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Colombians Prepare For The Prospect Of Peace

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now to news of Colombia where history is in the making. That South American country was once synonymous with drug cartels and guerrilla violence but is now preparing to sign a peace accord with Marxist rebels. This will end a conflict that began in the 1960s and has killed more than 225,000 people.

John Otis reports from the Cuban capital of Havana where the talks are being held.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia the rebel group known as the FARC began here at the Havana Convention Center in 2012. A key figure in pushing the negotiations forward is Colombian Peace Commissioner Sergio Jaramillo. He says a deal could soon be signed allowing the FARC to disarm and form a political party. For its part, the government has pledged to develop impoverished, rural areas that gave rise to the FARC in the 1960s.

SERGIO JARAMILLO: We're in the last stretch of very intense and long negotiations that started with secret talks over four years ago.

OTIS: Jaramillo has spent much of his life working towards this goal. After studying philosophy at Oxford and Cambridge, he returned to Colombia to run a think tank focused on ending the war. He then served as deputy defense minister during a major military offensive against the FARC. But Colombia's mountains and jungles gave the guerillas plenty of hiding places, while profits from the cocaine trade kept them supplied with guns.

JARAMILLO: So the combination of all the things gave the FARC a solid base to keep them going for a long time. And we had an extremely bitter war in the '90s and the beginning of this century, which people don't know too much about. But in some cases it reached Vietnam-like conditions.

OTIS: Still, the army raids weakened the FARC and convinced its commanders to open peace talks.

PASTOR ALAPE: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: One of them is Pastor Alape who joined the FARC 37 years ago. He now sits across the negotiating table from Jaramillo as well as army generals who are part of the government's team.

ALAPE: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Negotiating with them can be more intense than fighting in the jungle, Alape says. But he adds, both sides came here with a conviction that the war must come to an end. Still many Colombians are leery of the accord. The FARC is deeply unpopular due to its past involvement in drug trafficking, massacres and kidnappings.

But under the peace accords, FARC commanders who confessed to the crimes would face only token punishment rather than long prison sentences.

ALVARO URIBE: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: This amounts to impunity for terrorists, says former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe. He's the most high-profile critic of the talks. However, after a peace accord is signed, the Colombian government plans to hold a referendum that will allow the voters to decide whether or not to accept the deal. Jaramillo believes they will come down on the side of peace.

JARAMILLO: Because of this ingrained skepticism, people still don't think it's going to happen. But I think the day that the announcement will be out that the war ended in your lifetime that's going to make everyone think about themselves, their families, their children and there's going to be a change in attitude.

OTIS: The peace treaty is expected to be signed in Havana later this summer. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Havana, Cuba. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.