idea of a transitional justice for some of the people who fought the war. How would that work, exactly?
OTIS: What they did is they decided to form a special tribunal that will focus on the worst and the most serious cases of human rights abuses, and those guerrillas that cooperate will receive sentences of five to eight years.
But it probably won't happen in a normal prison. They're trying to work out sort of an alternative penal system where perhaps they will go to do agricultural work on farms in war zones. However, FARC members who don't cooperate - they could be sentenced to up to 20 years in jail, and that would be inside a regular prison.
MCEVERS: These negotiations have been going on for years - three years, to be exact. I mean, this agreement seemed to come pretty quickly. Why did it happen now, and why did it happen in Cuba?
OTIS: Well, I think it's been off people's radar for a while, but they have made steady progress. This breakthrough came on the heels of the Pope's visit to Cuba. He's the first Latin American Pope. He's from Argentina which itself had a terrible guerilla war, and there were many, many human rights abuses. So the Pope knows all about guerilla conflicts in Latin America. In his Sunday mass, he prayed for both sides to really take this opportunity to reach a final accord, and it seems like both sides are doing just that.
MCEVERS: John Otis, who reports for NPR from Colombia, thank you so much.
OTIS: Thank you very much.
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