A little over four years ago, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed a peace agreement with the Colombian government to end decades of war and bring one of the word’s longest-running insurgencies to a close. However, instead of ending the violence, the disarming of FARC has allowed drug cartels and other insurgents to take over in the group’s former strongholds. The result for Colombia’s most vulnerable citizens is further violence and chaos, as the Colombian state continues to show an inability to protect them.
The FARC’s power base has always been in Colombia’s rural regions, where the Colombian state has virtually no presence and poverty is widespread. These areas are mostly populated with Indigenous people and descendants of African slaves, who make up some of the most vulnerable members of Colombian society, due to systematic oppression. The increasing violence in these communities has caused an uproar in Colombian society and resulted in President Iván Duque’s approval rating dropping by seven points. The violence in these regions has killed more than 500 community leaders and human rights activists since the peace agreement was signed, according to the United Nations.
While Colombia’s overall homicide rate has dropped to its lowest level in almost half a century, almost all that improvement has been made in big cities, while rural areas continue to be racked by worsening conflict. Just in this year alone, through September there were 21 massacres that killed over 100 people in all, compared with only nine massacres in 2016.
The wide gap in the quality of living between Colombia’s bustling cities and its vast countryside has only worsened since the agreement has been signed. While no one disputes the brutality and crimes of the FARC guerrillas, they did bring a semblance of order to the places under their control. In their place are a variety of criminal organizations in a constant battle for resources and power. Attempts to control the illicit industries that used to fund the FARC such as cocaine, gold, extortion, and marijuana have been fuelling much of the conflict.
The current government does not have a good strategy to deal with the new reality in the region now that FARC has disarmed. The Duque administration acknowledges that leaders of small towns and ethnic minorities are being targeted by drug gangs and need more protection from the state, and his administration has made some effort to provide that. The government said it has sent troops and prosecutors to violent hotspots in order to investigate the latest batch of crimes and has claimed to have secured 61 convictions.
However, the state has not been able to make much progress on its pledge to develop the rural regions. Even though the revitalization of neglected regions was a core tenant of the peace agreement, how exactly that can be done has so far eluded the government. Much of the violence has taken place in the cocoa-growing regions of the country, which is the primary plant used to produce cocaine. The harvesting of cocoa has increased to such an extent that the government is planning to resume spraying with toxic chemicals, regardless of the public health consequences.
It is clear that the government needs a new strategy to keep the peace in the region and implement its agreement with the FARC. They are not dealing with an insurgency that needs a primarily military response; instead, they are dealing with widespread poverty and gang violence that needs a development-oriented response. Only 0.4 percent of school students in the region go to university compared to 30 percent nationwide. Until the government can increase the quality of living in its rural regions, violence and insecurity will continue to plague them.
President Duque so far has mostly focused on a military approach to combat the violence. Security forces have killed many dissident FARC leaders and authorities have ended negotiations with ELN, another guerrilla group that is currently at war with the Colombian government. However, without a strategy to stop the flow of desperate young men searching for riches into these armed groups, it risks replicating the poor record of previous military interventions.
A better strategy would be to establish credible law enforcement in these areas and generate greater trust in state institutions. The government should also focus on enhancing opportunities for combatants from guerrilla groups and put greater emphasis on efforts to create cocoa substitutions and alternative rural livelihoods. There also must be more effort put into ensuring greater access to education in the regions, which would help with upward social mobility and decrease the number of youths recruited by gangs.
There was no doubt that a territory as vast and diverse as rural Colombia was going to provide challenges to the implementation of the 2016 peace agreement. However, when FARC demobilized it did so based on the promise that the Colombian government would improve lives in these neglected areas, and there is a lot of work left to be done in order to achieve that. It does not help that the government has been accused of defunding crucial aspects of the agreement relating to justice and land reform. The lack of rural investment remains a major barrier to development in these regions.
That is not to say that President Duque’s implementation of the peace agreement has been all bad. Researchers at the University of Notre Dame noted that the level of implementation is comparable to similar comprehensive peace agreements, and that more than two thirds of the commitments in the accord have been initiated while one third had either been completed or achieved substantial progress. Some of the most tangible benefits of the agreement’s implementation can be seen in Catatumbo, an area in the north that has seen over 30,000 miles of new roads built, 20 new aqueducts constructed, and an additional 3,000 people connected to electricity.
However, the same researchers also warned that peace was at an inflection point and stressed the importance of the transition from short term effects to long term efforts and structural changes. If Colombia really wants to bring peace to its troubled mountainous regions, just being average will not be good enough. The government must take a holistic approach where a stable law enforcement presence is combined with investment in public services and alternative industries for rural farmers. If Colombia does not want to become another cautionary tale in failed peace agreements, the time to act is now. The men, women, and children—who continue to face the consequences of neglect, lack of resources, and violence— cannot wait any longer.