President Juan Manuel Santos and leaders of Colombia's largest rebel group vowed to end Latin America's longest-running armed conflict in the coming months after a breakthrough in talks put the country closer to peace that it has been in half a century. Speaking in Havana, the site of talks, Santos announced yesterday that government and rebel negotiators, prodded by Pope Francis, had set a six-month deadline to sign a final deal. After that, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia would demobilize within 60 days. "We are on different sides but today we advance in the same direction, in the most noble direction a society can take, which is toward peace," said Santos, minutes before a forced, cold-faced handshake with the military commander of the FARC guerrillas, known by his alias Timochenko. The US lauded the breakthrough, with John Kerry saying that "peace is now ever closer for the Colombian people and millions of conflict victims."
In a joint statement, Santos and the FARC rebels said they had overcome the last significant obstacle to a peace deal by settling on a formula to punish human rights abuses committed in 50 years of bloody fighting. Under the terms, rebels who confess abuses to peace tribunals, compensate victims, and promise not to take up arms again will receive from five to eight years of labor but not in prisons. War crimes committed by Colombia's military will also be judged by the tribunals and combatants caught lying will face up to 20 years in jail. While a final accord may be within reach, the huge challenges of implementing it are just beginning. Negotiators must still come up with a mechanism for rebels to demobilize and then the government needs to come up with additional money to spread the benefits of peace. A more immediate test comes via a referendum, in which Colombians get a chance to reject any deal, which must also clear congress. (Read more Colombia stories.)