The Colombian Peace Process: Potential & Pitfalls


Fifty Years of Conflict: Political Rebel Groups in Colombia

March 1st, 2017 marked the beginning of a new era for Columbia. The leftist rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) began their disarmament after 50 years of violent conflict. FARC was founded in 1964, following a decade of political violence in Colombia known as la Violencia from 1948-58. FARC, along with another rebel group known as the National Liberation Army (ELN), were left out of the final power sharing agreement making up Colombia’s government. As a result, these two militant communist guerrilla groups formed and took up arms against the government from the 1960s to today. The FARC is composed mostly of militant communists and peasant self-defense groups who focus on political lines of agrarianism and anti-imperialism. Comparatively, the ELN members are mostly students, and radical Catholics and left-wing intellectuals. Both groups advocate for Marxist-Leninist principles, and the rights of the peasant class, and are classified as terrorists by the governments of Colombia, Peru, Canada, USA and the EU.

Right-wing paramilitary groups with links to the state military also formed in the 1980s, to protect landowners from the communist guerrilla groups. The largest of these groups, the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) was also classified as a terrorist organization by the US and the EU. However, the Colombian state military has been accused of delegating tasks of resistance to the AUC, such as the murder of peasants and labor union leaders. Amnesty International has referred to the group as the army of Colombia’s Auxiliary Forces, and Human Rights Watch has called it the sixth division. A peace deal was negotiated between the AUC and the government in from 2003 to 2004. In 2004, the Supreme Court approved the extradition of AUC leaders to the USA to be tried.

The terrorist classifications of all groups are due to their unconventional violent methods of attack including kidnap and ransom, illegal mining, extortion or taxation of various forms of economic activity, and control of many illegal drug markets. However, it is worth noting that the Interpress service news agency reported that the United Nations placed blame for 80% of the killings on the right-wing paramilitary groups, and 12% on FARC and the ELN. The rest have been blamed on the security forces. The conflict is said to have resulted in the loss of a total of 250,000 lives and the displacement of 8 million people.

The Peace Deal

In 2012, peace talks began between FARC and the Colombian government. Finally, on June 23rd, 2016, a ceasefire accord was signed. However, a final peace accord required the support of the population, in the form of a referendum. In a stunning turn of events, a national referendum rejected the peace deal by just 55,000 votes, 50.2% to 49.8%. President Juan Manuel Santos managed to garner widespread support from the international community including Washington, the EU, and even winning the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize before the results of the referendum were announced. Despite this, there were many reasons as to why critics prevailed in the election. First, it is important to note the political climate Colombia was in at the time of the referendum, with the recent resurgence of the right in Brazil and Argentina, and the right in the USA not far behind. The ‘No’ campaign was maneuvered by former President Alvaro Uribe, who brought together many conservative actors to appeal to victims of the FARC’s actions.

There were a number of core problems in the peace accord identified in the campaign. Many of these concerns were addressed in the revision; however, they were not necessarily positive. There were also barriers to the peace accords implementation this past month. The largest criticism of the deal was the truth and reconciliation approach to peace.  This meant that amnesty would be granted to leaders of FARC who confessed their crimes to special tribunals. If a combatant fully attests to their crimes, they will be eligible for alternative sentences, community service, and restorative justice aimed at making amends to victims. However, if it is found the combatant lies, they will be punishable up to 20 years in prison. The widespread opinion that the accord simply offered a slap on the wrist of FARC war criminals was used as a wedge issue to mobilize the ‘no’ vote. When Santos lost the referendum, this message was powerful. It ultimately gave power to dangerous populism, and also brought attention to the right’s desire for retributive over restorative justice. The revised peace agreement offered alternative conditions of reclusion in agricultural colonies if found guilty of war crimes. However, this could easily alienate FARC leaders further and stifle their political voice, which is counter intuitive to the inclusive peace process.

In the beginning of March, the world watched as the peace accord began to take effect. However, it has been a slow and contentious process. The first deadline was the surrender of 30% of weapons by March 1st, but the process was delayed and did not begin until then. FARC blamed the government for the delay, claiming they failed to provide adequate living conditions and security for members in the demobilization zones. These tensions between the government and FARC have been rising, but stakeholders remain optimistic. In addition, critics have raised concerns about the clause requesting a weapons inventory from FARC. Their guerrilla structure makes this almost impossible to verify, and relies heavily on the honesty of FARC. There are a number of other incentives at play which could skew FARC’s honesty, such as the internal struggle for political power and control of the drug trade. These core problems and some possible policy solutions will now be discussed.

Policy Recommendation’s: Potential & Pitfalls

This section will address the main sections of the peace accord which is currently being implemented in Colombia. There will be a critical analysis of the policy and their implementation, followed by recommendations to smooth this process.

  1. The End of Violence

The peace deal began with first steps to end violence between the government and FARC. The government promised to provide safe demobilization zones, to be monitored by UN missions. The process is set to take 180 days, with deadlines for disarmament and the creation of a weapons inventory. The Colombian military has been tasked with setting up security perimeters to protect the camps from potential attacks by drug trafficking groups, right-wing militias or FARC rivals.

On paper, these seem like logical steps to take to facilitate an environment for the beginning of an end. However, this period of 180 will undoubtedly be the source of the most tension in the peace process, and should be approach with extreme caution and commitment. With the beginning of the demobilization camps already being delayed, there’s a mistrust growing between the sides. In addition, FARC leaders are feeling unsafe as many of them have arrest warrants, but contrastingly are being protected by government leaders. This growing mistrust puts the peace process at risk because the disarmament relies heavily on the honesty and trust of FARC leaders. A relationship of trust needs to be further cultivated to ensure a smoother peace process.

  1. Justice for FARC members and leaders

There were many elements to the justice process. Santos and his allies were adamant that no individual would be extradited as in the case of AUC, and no foreign judges would be on the special tribunal. Also, the cases would be tried under this third-party special tribunal, and not Colombia’s existing court system. This went against the voices from the right, especially Uribe. However, this was integral for transparent, impartial, contextual and fair peace.

This was the most contentious section of the peace accord, and there was heavy debate between retributive or restorative justice. In the original peace accord, there were no ‘liberty restricting’ punishments for those convicted. Instead, there was a focus on community building and paying their debts to society through volunteer work. After the referendum, the language was changed allowing judges to sentence criminals to alternate conditions of reclusion such as agricultural colonies. This goes against the inclusive peace process that Santos and allies tried to cultivate, and can lead to FARC supporters and leaders feeling more alienated, which sparked the violence in the first place. If this peace process is to be successful, the tribunal must focus on restorative justice.

  1. Rural Development

Rural development was part of the peace process as many of FARC’s demands are focused on the peasant agricultural population. The government has committed to investments in infrastructure and state building in areas which have traditionally been occupied by FARC. The idea if that the inclusion of FARC leaders in formalized politics will facilitate this development, which seems to be an appropriate solution on the path to eradicate poverty.

However, the accord also specifies that this will not affect the ownership of private property. In an area that is largely agrarian, land distribution is highly correlated to wealth distribution. By explicitly out ruling the possibility of land redistribution methods, many of Colombian’s poor may find themselves caught in an inter-generational poverty trap. The Colombian government will need to invest in infrastructure for health and education if wealth redistribution is to be changed in the long-term.

  1. FARC in politics

This element of the peace accord is most important for long-lasting peace. Santos promised the FARC rebels 5 seats in the lower house of parliament, and 5 seats in the senate for a total of 10 seats from 2018-2026. It also creates 16 congressional districts for zones hit hardest by the conflict. Also, no FARC member convicted of war crimes would be barred from political participation. This is vital to their inclusion in formal politics and their transition from political violence to political participation. The accord specifically states the seats are reserved for victims of the conflict and representatives of the social movement.

However, these members are not given voting rights. This could have serious effects on major decision-making in government, and FARC’s ability to communicate their wants and desires. This was of course a compromise to appease the right, and the effectiveness of their observer status will reveal itself with time.

  1. Ending drug trafficking

The trafficking of illegal narcotics was the fuel that fed the fire of FARC for the past 50 years, and they are closely tied to this criminal business. The peace accord calls for FARC to go out of business, and wean Colombia’s rural farmers off cocoa and onto other crops. In the revision, it was added that criminals involved in the drug trade will be tried on a case by case basis. If an individual was found to benefit individually from the trade, they would be tried as a common criminal. Also they must provide an exhaustive and detailed information about drug trade relationships.

This is arguably the most problematic problem in the peace accord. By demanding a full stop of drug trafficking from one group, the government is effectively creating a power vacuum. The demand for cocaine and other narcotics will not cease to exist after the integration of FARC into politics, and there will likely be continuing violent conflict in the power struggle. As an alternative, the Colombian government could borrow policy from the governments of the Netherlands and Portugal, which have taken pragmatic approaches to drug policy. The decriminalization of all drugs has been shown to decrease drug use, and drug related violence. The government should also address creating other viable economic options in tangent with the decriminalization of drugs to bring economic activity away from drug markets and into more productive products.

Despite some vulnerabilities, the Colombian government and international community are optimistic about the country’s future. FARC leader and one of the key negotiators for peace, Ivan Marquez, said in a press conference to Telesur, “Despite obvious delays in the logistical adaptation of the zones, we will carry out the registration of weapons in all the camps,” indicating their commitment to peace in the next 180 days, and future.