In November 2016, the government and FARC rebels signed an agreement ending five decades of guerrilla war, yet peace remains elusive as new armed groups have stepped in to compete for territory and illicit businesses. To defend the gains of the peace process and stop a new cycle of conflict from taking hold, the state must redress the inequality underlying social discontent, make peace with Colombia’s last major insurgency, the ELN, and design security strategies that put protecting people first. Crisis Group has worked on Colombia’s conflicts since 2002, publishing over 40 reports and briefings and meeting hundreds of times with all parties in support of inclusive peace efforts. We monitor the FARC deal’s progress and carry out field research on issues ranging from new patterns of armed conflict to Colombia’s relations with its troubled neighbour, Venezuela.
This week on Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood talks to experts Beth Dickinson and Renata Segura about Colombia’s presidential election, as the country heads into a run-off between two anti-establishment candidates: leftist Gustavo Petro and a millionaire often likened to Donald Trump, Rodolfo Hernández.
Originally published in The New York Times
Despite tense electoral atmosphere, all parties recognised presidential victory of Gustavo Petro, paving way for peaceful transfer of power 7 August; Truth Commission published long awaited report on decades-long conflict. In second round of presidential elections held 19 June, left-leaning candidate and former guerrilla Gustavo Petro won with 50.4 per cent of vote, defeating populist and businessman Rodolfo Hernández; victory marks first time leftist candidate has won presidential elections in recent history. Hernández and former president Iván Duque immediately recognised result, paving way for peaceful transfer of power on 7 August. U.S. Sec of State Antony Blinken and UN Sec Gen António Guterres 20 June welcomed “strength” of Colombian democracy. National Liberation Army same day signalled willingness to advance talks with incoming govt. Petro 22 June announced he had spoken with Venezuelan govt “to open the borders and restore the full exercise of human rights at the border”. Amid fears of violence and concern about possible Petro victory, military 19 June deployed 320,000 troops to polling stations and other key infrastructure on election day, 20,000 more than in previous elections; Ombudsman’s office same day said elections proceeded “normally” notwithstanding “isolated incidents against security forces” in Caquetá (south) and Norte de Santander (north east) departments. Petro 14 June issued open letter to security forces in bid to win support among rank-and-file, notably suggesting improvements to social benefits and promotion opportunities; largest associations of retired military officers rejected proposals. Head of army Gen Eduardo Zapateiro 28 June announced resignation. Authorities 10 June confirmed death of Ricardo Abel Ayala Orrego, alias Cabuyo, head of 36th Front of dissidences of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Antioquia department (north west), bringing number of dissident leaders killed in 2022 to five. Meanwhile, unknown assailants 27 June killed environmental leader and member of leftist coalition Pacto Histórico Juan David Ochoa in Granada municipality, Antioquia department (north west). Truth Commission 28 June published long-awaited report on conflict between authorities and FARC, said at least 450,664 people killed and 121,768 people disappeared between 1985-2018; recommended revised approach to drug policy, end to aerial fumigations that eradicate coca plants, and reforms to military.
Colombia’s 2016 peace deal was a landmark achievement, convincing the FARC guerrillas to disarm and enter civilian life. Yet much remains to be done to show insurgents that they can redress their grievances through ordinary politics. The country’s leaders should recommit to finishing the job.
Colombia’s vast forest is fast receding, partly because guerrillas and criminals are clearing land for farming, ranching and other pursuits. These unregulated activities are causing both dire environmental harm and deadly conflict. Bogotá should take urgent steps to halt the damage.
In Colombia’s history of protest, the 2021 mobilisations against inequality and police brutality stand out for their breadth and intensity. Unrest has quieted for now but could soon return. The government should urgently reform the security sector while working to narrow the country’s socio-economic chasms.
Coca gives Colombian small farmers a stable livelihood but also endangers their lives, as criminals battle over the drug trade and authorities try to shut it down. Bogotá and Washington should abandon their heavy-handed elimination efforts and help growers find alternatives to the hardy plant.
The Colombian-Venezuelan frontier, long plagued by guerrilla warfare and organised crime, is now also the site of an inter-state standoff. The two countries should urgently reopen communication channels to lower tensions and lessen the suffering of migrants who cross the border, whether legally or otherwise.
Murders of Colombian grassroots activists are increasing at an alarming rate. The killers seek to sabotage the country’s 2016 peace agreement and the rural economic reform it promised. Bogotá should step up prosecution of these crimes while pushing to improve social conditions in the countryside.
[The] strategy of fear, hate and stigmatization towards the left [in Colombia] no longer works as a policy to win voters.
The main [concern for voters in Colombia] is just sort of bread and butter economic issues, access to education, services... inequality.
The security strategy [of the Colombian government] of focusing on high profile targets does not guarantee security for civilians.
Coca is really just the currency of Colombia’s ongoing conflict.
Today, the commitment of ex-combatants [of FARC] to remaining in civilian life is visible across Colombia and deserves the full support of the international community.
There is no armed or military solution to this crisis [in Colombia]. But agendas on all sides are increasingly tempted to look for one.
Crisis Group’s Watch List identifies ten countries or regions at risk of deadly conflict or escalation thereof in 2022. In these places, early action, driven or supported by the EU and its member states, could enhance prospects for peace and stability.
Armed conflict in Colombia is escalating in rural areas, with some communities reporting higher levels of violence or coercion than before the peace agreement. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2022, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to encourage the implementation of the 2016 peace accord and help Colombia find substitutes for the coca crop.
Originally published in Foreign Policy
Bram Ebus, Crisis Group consultant for the Andes, investigates how deforestation in Colombia is often linked to conflict.