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Be Careful What You Wish For: A Contentious Peace in Colombia

In October of 2016, the Colombian government put forward a national referendum. Voters were asked to approve a new peace deal with the FARC rebels, ending decades of civil war –  but they rejected it. This was a major setback, but the legislature ratified a revised peace agreement two months later. Since then, the government has worked to integrate former members of FARC into normal life and even into politics. If the agreement holds, Colombia will be well on the way to recovery, but the country will continue to feel the repercussions of the long and brutal conflict.


Half a Century of War

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC hereafter) formed as a distinct organization in 1964, in response to an intense government counterinsurgency campaign against Communist guerrilla groups. Throughout its existence, FARC resisted government control of rural areas of Colombia, promoted socialism and indigenous rights, and employed terrorism, kidnapping, and narcotics trafficking to fund and further its goals. The government responded with intensely violent and repressive policies; in particular, the establishment of paramilitary death squads with an open mandate to use any means necessary to combat the rebels.

Both previous negotiation periods – 1984 to 1987 and 1998 to 2001 – ended in failure to reach a substantive agreement, followed by viciously renewed warfare. These incidents prompted resentment; when talks broke down in 1987, the government hunted down FARC members who had entered mainstream politics or participated in negotiations and often used extrajudicial means to punish them. Voter frustration with these repeated impasses eventually came to a head.

Álvaro Uribe won the 2002 presidential election on a retributive platform. There would be no further negotiation; instead, he planned an all-out effort to eliminate FARC completely. This policy was not without results; FARC’s numbers dropped by half and the government regained territory. Yet, it was clear that achieving victory through these methods would be an interminable process. FARC was not cowed, and its popular support was buoyed by the government’s tactics.


An Agreement is Reached

Juan Manuel Santos was elected in 2010 with a pledge to continue the policies that he had pioneered as Uribe’s minister of defense. He did so, but only long enough to consolidate his support. In 2012, he announced plans to pursue peace with FARC. Four years of comprehensive and wide-ranging discussions followed. The government acceded to a greatly expanded rural economic program early on, and a hard-fought agreement on disarmament plans, resolution of war crimes allegations, and FARC’s political legitimization followed. That deal was the subject of the 2016 referendum, and it failed partly due to staunch opposition by Uribe. The former president felt that the deal was too forgiving and that it allow FARC members to escape justice. The sheer length and brutality of the war spurred voters to seek change but also cemented opposition to FARC among conservatives, and Uribe was greatly successful in exploiting this sentiment. After receiving a Nobel Peace Prize for the rejected peace agreement, Santos returned to the table to produce a revised deal, and successfully pressured the Colombian legislature to ratify it.


Swords to Plowshares

The disarmament process laid out in the revised agreement was straightforward and notably successful. FARC fighters gathered in designated areas, turned in their weapons, and began to receive government assistance to enter civilian life. The UN mission supervising the transition process certified the completion of the disarmament process in June 2017. The weapons will be scrapped and used to construct a series of commemorative monuments. Hopefully, the UN is not celebrating too soon. The ELN, another rebel group, recently resumed terrorist attacks on government targets after a ceasefire expired, and FARC has spawned dozens of smaller splinter groups that largely reject the peace agreement. Incorporating these groups into the agreement would take years, if it is successful at all.

Other aspects of the peace deal will take far longer to deliver results. The most important of these provisions is the integration of former rebels (and their ideology) into national politics. FARC’s successor party, the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force (also FARC), has been granted automatic representation in each chamber of Congress and a temporary exemption from certain regulations on political parties. Rodrigo Londono, a popular guerrilla leader, has declared his candidacy in the 2018 Presidential election and has already put forward elements of a political platform.


The Next Decade

In principle, the Colombian government has a detailed plan for the future. Now that it has achieved “peace with honor”, it can prevent a resurgence of fighting by addressing the socioeconomic concerns that motivated FARC supporters and by giving those supporters a voice in political life. This method has seen success in other civil conflicts. But it will require a sustained commitment from both sides. If FARC becomes disillusioned with parliamentary politics and returns to violence, the government will assuredly answer in kind. Similarly, if the populace begins to resent the lenient treatment accorded to the rebels, and elects leaders who will renege on the power-sharing agreement, FARC will abandon the deal as well. Neither side as a whole wants to see a return to fighting – but it is difficult to fight a fifty-year civil war without creating deep-seated mistrust and hatred.

Regardless of their fortunes in the political arena, FARC has managed to win policy concessions as part of the peace deal itself. The rebels made rural development a core part of their platform throughout their history, and the terms of the peace agreement acknowledge the government’s neglect of this part of the country. The deal includes a substantial budgetary commitment to agricultural and economic development; this is a major concession, but the government surely aims to placate rural Colombians and to prevent them from supporting other rebels. Keeping to this commitment will require careful fiscal management, and if the government returns to repressive tactics to combat FARC splinter groups, the money will likely do little to improve public opinion.

The third critical part of the government’s long-term plan will be its fight against coca production and organized crime. The country grows more than 50% of the world’s supply of coca, the plant from which cocaine is refined, and FARC, at their height, controlled 70% of that production. As FARC dissolves, control of coca operations has become central to organized crime, and preventing criminal groups from taking over FARC’s financial empire will be critical. The government has a plan in place to substitute coca with other crops and eradicate cultivation, but coca production has in fact increased in recent years – the crop supports the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of farmers. Substitution with legal crops will take decades and may severely worsen poverty, even if government efforts meet with success. FARC’s control of coca also allowed it to accumulate hundreds of billions of dollars in assets, and the government has plans to seize these assets to fund reparations. FARC is not making that task easy; a list of assets recently submitted to authorities included boots, coffeemakers, and juicers, but not critical information on land titles.


Keeping the Deal On Track  

The battle for the moral and ethical high ground throughout Colombia’s civil war was just as fierce as the fighting on the ground. But with the peace agreement, the government can no longer pin the blame for its various failings on FARC’s intractability. It will have to maintain a careful balance between demonstrating its good faith to former rebels, meeting its other obligations as a government, and placating those Colombians who opposed peace from the beginning.

Meeting the various obligations the peace deal will be indispensable, but not easy. Given the timeframe certain provisions, there may be multiple changes of government before plans are completed – and these new governments may not be so conciliatory. Resisting the urge to renege on the agreement or negotiate a more favorable one will be critical to maintaining the stability of the transition process. FARC was never a centralized organization and any perception that the government is acting in bad faith will cause many former rebels to disengage from the peace process and, potentially, to rearm.

By the same token, the government will have to maintain public support without giving into demands to punish FARC and its members more stringently. Public sentiment against FARC remains strong, sometimes violently so. Stringent enforcement of disarmament, a successful reparations program, and a harsh stance on any intransigence from FARC will be necessary. The government must also be prepared to take action against the smaller guerrilla groups that are taking over in the wake of FARC, and to vigorously suppress organized crime, in order to placate voters concerned about law and order.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, the government must follow through on its new commitments to agricultural improvement, rural development, and poverty reduction. If these issues are left to fester, and FARC is not able to gain enough power in the government to address them, another rebel movement will almost inevitably arise. Accompanying other measures in rural areas, the government will have to address coca production more thoroughly, considering that it forms the financial base for almost all organized crime in Colombia. Current crop substitution efforts are not seeing results, but the more militarized programs pursued in the 80s and 90s with US support were no more effective and far less popular. Better economic conditions for farmers growing legitimate crops will ease the problem, but no easy solution will be forthcoming.

All told, the Colombian government is stuck between three rocks and a hard place. It must balance its popular support between conservatives, liberals, and the new political FARC, while dealing with unenviable economic and social conditions. This is not an ideal position, and the fact that it is being hailed as an improvement truly shows how dire the years of civil war were.


Featured Image Source: National Police of Columbia//Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0))

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