With A Soldier Dead And Families Fleeing, Colombia’s Peace Process Is Far From Over

Following the recent peace treaty between Colombia’s government and the FARC rebels, the murder of a Colombian soldier by a splinter FARC faction, as well as the ongoing displacement of civilians by armed gangs filling the power vacuum left behind by the disarmed FARC highlights that there is still a ways to go before the conflict in the country truly ends.

According to the Colombian government, 260,000 Colombians have died and 6.9 million have been displaced since the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC, began their uprising in 1964. Based on left-wing socialism and anti-imperial nationalism, the civil war between the FARC and the official Colombian state lasted over half a century before a peace deal was finally signed last November. The deal, which began implementation March 1st with mass FARC disarmament and the entrance of most members into reintegration camps, marks a major milestone in the nation’s push for peace. As well, the Red Cross reported that the ceasefire “brought about a significant decrease in the fighting and its human cost.”

But as two recent events symbolize, the ideals of peace inherent in the treaty have yet to be made clear for many Colombians. First, there was the killing of a Colombian soldier (and the injuring of four others) in an IED attack, which was perpetrated by members of the FARC who rejected the terms of the agreement. Such splinter factions have continued to fight against the Colombian state, as well as with mainstream FARC members who complied with the treaty and represent an aspect of the conflict that has yet to be resolved, despite the otherwise positive push for reconciliation. At the same time, places, where FARC rebels have complied with the treaty and moved into the reintegration camps, have seen their own host of subsequent crises, with other armed paramilitary and criminal groups moving in to fill the power vacuum left behind. The UN has reported that families are fleeing to escape this influx of militant criminals by entering local refugee camps or even crossing the border into Venezuela (although the Colombian government denies that this is happening). According to the BBC, peasant farmers in the Catatumbo region went so far as to block the exit of FARC rebels from the area, saying that “their departure would leave them unprotected as the paramilitary groups gathered nearby.”

Taken together, these two issues, the FARC splinter groups and the civilian displacement, reveal the degree to which the recent peace treaty, though not insignificant, is by no means a panacea to Colombia’s many woes. On one hand, the agreement does not ameliorate conflict with every rebel faction that opposes the government, for instance, there are three other rebel groups that remain active in the country (the ELN, AGC, and EPL), in addition to the members of the FARC itself, who reject the steps taken by the group as a collective. On the other hand, there is the question of what a FARC-Colombia will look like. As the exodus of families from areas that are no longer protected by the FARC shows, the violence that the peace treaty aimed to end will not stop if other groups, including ones that are more violent than the FARC, simply fill the hole that they left behind.

Other hurdles also remain on the path between Colombia and peace. For example, in recent weeks, FARC members have complained that their transition camps are poorly maintained, which is an oversight that threatens the success of efforts for reintegration into mainstream society and political culture. Furthermore, former FARC members will not be successfully reintegrated if they are not eventually afforded full recognition as legitimate citizens. A recent case, rebels offered to help rebuild a town that was destroyed by landslides but were unable to leave their own camp without approval from the government, which is indicative of the tension that remains, even after the peace treaty has entered into full effect. Similarly, the classification of FARC members as terrorists by certain countries prevented them from attending the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos last year, despite their having co-signed the very treaty that won Santos the award. Though incrementalism is important to ensuring thorough reintegration, a piecemeal process that perpetuates historical tensions will inevitably subvert the peace it aims to bring.

However, the more pressing question is of what motivated members of the FARC to rebel initially. Issues like systemic poverty, inadequate education, poor labor conditions, urban violence, and the like are what caused counter-government insurgency in the first place, and such issues remain prevalent in Colombia to this day. Though the recent peace treaty is a promising step forward, the underlying sociopolitical crises that necessitated such steps to be taken in the first place will need to be addressed if true and lasting peace is to ever come for the Colombian people.

Brian Contreras