Why Colombia’s Government Compromised for Peace

The government in Bogotá was winning the war. So why did it decide to give concessions to the rebels anyway?


This was an important week in the history of peace. On Monday, in the charming colonial city of Cartagena, the Colombian government signed a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), one of the most vicious and indomitable guerrilla movements in the Americas. By signing the agreement, the FARC essentially agreed to cease to exist, at least as an armed group, and transform itself into a civilian political force.

That the Colombian government, after four years of negotiations, finally managed to get the FARC to lay down its weapons did not come as a complete surprise to observers. The military momentum in the conflict has long been on the side of the government. The process also benefited from a gradual shift in regional politics that deprived the guerrillas of support: Cuba and Venezuela, the FARC’s most important allies, stopped supporting some of the FARC’s most insane demands, and this paved the way for a deal.

The more surprising — and controversial — aspect of the agreement involves the concessions the government saw fit to grant the rebels in return for laying down their weapons. This has troubled some Colombians, to an extent that will become fully clear only on October 2, when the country will hold a national plebiscite on the deal.

It is understandable that some would view the government’s move with suspicion. After all, this 52-year war generated immense suffering, entailing more than 267,000 deaths, 46,000 disappearances, 29,000 kidnappings, and an unknown number of sexual crimes, incidents of torture, and other horrors. For many Colombians, an outright victory on the battlefield would have been far more gratifying than one marked by compromise.

In reality, however, there are understandable reasons for the government’s decision, and other peacemakers can learn a great deal from this case.

The most controversial concession is the lack of specificity about punishment. Although a mechanism for illuminating past crimes will be established, with the hope that the worst atrocities will be publicly acknowledged and even tried, the 297-page peace agreement offers very little clarity about the consequences of guilt. Some undefined “lesser crimes,” which may include killings, would be eligible for amnesty, and so would some “drug crimes” if they were conducted to finance the war rather than for personal gain. Thus, the agreement comes with some loopholes that could weaken the otherwise strong system of reparations it provides for.

Another controversial concession is that the FARC will be granted five seats in each chamber of Congress for two electoral cycles. Existing laws ban individuals with criminal backgrounds from holding office, so allowing sanctioned FARC members to run for Congress, or even the presidency, violates the law, to say the least.

For the FARC, these concessions are a sweet deal. Prior to the signing ceremony in Cartagena, at their last meeting, the rebels voted unanimously to sign the agreement. But in a country where as many as 60 percent of citizens report having been victims or having a close relative victimized by the war, the compromises have disappointed. Former president Alvaro Uribe, who is leading the opposition to the accords, describes the peace agreement as an amnesty in disguise.

Uribe’s words are no doubt an exaggeration. This is not a blanket amnesty. The agreement stipulates penalties for those who confess (though they will involve community work rather than jail time), and even harsher punishments for those who do not confess and are found guilty of crimes. A lot will depend on judicial discretion, meaning that outcomes will depend on the judges selected. But it is clear that many Colombians would have preferred stronger penalties. More fundamentally, these Colombians are posing a deeper question: Why didn’t the government, which was winning the war militarily, didn’t just finish the job and annihilate the FARC entirely?

This question, in my opinion, can be answered. A combination of military realities, economic incentives, and international pressures precluded the government from winning a complete victory.

On the military side, the chances of fully annihilating the FARC were slim. There is no question that the Colombian state was winning the war. Consider the changes in the military balance between the opposing sides. Since the 1990s FARC forces were reduced by half (from approximately 18,000 to 8,000 by 2015), whereas Colombia’s military forces increased by more than 250 percent (from 210,000 to 480,000).

The problem was that the government couldn’t win much more than that. With 8,000 guerrillas active, the FARC still had enough power to continue to inflict losses. And as President Juan Manuel Santos himself recognized, geography matters: With large parts of Colombia consisting of sparsely populated rainforest, the FARC still had a enough territory on which to hide. Continuing the war, and especially going deeper into the jungle to flush out the last of the rebels, would have been unrealistic.

Continuing the war also has important economic costs. True, the Colombian economy has been improving in recent years, which surely benefitted the war effort. On the other hand, the drug trade has not abated — and this benefited the FARC. Each point deserves some discussion.

There has always been a remarkable paradox in Colombia’s economic development. Even during the worst times of the conflict, the country’s economy continued to grow. This presents a striking challenge to the assumption that war normally ruins economies. Colombia’s economic growth has never been spectacular relative to the Chinas of the world, but it has been less volatile compared to its Latin neighbors. Starting in the 2000s, this growth started to yield serious reductions in poverty: The percentage of the population living below the poverty line dropped from 49.7 to 27.8 between 2002 and 2015, according to the World Bank.

Decades of favorable economic conditions explain a dramatic decline in support for left-wing radicalism across the electorate. This has worked in the government’s favor. By 2015, according to most polls, the FARC was the most repudiated political force in Colombia. Its bad reputation is due in part to the atrocities the group committed, but also to the fact that the Colombian state delivered economic growth. This allowed the government to contain the FARC, not just militarily, but also politically.

But the FARC had their own economic asset: the drug trade. In Washington and Bogotá, the FARC are routinely referred to as “narco-terrorists” because they extract resources from the drug trade to finance their violence. Essentially, drugs provide the FARC’s most important resource. At some point, the Colombian state must have come to the realization that, because the drug trade was limitless, offering no concessions to the FARC would have meant perpetual war. The Colombian state made peace because, unlike the United States, it tacitly recognized that the drug economy is undefeatable.

There is more to the connection between economics and peace in Colombia. Growth, I mentioned, changed Colombian society by making it more middle-income, less poor, and less sympathetic to radicalism. But it also changed the state’s calculations. With higher standards of living, the Colombian state realized that the country was now eligible to apply for OECD membership. The OECD, an association of the world’s most prosperous democracies, is one of the most prestigious international clubs. It is primarily devoted to improving the quality of governance among its members. Only two other Latin American countries, Chile and Mexico, have joined so far.

Once the government realized it was eligible for OECD membership, the opportunity costs of waging continued war increased enormously. More war meant less time and fewer resources to address the OECD’s long list of application requirements (including infrastructure development, environmental protections, investment facilities, and bribery controls). So the government decided to make a deal.

Colombians will face a complicated moral dilemma when they take to the polls on October 2 to have their say on the agreement. Do they want a harsh justice predicated on punishment and revenge, or do they want a system focused on incentivizing the belligerents to make peace? Those who want the former will probably vote “no,” while those who prefer the latter will vote “yes.”

But Colombians who are considering rejecting the agreement should bear in mind that an absolute victory over the FARC was never possible, that in the end the government obtained most of its demands, and that even the most perfect forms of justice come with a price. The price of peace has been concessions. The price of revenge would have been more war.

In the photo, some of the witnesses to signing of the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC wait for the start of the ceremony in Cartagena, Colombia, on September 26.

Photo credit: LUIS ACOSTA/AFP/Getty Images

Javier Corrales is Dwight W. Morrow 1895 professor and chair of Political Science at Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts.

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