Colombians vote on the historic peace accord with the guerrillas.

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Colombians vote on the historic peace accord with the guerrillas.

During a wave of terror in the 1990s here in northern Colombia’s cattle country, rancher Alberto Muñoz’s brother was slain after refusing to make extortion payments to Marxist guerrillas targeting farmers for kidnappings and shakedowns.

But Mr. Muñoz said that on Sunday he will reluctantly vote for the peace accord President Juan Manuel Santos signed with his brother’s tormenters, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Polls show a majority of Colombians will approve the 297-page deal in the referendum vote. But like Mr. Muñoz, many remain wary of the FARC and are irritated by what they see as substantial benefits the rebels enjoy under the deal.

“All of us are going into this with a lot of uncertainty,“ Mr. Muñoz, 60, said at a livestock auction in a swath of ranchland where landowners were at the epicenter of a fierce war between rebels that sometimes trafficked drugs and paramilitary groups that were centered on that trade. “I don’t want future generations to live what we lived through,” he said.

While the deal ends half a century of conflict, it also paves the way for the guerrilla group to disarm and convert into a political party with 10 guaranteed seats in congress. It allows the FARC’s leadership to avoid jail time and grants stipends to demobilized combatants, concessions that have roiled sentiments in this politically polarized country.

Rancher Efraín Mejía isn’t ready to forgive. He recalls the hefty ransoms he had to pay to free himself and his brothers from rebel captivity. He says the rebels killed some of his workers, stole 1,300 head of cattle and forced his family off three farms.

“I can’t accept it. They ruined me,” Mr. Mejía said of the vote Sunday. “The day I see the FARC entering the senate, I will be devastated.”

The Santos administration acknowledges that the deal, negotiated over four years in Cuba and signed on Monday, isn’t perfect. But Mr. Santos says it doesn’t promote impunity because it forces FARC members to admit crimes before special tribunals, which would then sentence them to some form of confinement and make them compensate victims. The United Nations and the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which prosecutes war criminals, have backed the deal.

Ending the conflict and demobilizing 7,000 FARC fighters, Mr. Santos said, will improve security and economic opportunity in once-violent regions.

A woman holds balloons and a candle on Thursday during a rally organized by supporters of the “no” vote for the upcoming referendum on the peace deal. ENLARGE
A woman holds balloons and a candle on Thursday during a rally organized by supporters of the “no” vote for the upcoming referendum on the peace deal.

“I know we have reached the best possible deal,” he said in an interview. Mr. Santos also said that if “No” wins on Sunday, there will be no new negotiation, something his opponents are calling for.

“There have been a lot of rumors and myths and lies about what we are negotiating,” said Mr. Santos, whose detractors have said Colombia could be turned into a communist state if “Yes” wins.

The “No” campaign, led by former President Álvaro Uribe, faces an uphill fight. Most polls show that more than 60% of prospective voters favor the agreement.

“This agreement generates a sense of resentment among the Colombian people, not forgiveness,” Mr. Uribe, whose father was killed by the FARC, said in an interview at his Bogotá office. “There is no adequate punishment, and without punishment there is no justice.”

That sentiment rings home among many ranchers in this region.

“In what developed country does the government sit down to negotiate with terrorists? Would the U.S. negotiate with Islamic State?” said William Botero, who had a “Colombia Votes No” sign on the back of his pickup truck.

Though Sunday’s vote isn’t necessarily binding, government officials privately acknowledge that high voter abstention or a preponderance of “No” votes could hurt the accord’s legitimacy as Colombians embark on an uncertain path toward peace.

A poll released Tuesday by Ipsos found that more than half of 1,500 respondents said they plan to vote in the plebiscite, with 66% saying they will approve the accord. But two out of five participants said they knew little to nothing about the terms of the accord.

Reinaldo Copete, 35, coordinator of a counseling center for victims, is among those here voting “Yes,” though, he too has his doubts. Noting that his family was forced from their village during the conflict, Mr. Copete said he finds it unfair that rebels receive aid and training while poor people struggle to get by.

“In Colombia, we say it’s better to be a criminal than a victim,” Mr. Copete said. “It pays better.”


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