May 18, 2016 / 10:07 PM / 2 years ago

Colombia troops, ex-guerillas may protect rebels in peace: minister

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia’s FARC rebel leaders will likely be protected by their own demobilized security units in coordination with the armed forces once peace is signed and the Marxist group enters politics, the defense minister said on Wednesday.

Colombian soldiers stand guard at a street in Caloto February 6, 2014. REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga

The government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are expected to agree to end five decades of conflict this year, and ink an accord that would allow the group to form a political party and enter civil society.

“We cannot allow that Colombian politics is carried out with weapons, not for the FARC or against the FARC,” Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas said in an interview, adding the group’s security was still being discussed at talks in Havana.

“Like with the M-19, there’ll be initial participation (of reintegrated rebels); that’s obvious.”

Paramount to the negotiations is how the former guerrillas would avoid the fate of other demobilized rebel groups.

The FARC-inspired Patriotic Union was decimated in the 1980s when right-wing paramilitary death squads killed 5,000 of its members and supporters, including two presidential candidates.

Another rebel group, the leftist M-19, was permitted to use its own members as security staff after losing a presidential candidate to assassins.

Even though paramilitary groups demobilized back in 2006, many members remained armed and formed new crime gangs focused on drug trafficking and illegal mining.

While Colombia has had patchy success in its fight against illegal drugs - a $10 billion U.S. campaign did little to dent coca cultivation - the government says it will turn all its military resources against the gangs, whose links with Mexican cartels have made them more sophisticated.

Air raids and U.S. intelligence will be used against their 3,000-strong operations, Villegas said.

An end to the war between rebels and the government, which has killed more than 220,000 people and displaced millions, may allow the FARC alternatives to jail, a perk not available to crime gangs.

Bringing total peace to Colombia would be a drawn-out process of at least 20 years that would require changes in education and culture, Villegas said.

“The end of conflict with the FARC is a very good start to a country at peace within a generation,” said Villegas, who was a government negotiator before becoming minister.

“Here there are other problems of violence that are part of our idiosyncrasies, our culture, our civic intolerance against which we must fight, especially in terms of education,” Villegas said.

Reporting by Helen Murphy, Editing by Julia Symmes Cobb and Richard Chang

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