DAVID GREENE, HOST:
We have been reporting on so much grim news - terrorist attacks, a refugee crisis. This morning, some very good news to report out of Colombia. This afternoon in the city of Cartagena, the Colombian government and the rebel group known as the FARC are planning to sign a peace treaty. This would end a conflict that started a half century ago and has killed more than 200,000 people.
Reporter John Otis has been covering both the Colombian war and this peace process. He's in the city of Cartagena and joins me on the line. John, good morning.
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Thanks, David. It's good to be here.
GREENE: Well, it's good to have you on the program. It sounds like a really historic day. Can you just sort of explain to us the meaning of this?
OTIS: Yeah. Well, it really is momentous news, especially for Latin Americans. Most of the region's presidents are here for the signing ceremony as is U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Secretary of State John Kerry. And what they're going to see today is Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and the leader of the guerrillas Timoleon Jimenez sign a peace treaty to end Latin America's longest guerrilla war. It's a treaty a lot of Colombians thought they never might see because, you know, there were three previous efforts to negotiate with the FARC dating all the way back to the 1980s. But under this peace deal, the rebels will now have six months to turn in their weapons to U.N. inspectors and then they plan to form a left wing political party, which is really not a bad option for the FARC because as we've seen over the years in Latin America a number of former guerrilla leaders - everyone from Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega to Brazil's Dilma Rousseff - have come to power through elections.
GREENE: Well, and these are guerrillas who have been fighting a war that has really affected the lives of many Colombians, right?
OTIS: Very much so. The war has cost 200,000 lives. Five million Colombians have been uprooted from their homes. The FARC was responsible for something like 8,000 kidnappings, and they were also this huge player in cocaine trafficking. But, you know, all of this doesn't mean that Colombia's problems are just going to disappear. There's still going to be drug trafficking, and there's also a smaller rebel group that's still running around out there. They're called the ELN.
But the FARC is by far the biggest illegal armed group in the country. They still have 7,000 fighters. So getting them off the battlefield is really going to open up this country to more tourism and more investment. And so you do see a lot of celebrating on Sunday. For example, government negotiators visited a war-wrecked community near Cartagena to explain the treaty, and they were met with hugs.
GREENE: But I've been reading, John, that there is some controversy over this. Why is that?
OTIS: Well, that's right. There's a lot of controversy. The problem is the FARC committed so many human rights abuses over the years. They were engaged in everything from extortion to illegal gold mining. And so a lot of Colombians have a very cynical view of the FARC. They see them more like some criminal gang, say, than some idealistic Che Guevara-style rebel force. Another problem - there's just not going to be very much justice under this peace accord. FARC leaders accused of war crimes as long as they confess before a special tribunal that's going to be set up under the peace accords, they'll probably just get a couple of years of community service and no prison time. And that's led to a lot of resentment and that really could be a problem because Colombians are going to have the final say in all of this. There's going to be a referendum next Sunday. Colombians have to vote either yes or no on the peace deal. Polls show the yes side winning, but, you know, as we saw on the Brexit vote a few months ago, voters can be unpredictable.
GREENE: Yes. That is true. All right. Reporter John Otis speaking to us from Cartagena, Colombia, where a historic peace deal is going to be signed between the government and the FARC rebels today. John, thanks a lot.
OTIS: Thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.