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In September 2016, the Colombian government and the FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the country’s largest guerrilla force, signed a historic peace agreement, with President Juan Manuel Santos declaring that “we don’t accept violence as the means of defending ideas.” However, hopes of lasting stability have waned in recent months as the fragility of the peace process has become strikingly clear. In just April of this year, Colombia’s army reported that a soldier had been killed by a bomb blast that wounded four others. The explosion took place in the southern department of Guaviare and was attributed to the 1st Front, a dissident branch of the FARC.
Five decades of bloody conflict in Colombia have killed more than 220, 000 people and displaced over 6.8 million Colombians, according to a 2015 report by the Human Rights Watch. This figure marks the world’s second largest number of internally displaced persons after Syria. The civil war in Colombia has seen relentless fighting between the government and several guerilla groups, of which the most significant are the FARC and the ELN (National Liberation Army). Though the ELN refused to be part of last year’s negotiations with the FARC, the group has begun talks with Colombia’s government in an attempt to reach a similar agreement to that secured with the FARC: enabling the rebels to form a political party in exchange for laying down their weapons. According to The City Paper Bogota, the Colombian government confirmed in early June that the FARC have handed over 30% of their weapons to the United Nations (UN).
Yet, a spate of recent attacks launched by the ELN, which has so far refused to disarm its fighters, has again highlighted the precarious nature of peace in Colombia. Most attacks have been carried out against police targets, and in February the group claimed responsibility for an explosion near Bogota’s bullring, killing a police officer and injuring 20 people. On June 17, a bomb was detonated in one of the busiest shopping malls in Colombia’s capital, Bogota. Though attention has been focused on the ELN, leaders of the group have condemned the bombing and denied accusations that it carried out the attack. ELN negotiators at peace talks in Ecuador stated: “We ask for seriousness from people making unfounded…accusations. This is the way people are trying to tear up the peace process.”
President Santos also called for calm, stating that the recent attack would not derail the peace process: “We are not going to let what we’ve achieved so far be stopped by a handful of extremist cowards or people who don’t want to see reconciliation in Colombia.” According to the Washington Post, some analysts have attributed the latest surge in violence to the “ELN’s desire to wrest concessions from the government at the negotiating table.” Many have also voiced concerns about the leadership of the ELN, specifically its ability to control its 2,000 troops.
The real threat to peace in Colombia, however, is complex and deep-rooted. The Guardian reported in April this year that since the FARC rebels abandoned Argelia, a town located some 171 km North-West of Bogota, in January, different criminal groups have attempted to fill the power vacuum. Murders, thefts, and petty crime rates have risen, while new armed groups occupy the areas abandoned by the FARC. Such groups hope to take control of the cocaine trade, illegal gold mines and other criminal enterprises. Fighting between the ELN and the military faction of a group known as the Urabenos has displaced almost 1,000 people since the beginning of 2017 in the western area of Choco.
Even before the historic deal was reached with the FARC, crimes against human rights defenders were commonplace. For instance, over 100 activists, politicians, and left-wing leaders were murdered in Colombia in the past year. These attacks on social activists, which are often attributed to powerful paramilitary groups, reveal a worrying trend in Colombia, thereby demonstrating that the wider issue of national peace reaches far deeper than agreements made by politicians at the negotiating table.
With that said, if Colombia is to see genuine stability, a commitment must be made to ensure that any model of conflict resolution tackles the pervasive issue of paramilitaries who dangerously threaten the human rights of Colombians. Having sown the seeds of terror for years, these groups continue to imperil the precarious journey to peace in Colombia.