Waging peace: Juan Manuel Santos

Image of Juan Manuel Santos

How Juan Manuel Santos, Kansas ’73, ended Colombia’s 52-year civil war with the help of a Nobel Peace Prize

He was known as “Bump-a-Quarter-Juan” to several of his Delta Upsilon brothers. Juan Manuel Santos, Kansas ’73, had a talent for winning just about any poker game he played. The frequent games, held in the kitchen of Kansas Chapter house, were low stakes—nickel, dime, quarter wages—where the winner would leave with, at most, $10 to $15. Nearly every time it was Santos’ turn, he would see the bet and “bump” a quarter, the maximum he could raise.

“Juan was a gambler, so he would just bump a quarter, bump a quarter, bump a quarter,” recalls Phil Miller, Kansas ’73. “He would just keep raising the stakes.”

Of course, sometimes Santos would lose, but not very often. Combining his winnings with skills he was learning in business school, Santos would eventually raise the stakes even higher and switch games. It’s a story Santos has retold fondly over the years. Taking his poker winnings from the DU house, he played the stock market, investing in Pizza Hut, a company new to the stock ticker in 1972. With his earnings, he would buy himself his first car.

Fast forward more than four decades. Santos is still gambling; this time, his political capital for peace. Today, Juan Manuel Santos is in the midst of his second term as president of Colombia. He was elected both times on the promise of peace, on the promise to end civil war. And he’s winning. Even at a time when his approval ratings are their lowest, Santos has managed to broker peace with the FARC rebel group, not once, but twice. The second time with the help of the Norwegian Nobel Committee.

After 52 years, Colombia is no longer wrought by civil war. Colombia has won. Brother Santos has won, and he can now go by a new name: Nobel Peace Prize Recipient.


The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) was founded in 1964 as an armed wing of the Communist Party. In Colombia, much of the land was owned by few—the elite—and FARC’s founders, mainly farmers and land workers, aimed to fight that inequality. The goal: to overthrow the government and install a Marxist regime.

At its peak, in the 1980s and 1990s, FARC was the largest guerrilla force in Latin America. Over the course of 52 years, attacks on Colombian military and police were common. Thousands were kidnapped for ransom, and the FARC fighters would blow up oil pipelines, electrical power stations, bridges and social clubs. Fueled by the drug trade, FARC made Colombia one of the world’s most dangerous countries. More than 200,000 Colombians—many civilians—have been killed during this civil war.

Santos—who was born into the elite—was not the first president to attempt peace with FARC. He was the fourth. At the time Santos' negotiations began, FARC’s numbers had diminished significantly, estimated to be down from 20,000 to 6,000 active fighters. These numbers looked to take more hits as the Colombian government continued to receive millions of dollars in funding and training from the United States, and top FARC leaders were being killed. Using this to his advantage, Santos began to approach peace differently than his predecessors—through discussion and negotiation.

“Waging war to the last breath means failing to recognize your opponent as a human being like yourself, someone with whom you can hold a dialogue with. Dialogue based on respect for the dignity of all,” Santos said during his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. “… Our first and most vital step was to cease thinking of the guerrillas as our bitter enemies, and to see them instead, simply as adversaries.”

Though peace was achieved in the end, the opportunity for it almost came and went. During his first presidential election in 2010, Santos promised peace. He had previously served Colombia in three different cabinet positions, including Minister of Defense, earning him the trust of the Colombian people. He won that election with 69 percent of the vote—the highest in history. Santos took office in August 2010, and after meeting in private for some time, he and FARC formally announced that they were meeting in September 2012. However, the following election season came, and peace had not been reached. Santos’ popularity was slipping.

In 2014, Santos won reelection with 51 percent of the vote. Fewer than 1 million votes separated him and his opponent. Santos once again swore that he would sign a peace deal with FARC. He would not only negotiate a deal, but bring it to the Colombian people to approve when, legally, it only needed the approval of Congress.

Two years later, on Aug. 24, 2016, Santos and FARC announced a peace deal during a televised press conference in Havana, Cuba, the meeting place for all of their negotiations. It was a ceremonious affair. Those on both sides wore white, and the agreement was signed with a pen made from bullet casings. The deal was presented to Congress the following day, and true to his campaign promises, the general vote was held Oct. 2. Instead of ratifying peace, 50.2 percent of voters denied the deal. The margin was just 54,000 votes.

Instead of folding, Santos continued to play the hand he was dealt. He had promised peace, so peace was going to come. Santos and his team began to meet with those who voted “No” to learn why. At the same time, the president needed to keep FARC from shutting the door on peace, or worse, responding with bloodshed.

With the failed agreement, Santos’ popularity plummeted. Many were calling for his resignation. Then, just four days after the vote, Santos got the boost he needed: word that he would receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

“By delivering the Nobel Peace Prize to Juan Manuel Santos, it is hoped that peace, reconciliation and justice will be achieved in Colombia,” said Kaci Kullmann Five, president of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, during the announcement. “Prize of peace will give you strength to succeed in this difficult task.”

On Nov. 24, Santos and FARC signed a second peace agreement. This time, one that included more accountability for FARC rebels, including handing over FARC monetary assets to war victims. On Nov. 30, the agreement was ratified by Congress. This time, there would be no popular vote. The Western Hemisphere’s only remaining armed conflict had finally ended.


Santos met Phil Miller in basketball class. The two Kansas freshmen were completing the requisite P.E. class for all students. They struck up a friendship, and soon, Santos was visiting Miller at the Delta Upsilon house, joining the Fraternity in the spring.

An economics and business administration major, Santos was not the first in his family to attend Kansas. His older brother, Luis, was also a Jayhawk, having been drawn to the school’s journalism program. Over the years, several Santos family members and friends would attend KU.

“[Santos] was a great guy, and you knew from the moment you met him that he was going to be special,” says Brian Bracco, Kansas ’73. “He was a great brother, the kind you’d like to have in a fraternity. You could talk to him about anything.”

“Juan was a good student. He was a hardworking student,” Miller says. “He outperformed the rest of us both in his efforts and the results … He was smart as a whip. He was also very thoughtful, and had, I think, a better grasp on world events than the rest of us did, for obvious reasons.”

By the time Santos arrived in Lawrence, Kansas, the war with FARC had already started, and tensions in Colombia had been tumultuous for years prior. Before college, Santos had spent time in the Colombian military, as was mandatory for males as they turned 16. Unlike other Colombians, his family was also in the spotlight.

In 1911, Santos’ grandfather and other family members started El Tiempo, which today, is Colombia’s largest newspaper. His grandfather’s brother, Eduardo Santos Montejo, even served as Colombia’s president from 1938 to 1942. The Santos family was part of the Colombian elite. It also had its share of troubles, as is often the case when running a newspaper that could be critical of the political climate. Miller recalls several times when Santos would get off the phone with his family, noting he was not sure the next time he’d get to speak to them. The long-distance phone bills to Bogota, were not the problem. It was possible his family needed to go into hiding.

It was a turbulent time in Colombia, but Santos was not shy about talking about his homeland. It also did not stop him from making the most of his time at Kansas. He lived in the chapter house his sophomore year and would often spend holidays with his DU brothers. He graduated in seven semesters.

After KU, Santos returned to Colombia, but within a year, found himself in London, England, as Colombia’s delegate to the International Coffee Organization. There, he also obtained a degree from the prestigious London School of Economics. In 1980, he moved back to the U.S. to study at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy and earn a master’s degree at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

Santos returned to Colombia in 1983 and began to work at El Tiempo as deputy editorial page editor and community liaison. Many of the paper’s editorials were written by Santos and touched heavily on the political climate, as well as the drug trade led by Pablo Escobar and the Medellin cartel. The paper angered Escobar so much, that in 1990, he kidnapped Santos’ nephew and held him captive for a year.

As a child, Santos’ brothers jokingly called him “Mr. President,” so for many, it came as no surprise he ended up in politics. The move, however, did not come without its challenges. In 1991, he became Colombia’s first Foreign Minister of Trade. The decision to leave El Tiempo caused a rift between him and many in his family who saw the mix of journalism and government to be problematic. According to many reports, some of those relationships remained strained to this day.

In government, Santos has served as Foreign Trade Minister, Minister of Finance and Public Credit, and Minister of National Defense. The latter role was immediately prior to becoming president. In it, one of his major roles was fighting FARC and spearheading the rescue of notable FARC hostages.

“Allow me to tell you, from my own experiences,” Santos said during his Nobel Peace Prize speech, “that it is much harder to make peace than to wage war.”


Santos began wearing a white dove lapel pin years before bringing peace to Colombia. Peace was always the ultimate goal.

On Dec. 10, Santos received his Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway, joining 103 other individuals and 23 organizations to be bestowed with the honor since its inception in 1901. In his acceptance speech, he spoke of the peace process and what ending the war not only means for Colombia, but for the world.

“The Colombian peace agreement is a ray of hope in a world troubled by so many conflicts and so much intolerance … Let’s awaken the creative capacity for goodness, for building peace, that live within each soul.”

Santos has made it known that, in his eyes, the Peace Prize is not for him; it is for all Colombians. In his speech, he recognized the more than 8 million who were victims of or displaced by the war. He also recognized FARC leaders for their “willingness to embrace peace.” The honor, and the money that came with it, was for Colombia. In addition to his Peace Prize medal, Santos was awarded a cash prize of 8 million Swedish krona, roughly $923,000. This money is being given to the war’s victims.


For Santos’ DU brothers, it is almost surreal to believe their paths have crossed with a head of state and Nobel Peace Prize recipient. At the same time, they are not surprised Santos has gone on to do great things. Their brother, their friend, had a way about him. He was going to be successful in much greater things than a late night poker game.

“You know how you mention a name you haven’t heard for a long time, and your first reaction is to smile?” Bracco recalls. “When I hear Juan’s name, I smile and remember. And I can say, ‘Yep. I knew him when.’”