Colombian voters narrowly rejected a historic peace accord on Sunday that was supposed to end a war between the country's largest rebel group and the government that has lasted more than half a century.
The peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish acronym FARC, failed by about 0.5 percent, or 61,000 votes, in a referendum.
Opinion polls predicted an easy victory for the "yes" campaign championed by both President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leaders, who held a festival-style congress last month and celebrated their imminent transformation into a political party.
The shocking result now plunges the country into uncertainty.
Santos and a FARC leader known as Timochenko ceremoniously signed the deal last Monday before an applauding audience of 15 presidents, UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
With the upset yet to fully sink in, Santos called an emergency meeting of the top peace negotiators and security chiefs in the country. He later gave a short statement to the press in which he accepted the loss at the polls but said the current ceasefire with the guerrillas would remain in place.
Opposition to the peace accord, which took four years to negotiate, was led by former President Alvaro Uribe, who complained that it allowed the rebels to get off too easily for crimes committed during the conflict. The deal promises special courts and provisions that would allow for rebels who confess to crimes to avoid jail time.
The war with the FARC was the longest and the most intense of the multiple conflicts in Colombia that together are blamed for the deaths of about 220,000 people and the displacement of some 7 million others. While rebel groups were responsible for much of the violence, many of the worst atrocities were carried out by state-backed paramilitary groups and government forces supported by massive amounts of U.S. aid.
Opponents of the peace deal also argued that the government negotiators were greenlighting former FARC fighters, who financed much of their war by doubling up as cocaine traffickers, to boost their new careers in electoral politics with dirty money.
The FARC formed during a peasant uprising in 1964, at the beginning of the first wave of Marxist-inspired rebellions in Latin America. Almost all of those groups would eventually be wiped out or transform into political parties.
The Colombia accord paved the way for FARC's metamorphosis, beginning with the concentration of its remaining 7,000 fighters in special UN-monitored zones designed to serve as halfway houses into civilian life. With the government and the rebels treating the referendum as little more than red tape, the process had already begun.
Now the FARC, the Colombian government, and the Colombian people face an unknown future. Commentators on Colombia's Caracol TV stressed that much now hangs on how the FARC will react to the vote.
"The FARC reiterates its willingness to use only words as a weapon to build toward the future," Timochenko told the network later in his first, rather vague, response to the result. "The Colombian people who dream of peace can count on us, peace will triumph."
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