Sep 24, 3:21 PM EDT

Political, legal barriers face historic Colombia peace deal

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BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) -- A stunning diplomatic breakthrough leaves a minefield of problems standing between Colombia and the tantalizing prospect of peace after generations of armed conflict.

President Juan Manuel Santos and leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia are celebrating Wednesday's announcement that they had crossed what many see as the point of no return after three years of peace talks by settling on a formula to punish human rights abuses.

They set a six-month deadline to sign a final agreement ending more than half a century of drug-fueled fighting.

Still to resolve, though, are legal obstacles, such as dozens of U.S. drug warrants for rebels and the threat of lawsuits by victims, as well as political considerations, such as widespread mistrust of the guerrillas' intentions and the puzzle of how to pay for peace at a time of economic malaise.

Under the terms, rebels who confess crimes to special tribunals, compensate victims and promise not to take up arms again will receive from five to a maximum of eight years of labor - but no prison time.

War crimes by government forces will also be judged by the tribunals, and combatants on either side of the conflict caught lying will face penalties of up to 20 years in jail.

Some critics complain the provisions are too light on a guerrilla group accused of repeatedly kidnapping civilians, forced recruitment of child soldiers and sexual violence.

Human Rights Watch said it's difficult to imagine how such an arrangement could survive a serious review by Colombian or international courts.

Former President Alvaro Uribe, whose military offensive helped push a weakened FARC to the negotiating table, said it would generate more violence and fuel impunity by putting patriotic Colombian soldiers on the same witness stand as the "terrorists."

Uribe's comments foreshadow what's likely to be a bitter political fight to ratify any deal. While details are still being worked out, Santos has vowed to hold at least a symbolic referendum and congress also must pass legislation implementing any deal.

Polls show Colombians overwhelmingly loathe the FARC, and as recently as June a majority favored trying to defeat the rebels militarily instead of negotiating with them.

Santos has acknowledged that Colombians will have to "swallow some toads" if they want to bring an end to a spiral of violence that has claimed more than 225,000 lives.

Then there's the whopping cost of attacking the root causes of the insurgency: crushing poverty, inequality and a lack of state presence in the Colombian countryside that have seen an exodus of more than 5 million internally displaced people. The estimated costs of implementing already agreed-upon provisions for rural development and combatting drug trafficking start at $30 billion over the next decade.

Colombia will have to build roads, provide training for farmers and redistribute land while coping with an economic shock from crashing oil prices. Santos also may not be able to count on as much foreign assistance as he did when waging war. From a peak in 2007, U.S. economic and military assistance to the South American nation has declined 58 percent to around $325 million this year.

Another unknown is whether the FARC's leadership will be able to enforce disarmament and a cease-fire on its estimated 6,400 troops, many of whom are involved in Colombia's lucrative cocaine trade.

In 2006, the U.S. indicted 50 leaders of the FARC on charges of running the world's largest supplier of cocaine to the U.S. While the U.S. is unlikely to shelve the requests, a source close to the talks, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Colombian government is working on guarantees that FARC leaders who honor their commitments won't be sent to U.S. prisons.

But especially for mid-ranking commanders, the opportunity to recycle themselves into Colombia's flourishing criminal underworld may be greater than any incentive to lay down their weapons, no matter how light the punishment.

Thousands of members of the right-wing paramilitary groups that were originally founded by ranchers to fight the rebels went rouge after a 2003 peace deal, joining criminal gangs that today represent Colombia's top public security threat.

Despite the obstacles, supporters are optimistic.

"Implementation is going to be a challenge, but that's true for most peace settlements," said Bernard Aronson, President Barack Obama's envoy to the talks and a former senior State Department official who worked on the end of civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua. "The encouraging news is both sides are committed to making it work.

"This is probably the FARC's last chance to enter politics through a negotiated settlement and a successful peace agreement will be the capstone of Santos' presidency."


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