Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC rebel leader Timochenko hesitantly shook hands on Wednesday, after announcing a major breakthrough in peace talks that could end Latin America’s longest war.
During a historic meeting in Havana hosted by Raul Castro, both sides announced they had agreed to create a transitional justice system that will investigate war crimes committed by all parties involved in the conflict.
Guerrilla leaders and army officers who confess to their crimes and collaborate with investigations will have their “liberty restricted” for five to eight years and will be responsible for compensating their victims, the parties said in a statement.
Those who do not collaborate and are found guilty of crimes like genocide, torture, rape, kidnappings or extrajudicial executions will face up to 20 years in prison.
After the agreement was announced, Santos dropped another bombshell, saying that both sides had agreed to sign a final peace deal within six months.
“We are adversaries on two different shores,” Santos said. “But today we are advancing in the same direction, the direction of peace.”
More than 260,000 people, including guerrillas, soldiers, civilians and human rights workers, have died in Colombia’s armed conflict, which began in the 1960s. According to UN estimates, an additional 6 million people have been displaced from their homes since the war began.
The issue of how to prosecute soldiers and guerrilla leaders involved in war crimes was one of the major stumbling blocks in the peace talks, which started in 2012.
Before taking on the issue of transitional justice, both sides had already agreed on new measures to tackle the drug trade, develop Colombia’s rural areas, and ensure the FARC’s participation in politics.
In the following months, negotiators will meet to sort out the conditions under which the FARC will give up their weapons.
The government will also have to tackle resistance to the peace deal from local opposition groups, who say that negotiators have been too lenient on the guerrillas.
Many Colombians expressed concern with the wording of Wednesday’s statement which implies that FARC leaders who admit to war crimes might not necessarily face jail time, but instead be punished through “restorative” measures such as community service.
“How is it appropriate to sanction someone who is responsible for massacres, sexual crimes and thousands of kidnappings to community service?” Colombia’s inspector general tweeted.
The government and the FARC however vowed that the transitional justice system will comply with international human rights protocols.
“We have agreed to a peace jurisdiction that will guarantee that the worst … crimes will not go unpunished,” Santos said.
“This model respects international obligations and humanitarian norms, and it could be useful for other peace negotiations,” around the world, rebel leader Timochenko said.
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.