Fourteen years ago in the Colombian town of Bojayá, FARC guerillas launched an explosive that landed on the roof of a Roman Catholic church, killing 79 men, women, and children who were huddled inside, seeking safety.
A tragedy of such proportions was hard to comprehend even in a nation inured to the brutalities of conflict. But an event two months ago was in its own way just as extraordinary: The FARC apologized to the people of Bojayá for the “misery and misfortune” it had caused and sought forgiveness.
The FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, have been fighting their country’s government for more than 50 years, meaning most Colombians have never truly known a day of nationwide peace. During that time, over 220,000 people have been killed and more than six million displaced. Many more were kidnapped, forcibly recruited as children, or subjected to sexual violence.
Most of the conflict’s victims, like those in Bojayá, were civilians, often caught between warring parties demanding their loyalty or their land.
Today, Colombia’s peace process is at a pivotal stage. When Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos visits Washington this week, President Obama and I will commend him for bringing his country closer than ever before to ending the war. We will discuss the tough issues that remain to be resolved at the negotiating table. And we will share plans to support Colombia as it moves into a new era.
We will also take time to reflect on the partnership that made peace possible. Plan Colombia -- launched in 2000 and sustained over three U.S. administrations -- helped transform a nation on the verge of collapse into a strong institutional democracy with historically low levels of violence. Under that initiative, the bipartisan leadership of Congress and the executive branch worked closely with officials in Bogotá to help train and equip the country’s armed forces and police so that they would be more professional in providing security and fighting crime, while also protecting human rights.
The key to Plan Colombia’s success was its comprehensive vision of how security is established and maintained. Law and order is only part of the equation. With support from the United States, Colombians moved ahead on multiple fronts to improve governance, reform the judiciary, enhance opportunities for Afro-Colombian and indigenous groups, provide support for the victims of conflict, and extend protections to journalists and civil society. Just as important, the government came to terms with the fact that human rights abuses were committed not solely by rebel groups, but also by its own forces -- and that those abuses, too, must be stopped.
All this matters to the United States because Colombia boasts the fourth largest economy in Latin America, a highly-educated population, and a vast potential for growth. It is an Andean nation, a Pacific nation, a Caribbean nation and an Amazonian nation with neighbors that include Brazil and Venezuela. The country’s transformation in the past 15 years -- and its ambitions for the future -- are important in themselves but also as a possible example for others.
The Plan Colombia approach need not apply to Colombia alone. For U.S. taxpayers, it is important to note that Plan Colombia required an investment of some $10 billion over more than a decade. But we would never have made that investment if the Colombian people and government had not made their own commitment -- and devoted their own resources -- to the plan’s success.
All told, the U.S. investment in Plan Colombia was less than five percent of the total cost. As a U.S. senator, I worked across the aisle with colleagues over successive administrations of both parties to help ensure Colombia got the support it needed. The success of those efforts makes it all the more essential that we get the endgame right.
Having helped Colombia create the conditions for a peace accord, the United States must now help Colombia seize the enormous promise that peace affords. The Obama administration will soon present to Congress a successor strategy aimed at further enhancing security gains, cracking down on trade in illegal drugs, and providing the means for redress and recovery in areas vacated by the FARC.
As with the original plan, Colombians themselves will bear most of the cost, but unique U.S. capabilities can help them win the peace. No peace accord will bring back the many lives lost in Bojayá and across Colombia over the past half century. But Colombians now have an historic opportunity to embrace a future free from conflict and violence; and the United States has good reason to stand by their side.
Editor's Note: This opinion piece originally appeared in the Miami Herald.