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Former FARC Guerrillas Join Colombia's Congress


Now to Colombia - where a 2016 peace treaty has paved the way for former members of the FARC, a Marxist guerrilla group, to join the government. In fact, 10 ex-rebels were recently sworn-in to Colombia's Congress. Reporter John Otis has more.

VICTORIA SANDINO: (Speaking Spanish).

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: That's former guerrilla and freshman senator Victoria Sandino speaking before the Congress. It's a sound many Colombians thought they might never hear. For decades, leftists were shut out of Colombian politics. That's one reason why the FARC took up arms in 1964. The war lasted 52 years and killed a quarter of a million people. But now, Sandino and her FARC colleagues have disarmed and formed a political party, also called the FARC. Under the peace deal, the FARC is guaranteed 10 of the 280 seats in Colombia's House and Senate for the next eight years.

SANDINO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Sandino tells me it's very important for Colombia to have former guerrillas in the political arena where decisions are made that affect the country. But others are dismayed.

GABRIEL VELASCO: I have had trouble seeing them in Congress. That was for me a shock.

OTIS: Gabriel Velasco is a senator from Colombia's right-wing ruling party. During the war, he says the guerrillas kidnapped his brother-in-law and killed his father-in-law.

VELASCO: People who have committed crimes against humanity shouldn't be - if they don't go through justice, they shouldn't participate in politics or in Congress.

OTIS: That was the original plan laid out by the 2016 peace accord. Before serving in Congress, FARC politicians were supposed to go before a special transitional justice court to face accusations of kidnappings, massacres and other crimes. But due to delays, the court began operating only last month - around the same time Colombia's new Congress was sworn-in.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: At the court's inaugural session, FARC leaders were charged with ordering more than 8,000 kidnappings. If found guilty, they must compensate their victims. But as long as they tell the truth, they will face no jail time, and FARC lawmakers will retain their seats.

SANDINO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Sandino says she also expects to be called before the court. But for now, she's getting used to life as a legislator.

SANDINO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Wearing a black blazer and purple turban, she moves easily among her new colleagues here in the ornate Senate chambers. Perhaps that's no surprise because she's faced bigger challenges. Sandino fought for 25 years in the FARC and carries shrapnel from wounds to her arm and buttocks. She then helped negotiate Colombia's historic peace treaty. Meanwhile, average Colombians say they're getting used to having ex-guerrillas as lawmakers. In the plaza, just outside the Senate building, I meet Carlos Bustos, a retired banker.

CARLOS BUSTOS: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: He says it's better to have them debating ideas in Congress than fighting in the jungle and killing innocent people. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Bogota, Colombia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.