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Colombia’s FARC Ends its 53-year Insurgency
Colombia’s FARC Ends its 53-year Insurgency
Report 45 / Latin America & Caribbean

Colombia: Peace at Last?

After decades of failed attempts to defeat the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) militarily and flawed negotiations, a political solution to the Western Hemisphere’s oldest conflict may finally be possible.

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Executive Summary

After decades of failed negotiations and attempts to defeat the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) militarily, a political solution to the Western Hemisphere’s oldest conflict may be in sight. Following a year of secret contacts, formal peace talks with FARC are to open in Oslo in October 2012 and continue in Havana. They may be extended to the ELN. There seems a firmer willingness to reach an agreement, as the government realises military means alone cannot end the conflict and FARC appears to recognise that the armed struggle permits survival but little else. With no ceasefire in place, both sides must act with restraint on the battlefield to generate immediate humanitarian improvements. And they will need to balance the requirements of fast, discreet negotiations and those of representativeness and inclusion. The government and the guerrillas have the historic responsibility to strike a deal, but only strong social and political ownership of that deal can guarantee that it leads to the lasting peace that has been elusive for so long.

There are many challenges, but they are, on balance, less formidable than on previous occasions. Scepticism towards the guerrillas remains widespread, and there is political opposition to the talks, most vocally and radically articulated by former President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010). His discourse resonates strongly among large landowners and other powerful regional actors with significant stakes and a historical proclivity for using violence to defend their interests. But the large majority of Colombians back a peace process, and mainstream political forces have endorsed it, though a failure to secure quick results could breathe new life into political resistance. The security forces are better aligned with the civilian leadership than in the past and represented at the negotiation table, reducing risk of the coordination failures between political and military agendas that have marred previous peace attempts. 

Broader conflict dynamics also encourage a political settlement. With neither side likely to win by arms alone, both have a strong incentive to negotiate. FARC is weakened militarily, but an entire generation of its leaders now has possibly its last opportunity to vindicate decades of struggle in a peace deal that responds to some of the issues that spawned the insurgency and that allows the guerrillas to participate in the construction of peace as social and political actors. The government operates from a position of strength. Its military advantage, if not decisive nevertheless appears irreversible; Santos, who is more sensitive than his predecessor to victims’ rights, has started to tackle problems such as rural development that are of direct concern for the guerrillas, and his administration has acknowledged the state’s responsibility for some key human rights violations. It also still has a reasonably cohesive partner to deal with, avoiding the problems that can be envisaged if more years of heavy military pressure were to cause FARC to splinter. 

Nevertheless, the outcome depends on more than the will and negotiating skill of the parties. After 50 years of guerrilla warfare, systematic human rights violations and indifference by both to the plight of rural areas, communities in conflict regions no longer consider the guerrillas defenders of their interests and have lost faith in the state’s capacity and willingness to solve their problems. Negotiations thus need to be sustained by the active participation and endorsement of civil society, notably of rural and indigenous communities. To lay the foundations for durable peace, talks will ultimately need to lead into a wider social process aimed at tackling the problems affecting the countryside that provide the backdrop for the conflict. Lasting peace is also only possible on the basis of accountability for the many grave abuses committed by all sides in the conflict. The international community, represented during the talks primarily by Norway, Cuba, Venezuela and Chile, will need to stand by Colombia throughout, including as it takes up the challenges of a post-conflict society. 

Fears over peace talks are tactically exaggerated by their opponents. But those promoting a political settlement also need to keep expectations in check. A deal would not eliminate violence. It likely would fail to convince some FARC elements to lay down arms, notably those deeply involved in the drugs trade. There would still be significant security threats from illegal armed groups rooted in the officially demobilised paramilitaries and from other organised criminal gangs. Nor can the socio-economic problems underlying the conflict be solved overnight. But ending the conflict with the guerrillas would give Colombia the best prospect yet to come to grips with all these issues. Crisis Group will accompany the process with analysis and recommendations on the substance of the agenda. 

Ten years of intense counter-insurgency warfare have greatly weakened the combat strength of the guerrillas and pushed them into ever more remote rural hideouts, substantially reducing the impact on the major urban centres. But the conflict still costs lives on a daily basis, holds back socio-economic development and impedes the consolidation of a truly inclusive and pluralistic democracy. The road ahead will not be short or smooth, but Colombia cannot afford to muff this chance for peace.

Bogotá/Brussels, 25 September 2012

FARC guerrillas carry a white flag symbolising peace as they march toward a camp where they will disarm and reintegrate into civilian live after more than five decades of conflict. Bogotá, Colombia on 8 February 2017. NOTIMEX / Presidency of Colombia

Colombia’s FARC Ends its 53-year Insurgency

With the official disarming of its main rebel organisation, Colombia has passed a remarkable new milestone in its peace process. But major challenges remain: the destruction of remote arms dumps, reintegration of ex-combatants, and progress towards peace with other armed groups.

The International Crisis Group celebrates the most significant achievement of the Colombian peace process to date: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has now finished handing over 7,100 weapons to the UN Mission, putting an end to its 53-year insurgency. Now the parties must focus on implementing the rest of the peace agreement, which will require overcoming several major challenges.

The first is to ensure security. Peace with the FARC has ended Colombia’s largest insurgency but other armed groups remain active. The National Liberation Army, or ELN in Spanish, continues its war against the government despite the ongoing Quito-based peace process. The government and ELN have announced a plan to reach a ceasefire in early September, and should intensify their efforts at the negotiating table to do so. Other armed groups, including criminal organisations and FARC dissidents, control important parts of Colombia’s periphery. The government should increase its military and police efforts in the short term to effectively regain control of areas under their influence. Finally, the remaining 872 FARC weapons caches registered by the UN mission must be destroyed by 1 September, as agreed.

The second challenge will be to reintegrate FARC combatants into civilian life.

The second challenge will be to reintegrate FARC combatants into civilian life by allowing them to participate in economic cooperatives, perform political work and receive educational support. The FARC hopes it can do this while maintaining its internal cohesion and collective lifestyle. But planning is behind schedule as key details are missing on the projects the FARC hopes to help carry out in order to generate income and sustenance for its fighters. The FARC’s proposal that its fighters remain in extremely remote areas of Colombia, where the group has been present for decades, may stumble because these parts of the country are characterised by poverty, lack of markets and poor infrastructure. Recently, the Colombian Agency for Reincorporation and Normalisation, or ARN – the state institute in charge of ex-combatant reintegration since 2006 – was put in charge of FARC “reincorporation”. It will need increased financial resources to guarantee a successful process.

Finally, the peace agreement still faces serious political resistance. Opposition political parties have vowed to change certain aspects of the agreement and, with congressional and presidential elections scheduled next year, they will soon have the opportunity to make their case. The successful weapons handover in theory should give proponents of the peace agreement a boost, but much will depend on developments on two important fronts. The government and FARC will need to show that their coca substitution agreement yields results – namely, a decrease in coca production and a transition to an economy based on sustainable, legal economic activity. Current trends are not promising. Colombia is likely witnessing record-high coca cultivation levels, which critics have linked to the peace process and an overly-soft drug policy.

Moreover, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (SJP) – the transitional justice mechanism designed to both render justice and shed light on what occurred during the insurgency – needs to demonstrate it is making a difference and enforcing accountability, particularly against guerrilla commanders, in order to counter the perception of FARC impunity.

[T]he FARC’s violent insurgency has come to an end and the organisation has ceased to exist as an armed group.

The weapons handover is a milestone: the FARC’s violent insurgency has come to an end and the organisation has ceased to exist as an armed group. For all the challenges that remain, and for all the uncertainties that lie ahead, this is a remarkable achievement for the Colombian people. At a time when faith in peacemaking and conflict resolution is at a low, it is also a welcome and inspiring example for the rest of us.