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World

Colombians To Vote Sunday On Peace Agreement With Rebels

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Colombia has been celebrated in recent days for ending Latin America's longest guerrilla war. The peace accords call on the rebel group known as the FARC to lay down its weapons. The deal is expected to be approved this Sunday when Colombians vote on it. And if so, it would vindicate one Colombian politician who spent years facing down the rebels at the negotiating table. Reporter John Otis has his story.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos signed the peace agreement this week before an ecstatic crowd. Some of the loudest applause came when he introduced his negotiating team.

(APPLAUSE)

OTIS: Its leader is Humberto de la Calle, who spoke with NPR earlier this year during the final stages of the peace talks. He's now 70. But De La Calle was just an infant when he had his first brush with political violence. During a wave of killings in 1947, he says his family was forced off their coffee farm in central Colombia.

HUMBERTO DE LA CALLE: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "They threw rocks at our house and gave us 24 hours to leave. If not, they said we would die."

DE LA CALLE: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: As they escaped, the 6-month-old De la Calle was smuggled to safety inside a woven basket. Much later, De la Calle found success in politics. He was elected vice president in 1994 but resigned after President Ernesto Samper was accused of financing his campaign with drug money. De la Calle also headed an effort to negotiate with the FARC guerrillas 25 years ago. It still haunts him that those earlier talks fell apart.

DE LA CALLE: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "It's so sad it didn't work out because from that point on, the war got much worse."

Fueled by profits from drug trafficking, the FARC stepped up its attacks and kidnappings. Army-backed death squads carried out massacres. More than 200,000 people have been killed in the fighting, which began in the 1960s.

In 2012, the FARC finally agreed to another round of peace talks in Havana, Cuba. In an interview with NPR, President Santos explained why he tapped De la Calle to lead this new effort.

PRESIDENT JUAN MANUEL SANTOS: He is very down-to-earth, a very pragmatic person. The fact that he had past experience in peace process - he had the qualities and the prestige.

OTIS: It took four years. But the two sides finally reached an agreement that calls on the FARC to get out of the drug business, disarm and form a political party. De la Calle's role in ending the war is fueling speculation that he may run for president in 2018.

But critics say he was too soft on the FARC. They're especially angry that rebel leaders accused of war crimes can avoid prison by confessing before a special tribunal.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Spanish).

OTIS: Some are taking to the streets to urge Colombians to vote no in Sunday's referendum. De la Calle has hit the road to defend the peace agreement. He recently traveled to Carmen de Bolivar, a village near the Caribbean coast and a former war zone.

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UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing in Spanish).

OTIS: There, he was met by children who sang for him. In return, De la Calle presented them with copies of the peace treaty.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DE LA CALLE: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: He told the townsfolk, "we've been experimenting with war for 52 years. Now it's time to give peace a chance."

For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Bogota, Colombia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.