Colombia’s Uneasy Peace

A few years after Bogotá struck a deal with the FARC, challenges to the agreement risk undermining it.

A former member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), now a member of the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force (FARC) party, takes part in a protest in Bogotá on March 18.
A former member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), now a member of the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force (FARC) party, takes part in a protest in Bogotá on March 18. Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images

When Colombia’s government signed a peace deal with the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016, it was heralded as the beginning of a new era. Signed between then-President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño, known as Timochenko, the agreement was meant to put an end to one of the world’s longest conflicts, responsible, according to some estimates, for over 200,000 deaths, the displacement of 4 million people, and the disappearance of thousands.

These figures alone made a strong case for ending the 52-year-old conflict. But, at the time, some of the agreement’s staunchest defenders also made an economic case. By allowing the state to reclaim territory previously under the control of the guerrillas and increasing security there, the deal would channel investment into rural areas, improve access to government services for rural Colombians, and spur foreign investment.

The deal was never unanimously accepted by Colombians, who rejected the initial draft of the agreement in a 2016 referendum. But now, almost three years after its signing, support for Colombia’s peace deal seems to be eroding on all sides. Renewed violence, a charged political environment, and the inherent difficulties of implementing parts of the plan have taken a toll. “The politics are not in sync with the peace,” said Sergio Guzmán, the director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a consultancy. The economic dividends, meanwhile, have not yet materialized, although it would probably take many more years for that to happen in any case.

Ironically, the implementation of the deal has been left in the hands of a government that was never really a fan of it. A conservative right-wing politician, Iván Duque, was elected president in June 2018 with 54 percent of the vote after a campaign that was fought, to a large extent, over the merits and shortcomings of the peace agreement signed by his predecessor. Duque, a member of the Democratic Center party and a protege of former President Álvaro Uribe, has undermined the agreement in both word and deed.

His criticism has partly centered around the deal’s provisions for punishing former guerrillas, specifically the role of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, a tribunal charged with looking into war crimes committed during the conflict. For Duque and many on the right, the tribunal risks being too lenient on some FARC members. Duque has also derided the accords for being vague on compensation for victims and the applicability of extradition laws to former guerrillas.

This March, the Colombian president requested changes to six out of the 159 articles that make up the law governing the peace accords, including laws on the punishment of human rights abuses committed during the conflict. But he was dealt a heavy loss, with the majority of legislators voting against him. Because the 2016 peace deal was enshrined in the Colombian Constitution, any changes to it require a two-thirds majority, which Duque couldn’t muster.

Based on a procedural dispute in the Senate vote, the president took the matter all the way to the Constitutional Court, which in May reaffirmed the legislative body’s stance and buried Duque’s attempt to change the peace accords.

Despite Duque’s defeat, the dispute heated up again in May over the case of Jesús Santrich, a FARC commander New York prosecutors accused of trying to smuggle 10 tons of cocaine into the United States after the signing of the peace agreement. U.S. authorities had requested his extradition in 2018. Colombian authorities jailed him while the matter was being decided, but the Special Jurisdiction for Peace opted to release Santrich in May after refusing the extradition request for lack of evidence to support the accusation.

After Santrich’s release, the Colombian Attorney General’s Office released proof backing the charges, but because Santrich is one of the FARC members newly appointed to Congress as part of the terms of the peace agreement, he cannot be prosecuted by that office, although he may still face legal investigations from the Supreme Court of Justice. In fact, Santrich was scheduled to appear before that court on July 9 to be questioned about the drug trafficking accusation, but he failed to show up.

The media’s focus on the Santrich case has perhaps unfairly brought into question the FARC’s commitment to the deal. “The Santrich case has attracted a lot of attention. But the bulk of the former FARC members seem to be adhering to the plan,” said Marc Hofstetter, an economist and associate professor at the University of the Andes in Bogotá. All this provides more ammunition in Duque’s ongoing campaign against the peace agreement.

Besides the showdown between Duque and Congress, there are deeper challenges to implementing the deal. Vast profits from illegal mining and cocaine trafficking continue to support criminal gangs, which have kept control of large areas of the country’s rugged geography. Some of these gangs were already active before the peace agreement but have moved into new territories after the demobilization of the majority of the FARC insurgents. Criminal organizations have proved an enticing option for guerrillas reluctant to return into civilian life, and the government has put a greater emphasis on the disarmament and justice aspects of the peace deal than it has on rural land reform. But improving rural livelihoods through investment will be key for the long-term success of any peace initiative.

Not helping matters are the FARC’s own mistakes. The way the armed group chose to lead its transition into a political party—the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force, which is also abbreviated as FARC—is a clear example of this. Under the agreement, the group was allocated 10 temporary seats in Congress, divided across the upper and lower houses. This was meant to ease its transition from insurgency into politics. “They chose some of their highest-ranked members to take those seats, instead of selecting less-known figures that are not so easily associated with the crimes of the guerrilla” Guzmán said. “They knew this would galvanize the opposition.”

The FARC’s choice of representatives has ensured unnecessary friction in the current legislature. But other issues on which the FARC has failed to deliver could have a much more lasting impact on peace. According to Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office, the group did not fully disclose the assets it amassed over a half -century of war. Under the agreement, those assets are to be channeled toward victim reparations. Another issue relates to the group’s knowledge of the drug business. “They were supposed to share information about cocaine routes, but they haven’t,” Guzmán added.

With all the problems facing the agreement, it is easy to lose sight of what it has already accomplished. Since its signing, most of the broader 13,000-strong insurgent movement has joined civilian life, including the nearly 7,000 fighters who have left the armed struggle. With nearly 9,000 weapons collected, the bulk of the FARC has been transformed from a fighting force and criminal organization into a political party with parliamentary representation.

To be sure, peace is far from fully consolidated. Hundreds of social leaders and activists have been murdered since the signing of the accords. The FARC has also said that, as of mid-2019, roughly 130 of its demobilized fighters had been killed. In June, Duque announced a series of measures to protect the group’s former members, including a special police force to investigate crimes and threats against them. Although Duque may not like the deal, he also understands that he needs to improve security.

The more insecure demobilized guerrillas feel in this new Colombia, the likelier they are to revert back to armed conflict or enlist in any of the other criminal organizations that operate across the country. Many of them have allegedly already done so. Citing confidential intelligence from the Colombian military, Reuters reported in early June that around 2,300 FARC combatants, about a third of the 7,000 fighters who initially disposed of their weapons, have either become part of the residual FARC insurgency or joined criminal groups. Some observers have questioned these figures. But the fact that at least some fighters returned to arms is telling.

For the moment, the 2016 peace accords are protected by Colombian law. As such, time is likely to strengthen the hand of the deal’s backers, as will broad international support for the agreement. These dynamics will force Duque to continue performing a tough balancing act: claiming full support for the settlement abroad while criticizing it domestically. Duque should get fully on board. His stance at home may ensure him the support of his base, still adamant in their demands for significant changes to the accords, but it risks further jeopardizing his broader governing agenda and making it more difficult to negotiate a potential future deal with the National Liberation Army (ELN), another left-wing guerrilla group responsible for several deadly bombings recently.

Keeping Colombia at peace will require strengthening trust between the two sides. Both the government and the FARC can be blamed for the slow progress. But only one of them has the authority to fulfill the commitments made by the Colombian state and to sanction any transgression in accordance with the law. Even if the government does not fully agree with the current peace deal, it should take steps to ensure its implementation. If it fails to do so, Colombia risks being dragged back into the past instead of moving toward the future.

Francisco Serrano is a writer and emerging-markets analyst.

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