How to Keep the Colombian Peace Deal Alive
In the wake of the announcement that a few ex-FARC commanders have rearmed, it's more important than ever for the government to uphold its development promises.
MEDELLÍN, Colombia—Last week, several former commanders of Colombia’s largely demobilized rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) released a video in which they announced a “new phase of armed struggle.” Only three years ago, those same men—known best by wartime aliases, Iván Márquez and Jesús Santrich—participated in negotiating the end of a decadeslong conflict with the Colombian government. But in the video, their presence was a stark reminder of the fragility of the peace accords on the ground.
Almost three years on from the finalization of the peace agreement, Colombia’s implementation of the promises made in the accords has lagged significantly. Colombian President Iván Duque will likely face increased pressure from his own party’s leader, former President Álvaro Uribe, to respond to this latest salvo from the FARC with more aggressive action.
“In Colombia, there was this massive fire that was the armed conflict, and this fire almost totally went out, there was only a little bit left,” said Ariel Ávila, the deputy director of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, a Colombian research group. “President Duque has to decide what he’s going to throw on it: gasoline or water.”
In response to the rearmament, Duque announced he would send a specialized military force in search of the rebels and offered a 3 billion-peso, or $882,000, reward for the capture of those in the 32-minute video announcement. But to prevent former fighters from potentially joining Márquez and Santrich, Duque should also commit to implementing the accords agreed to in 2016, experts say, although this would require a significant break from his political allies.
Under Duque, much of the implementation of the accords has frozen to a near standstill. Nearly one-third of the accord’s 578 provisions have not been implemented at all, and the implementation of another third has barely begun, according to an April report by the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.
In particular, the government has failed to move quickly on rural development and effectively reintegrating former rank-and-file FARC members, as well as addressing a pattern of hundreds of targeted killings of social and community leaders since 2016. Those failures represent “death by a thousand cuts” to the peace in Colombia, according to Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America.
Reintegration of former combatants and restitution to victims have been consistently underfunded. Rural zones of the country once dominated by the FARC remain undeveloped. Many are now under territorial control of other illegal armed groups. Threats, attacks, and assassinations of human rights defenders have surged countrywide, leaving a body count of 738 since 2016, according to the think tank Indepaz, exceeding pre-peace accord numbers.
Demobilized FARC guerrillas have faced violent attacks as well. Some 137 former fighters, as well as victims including the 7-month-old baby of a demobilized guerrilla member, have been assassinated since the signing of the agreement. Many more have received threats, often from criminal groups claiming links to Colombia’s paramilitary groups and actors claiming to represent active remnants of those groups themselves.
The lack of security, said the former FARC guerrilla Hugo Fernando Ramírez, caused many demobilized combatants to reconsider the future of peace. “More than one of us have had to think about it,” he said, cradling his 3-month-old baby in his arms in his home in the country’s capital of Bogotá. “There aren’t any guarantees for what awaits us. What are we waiting for? A bullet in the head? Years in prison? Who knows.”
Ramírez is one of many of the 13,000 former FARC guerrillas who say they want to continue pushing for peace. But an estimated 2,200 others have left the demobilization areas or never demobilized to begin with. There are an estimated 20 dissident bands of the FARC that never submitted to the peace accords and may consolidate further in future. Despite that, the FARC is not likely to return in any significant way to the widespread insurgency of the past.
The announcement presents Duque with an opportunity to shift the trajectory of his government and, in turn, the future of peace in Colombia. Bolstering the same policies that have been long underfunded and slow-walked by the government will be key to keeping a growing number of ex-FARC members from joining the dissidents as a response to Márquez, said Isacson and Ávila. Chief among those policies is the reintegration of former combatants, including providing economic opportunities for ex-combatants and guaranteeing legal and, perhaps most importantly, physical security to stop fears of being targeted.
Duque’s administration should “make sure they know that there are economic opportunities, that the government is going to stop dragging its feet because of this, and, also, that the government is keeping an eye on you,” Isacson said.
But the embattled president faces major hurdles to even inch in that direction. The once-moderate politician must consider supporters of ex-president Uribe—the base of Duque’s own political party, Democratic Center, which has railed against the accords.
“A lot of Colombians are angry, and rightfully, at Márquez and at the FARC,” Isacson said. “They [Uribe’s followers] are going to take that anger and channel it into hatred against the entire process.”
Duque may be able to break ground in implementing the accords by reaching out to opposition parties in Colombia’s Congress, which have urged him and ex-combatants to implement the accords. The former FARC commander Rodrigo Londoño, alias “Timochenko,” who is now a leader of the FARC’s iteration as a political party, said he rejected the call to arms, saying it violated the group’s promises in the accords, and urged Duque to implement the agreement, calling it a “a route to a stable and lasting peace.”
Although the chances of those political opposites reaching across the aisle seems unlikely, Sergio Guzmán, the director of the Bogotá-based organization Colombia Risk Analysis, said more moderate parties may soon begin making a harder push for implementation of the accords. “The result of this announcement has made a lot of people wake up and realize the fragility of peace,” Guzmán said.
Much of the stalled process has been a product of an embattled government. While Duque’s party, the Democratic Center, holds the presidency, it does not hold a majority in Congress, leaving the country’s government in a deadlock. Duque has been unable to move forward on a number of key issues, including corruption and economic reforms, setting up an uphill battle for his second year in the presidency.
Key facets of the accords—such as victims’ restitution and rural development—have been bogged down by chronic underfunding and bureaucratic obstacles, while the country’s transitional justice system has been openly attacked by Duque’s government. Those obstacles still loom as large as ever for Duque, but Guzmán said it’s those exact programs that may soon be used as a “bargaining chip” by the starkly divided government to make progress on other agendas—namely, pushing forward Duque’s budget proposal, which has been embroiled in political conflict. “The question now becomes, what are the things the government is going to bargain for to implement peace?” he said.
The situation has only complicated already-tense relations with Venezuela. Colombian officials say that the rebels are seeking refuge in the neighboring country and that the embattled government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is rearming the FARC dissidents to destabilize Colombia. Tensions were already kindled between the two countries, but the possibility of the group leaning on the Venezuelan border for refuge—as Colombia’s other guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), has already done—could escalate conflict.
With all eyes on the Colombian government, the coming months will determine both if Duque’s words and actions will escalate or defuse the situation and how many guerrillas may follow the lead of Márquez and other rebels, said Ávila.
The day after the announcement, Colombian troops killed nine dissidents formerly belonging to the FARC in an airstrike in the southern jungle zone of Caquetá. The military operation was what Duque called “a clear message” to the dissidents to lay down their weapons. The reception of that message could usher in “a new wave of violence” from remnants of the FARC and of paramilitary groups, said Ávila.
But Ramírez, the demobilized former fighter—who now works on a peace-building project to bring tourism to Colombia’s former conflict zones—said he’s still holding on to hope that those who laid down their arms can push forward.
“There are a huge number of us who have hope to continue implementing the process despite the obstacles,” he said, “despite all of the valleys they’ve put in front of us.”