Colombia: Guerrillas Demobilize, Forgive + Move On - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Colombia: Guerrillas Demobilize, Forgive + Move On

Colombia: Guerrillas Demobilize, Forgive + Move On

By Wesley Tomaselli

Members of the M-19 leftist rebel group leave a Cuban airliner after it arrived at the Jose Marti Airport in Havana, Cuba from Bogota, Colombia.
SourceJaques Langevin/AP


History can offer clues about the possibilities of peace in situations that once seemed hopeless: It takes forgiveness.

By Wesley Tomaselli

Is peace with a guerrilla movement, followed by democratic political reintegration, actually possible?

As Colombia continues to negotiate in Havana with its notorious FARC rebel group, its own history suggests maybe so.

Twenty-five years ago, on Sept. 26, 1989, after eight years of stop-and-start peace dialogue, the Colombian government signed a preliminary agreement with the M-19, a left-wing, primarily urban guerrilla group. In March of the following year, M-19 actually put down its arms. 

M-19 sprang out of the political turmoil that embroiled Colombia in 1970 following a fraudulent election.

Among M-19’s negotiators at that table was a curious figure: a tall, lanky former professor with round spectacles and a narrow face. His name was Antonio Navarro Wolff. Navarro had taught engineering at the University of Valle in Cali. He’d given up his university post over a decade earlier, in 1974, and joined M-19’s cause.

“M-19 wanted to be a catalyst of social action,” says Colombian sociologist Fernando Natanael Cubides Cipagauta. 

M-19 rebels carrying coffin across mountainside

M-19 rebels carry the coffin of Mayor Afranio Parra.

M-19 sprang out of the political turmoil that embroiled Colombia in 1970 following a fraudulent election on April 19, which lends the movement its name: Movimiento 19 de Abril (April 19 Movement). Its ideological aims were vague.

The group never grew beyond 2,000 fighters or so, much smaller than other guerrilla movements of the day, like the FARC, but grew famous by creating spectacle.

In 1974, when M-19 was just starting, guerrillas stole the sword of Latin American independence leader Simón Bolívar and declared that they would not give it back until Colombia was at peace. 

But their spectacles turned to tragedy. In 1985, M-19 seized Colombia’s Palace of Justice, killing guards at the entrance. They took the Supreme Court justices hostage, and demanded a trial of Colombia’s then-president, Belisario Betancur. But M-19’s quest for a show trial turned into a bloody nightmare. Eleven out of the 25 Supreme Court justices held hostage were killed in action during the ensuing military raid.

“If someone comes along and says, ‘But man, M-19 committed human rights violations’ … well, yes, they did,” says Navarro, reflecting on M-19’s legacy. “In what kind of war does that not happen?”

Former Colombian senator Piedad Cordoba (back-R) and former member of the M-19 guerrilla Antonio Navarro Wolf (back-L)

Former Colombian Sen. Piedad Córdoba (right) and former member of the M-19 guerrilla Antonio Navarro Wolff

Navarro’s cold attitude toward his guerrilla movement’s legacy perhaps reflects his own suffering.

In May 1985, five months before the siege, as peace talks had begun to stall, Navarro found himself with his comrades in a café having breakfast in the western Colombian city of Cali when a soldier tossed a grenade at him. Navarro could barely see through the smoke. As he struggled to regain his senses, he saw that, next to him, his comrade had been hit in the gut, and the man’s pregnant partner was bleeding. And then he realized what happened to himself: The grenade had blown off his leg from his knee down.

“Brother …,” he said, turning to his friend, “they killed me.”

He was sobered of revolution and armed struggle. He wanted political participation for M-19. 

Almost. Navarro had already participated in failed peace talks, just before he suffered the attack on his life. That combat experience hardened the character of the soon-to-be M-19 negotiator. 

Colombian journalist Andrés Bermudez writes that the country’s esteemed novelist Gabriel García Márquez helped Navarro to get to Mexico City, where García Márquez had fled for political refuge a few years earlier. In Mexico City, Navarro’s leg was amputated, and then he was flown to Cuba, where he was fitted with a prosthetic leg. The blast also severed a nerve in his neck, which shut off control of the left side of his tongue, permanently distorting his speech.

But when 1989 rolled around, the war-weary university professor wasn’t afraid to talk, and he sat down at the table in Colombia as a negotiator for M-19 with President Virgilio Barco Vargas’ government in a bid for peace. He was sobered of revolution and armed struggle. He wanted political participation for M-19.

The terms of the agreement Navarro helped negotiate ensured protection for M-19 members, allowed political participation for its leaders and blazed a trail for the reform of Colombia’s constitution in 1991, which, according to Navarro, made huge democratic advances.

Colombian police officers carrying coffin.

Colombian police officers carry a coffin.

The demobilization of M-19also spurred peace negotiations and later demobilizations with three other Colombia militant groups, the EPL, PRT and the indigenous group Quintín Lame Armed Movement.

Pragmatic, not ideologically stubborn, is how many define the ex-militant, and it’s the same attitude with which Navarro has survived Colombian politics since he joined the Bogotá arena in 1990. Today, he is a senator.

Despite the promise of protection, Navarro’s guerrillas-turned-politicians faced political persecution. Just weeks after laying down arms in March 1990, M-19’s presidential candidate Carlos Pizarro was assassinated, allegedly by Pablo Escobar’s Medellín cartel.

In Havana, Cuba, today, Colombia’s peace talks with the FARC are marching toward a two-year anniversary in November. They’re still not talking demobilization, and many Colombians remain hotly resentful toward the FARC. Navarro, however, has a simple cure for resentment.

“I don’t regret, and I have never regretted, how all of this left me without a leg and talking how I talk …,” he says.“You have to forgive.”

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