Rebooting Peace in Colombia

 This article was originally published in the Huffington Post

Colombians and Allies From 8 Countries Launch a 1,500 Mile Caravan for Peace

What now? That was the question Colombians and their friends around the world asked after Colombians narrowly voted NO to Peace Accords aimed at ending fifty years of war between the government and FARC rebels.

Few wanted combat to resume, but there was no obvious plan B for peace.

Following the vote, news coverage focused on Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. In spite of the defeat of the peace accords he had tirelessly negotiated, Santos was awarded the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

If you live in the United States, you probably haven’t heard much more. Violence didn’t break out right away and media attention has quickly faded – disappearing amidst the non-stop coverage of US elections.

In Colombia, the news thus far is pretty good. For the moment, peace has held its own in the absence of a formal agreement. Most Colombians really want peace and the Caravan for Peace, Life and Justice, which starts this week (just two days after the U.S. election), is just one example of ordinary Colombians stepping up to the unfinished tasks of reconciliation, including steps toward drug policy reform outlined in the peace accords.

According to Former Executive Secretary of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission Emilio Alvarez Icaza, who will join the Caravan, “Colombia’s efforts to turn away from war and build a lasting peace are a beacon of hope to people throughout the Americas who are struggling with seemingly intractable violence.”

Logo Caravan ColombiaSix well-known Colombian human rights and justice organizations have convened this “Caravan for Peace, Life, and Justice”. They’ve invited allies from around Colombia and the region – from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, the United States, and Argentina – to join them on a 1,500-mile journey. These allies – civil society leaders, journalists, academics, human rights professionals, youth leaders, and family members of disappeared -will go to some of the places hardest hit by the civil war. All along the route they will meet with Colombians to listen, discuss, march, brainstorm, and envision a future together, free of the violence that has touched virtually everyone in some way.

The leaders from throughout the region will reflect on their own struggles – many of which are exacerbated by the common failed and counter-productive policies of the war on drugs. While Colombia’s long, brutal and costly war has its roots in vast income disparity and political exclusion, the war was paid for – both on the paramilitary right, and the guerilla left – largely by massive profits from illegal drug trafficking.

No peace deal, even if voted in overwhelmingly, can eliminate the profits that motivate the regional drug trade and which, in turn, fuel violence. Breaking that chain will require a dramatic shift in regional drug war priorities; from today’s militarized prohibition of all drugs to sensibly nuanced legal regulation based on a public health model that accepts cannabis and focuses resources on helping people with addictions and other problematic drug use.

But change in regional drug policy needs the cooperation of the United States, the same country that invented the drug war back in 1971 and has devoted billions to pursuing it every bloody year since.

In a hopeful development for peace in the Americas, cracks in the drug war façade are, finally appearing everywhere. In the US, voters have taken the lead in initiating drug policy and criminal justice reform at the ballot box. In Colombia, President Santos was a leader in convening last April’s meeting of the UN General Assembly on drug policy, the first such global meeting since the 1990s. He has made support for international drug policy reform a priority of Colombian diplomacy. Santos understands that as long as Colombia is entangled in a disastrous regional prohibition strategy, true peace will remain elusive.

That UN General Assembly was the motive of a Caravan earlier this year, which travelled through the northern triangle of Central America – Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, where the drug war has led to the highest homicide rates in the world – deep into Mexico and all the way to New York City. Leaders shared stories of communities and countries devastated by the ever more militarized drug war – and called for an end to the failed policies criminalizing drugs. Many of the leaders and organizations that led that effort will join their Colombian brothers and sisters to launch this next phase of the struggle for peace, life, and justice.

Alvarez Icaza, who has just finished his four-year term with the Inter-American Commission in August, believes that “civil society actions like this Caravan can accelerate dialogue and speed the processes of reconciliation. That can give hope not just to Colombians, but to millions more throughout our region who are looking here for inspiration.”

The Caravan starts in Bogota, passes through Magdalena Medio, Barrancabermeja one of the Colombia’s regions hardest hit by violence in recent decades. From there the Caravan travels to meet with organizations in the highly militarized zones of Eastern Antioquia and then on to the city of Medellin to meet with many sectors including municipal officials involved in ongoing community reconciliation work. It will also visit with marginalized communities in Valle de Cauca, and student organizers in the city of Cali. In its final leg, prior to returning for big events in Bogota, the Caravan heads to Northern Cauca to meet with indigenous communities who have a big stake in the success of peace efforts.

We build the common ground needed for peace when we listen to, understand, and help each other”, says Alvarez

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