BOGOTA, Colombia — For 40 years, army Gen. Javier Florez battled the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Now his mission is to make sure thousands of the rebels are safe as they disarm and return to civilian life under a historic peace deal.
It’s an improbable journey that Florez says has forced him to alter his soldier’s perspective as the country undergoes profound changes after more than five decades of conflict.
“There are situations as a soldier that you don’t understand,” Florez told The Associated Press in an interview Monday, describing his shift from one of the FARC’s most feared military adversaries to one of its most trusted government confidants.
The transformation began when President Juan Manuel Santos two years ago asked Florez to give up his position as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, the armed forces’ No. 2 position. He wanted the general to negotiate face-to-face with the FARC on how 6,000 guerrilla fighters would turn over their weapons and reintegrate into civilian life.
The 59-year-old Florez said he sweated making his decision. At that point, peace negotiations were dragging into their third year and many in the U.S.-backed military questioned whether years of hard work driving the rebels to the edges of the jungles would be undone by a piece of paper.
Between three coffees and a cigarette, or maybe three cigarettes and a coffee, Florez jokes, he thought about the political vortex into which he was plunging his family.
“I thought they would call me a traitor, as in fact happened,” he said, recalling the attacks on social media he suffered from retired officers and conservative opponents of Santos’ peace effort. “I had to disarm my spirit, my soul and my heart and understand that Colombian society is very complex.”
The sacrifice appears to have paid off. Last month, Santos and the FARC announced they had reached a deal to stop fighting. In the coming weeks, the accord will be signed at a ceremony and then voters are expected to ratify it in a nationwide referendum.
The cease-fire component negotiated by Florez sets out a detailed protocol by which the FARC will mobilize its troops to 28 rural areas across Colombia and over six months gradually turn over their weapons to a United Nations-led mission of international observers.
Key to the accord, Florez said, was guaranteeing the FARC will be treated with dignity and not as a surrendering force despite the widespread contempt many Colombians hold for the group over its past involvement in drug trafficking, kidnapping and bombing of civilian targets.
That was something he struggled with the night before his first meeting in Cuba with a rebel known as Carlos Antonio Lozada, a warlord Florez had personally hunted years before as head of the military’s elite Omega forces.
He said two fellow generals who were on the government’s negotiating team from the outset, former police chief Oscar Naranjo and former military chief Jorge Enrique Mora, gave him a last-minute pep talk that prepared him for what would become the toughest mission of his life.
“They calmed me down, making me understand that I wasn’t just representing the armed forces but something bigger: the Colombian people,” Florez recalled.
Over coffee breaks and leisurely walks at the convention center in Havana where talks took place, he began to understand that Lozada faced many of the same pressures from inside the FARC not to cede too much to the government. By the end, enough trust had been built up that Florez recently toured with Lozada a guerrilla camp where he would have been a trophy prisoner not long ago.
Under the deal, both rebels and soldiers who committed abuses in the line of duty will have to confess their crimes to special peace tribunals or face up to 20 years in prison. That grates on some conservative critics, who say putting professional soldiers before the same courts that will judge rebels who systematically subverted the rule of law is a humiliation.
But for Flores, military crimes such as the extrajudicial killings of potentially thousands of civilians represent only a small fraction of the conflict’s horrors. He said it is only fitting that hundreds of soldiers already serving time or facing charges for such crimes receive the same benefits as FARC fighters.
“We’re not going to abandon these people,” he said of those soldiers, attributing their crimes to the psychological damage from years of bloody conflict. “If we’re going to forgive the terrorists, why aren’t we going to forgive those who acted badly?”