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Security and Electoral Perils for Colombia’s Peace Accord
Security and Electoral Perils for Colombia’s Peace Accord
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

Security and Electoral Perils for Colombia’s Peace Accord

Growing distrust of Colombia’s outgoing government combined with deteriorating security in rural areas is undermining faith in the country’s peace accord. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2018, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to engage with opposition leaders to discuss the costs of ditching the deal.

This commentary on security and electoral perils for Colombia's peace accord is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2018.

Colombia’s 2018 presidential and congressional elections can be understood in part as a second plebiscite on the government’s peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and a crucial test of that deal’s resilience. Although voters narrowly rejected the accord in October 2016, it was then amended to include opposition proposals and approved two months later by Congress.

The outgoing government of President Juan Manuel Santos (who is ineligible to run for a third term) is deeply unpopular. High-level corruption scandals within both the government and the judiciary, as well as anaemic economic growth, have eroded not only Santos’ support, but the legitimacy of the political system as a whole. Partly as a result, about 30 contenders have entered the presidential race, the majority campaigning as independents outside formal political party structures. Opinion polls reveal highly fragmented voting preferences revolving around a group of six to eight main candidates. Sergio Fajardo, a centre-left former mayor who supports the peace agreement, has been leading the polls, followed by Iván Duque, from former President Álvaro Uribe’s party, who staunchly opposes it. Far-left candidate Gustavo Petro and right-wing Germán Vargas Lleras, in favour of and against the peace accord, respectively, are jostling for third place, although the latter has the advantage of a large patronage network.

The peace deal may be the dominant issue in a possible second round of presidential voting. Government supporters rightly point to the accord’s achievements: the FARC’s handover of arms and the establishment of a new, legal political party by guerrillas. Most importantly, violence has clearly decreased since peace talks began in 2012. But implementation of the rest of the agreement has advanced more slowly than expected in a climate of guerrilla mistrust and opposition hostility. Former combatants doubt the government’s commitment and ability to make new institutions effective, or pass about 30 more laws needed to implement the agreement. The government had only been able to get the Congress to approve ten of them by the end of 2017. Congressional resistance to the agreement, above all its transitional justice provisions, has grown with the approach of legislative elections in March 2018.

Following the FARC’s demobilisation, the army, navy and police were expected to quickly establish state presence and stabilise territories where the guerrillas had operated for decades. Instead, other armed groups have seized the opportunity to establish control over rural communities and criminal rackets.

Disappointment with the peace agreement is understandable given the scope of its ambitions. It promised to resolve the underlying causes of the five-decade war through rural reform, offer redress for victims through transitional justice, open up the political system and introduce incentives to reduce cultivation of illicit crops. Following the FARC’s demobilisation, the army, navy and police were expected to quickly establish state presence and stabilise territories where the guerrillas had operated for decades. Instead, other armed groups have seized the opportunity to establish control over rural communities and criminal rackets. These groups are suspected in most of the 170 killings of community leaders during 2017.

These groups include the remaining guerrilla force, the National Liberation Army (ELN), present mainly along the Venezuelan border and Pacific coast; approximately ten FARC dissident fronts in several regions; and armed bands linked exclusively to drug trafficking activities, such as the Gaitán Self-Defence Forces (AGC), based principally in the north-western Urabá region. In Tumaco, a poor city in south-west Colombia and a hub for cocaine exports via the Pacific, three FARC dissident groups are vying for control, killing suspected rivals or anyone refusing to make extortion payments. Twelve people were murdered there in the first three days of January 2018, most of them killed along main roads in broad daylight.

Challenges to implementing the accord

To implement the peace accords in coming months, authorities face three main challenges: providing security in many rural areas, reintegrating former FARC fighters and convincing farmers to substitute licit for illicit crops.

The government initially planned to improve security with mobile army and police operations, but this half-measure allowed armed groups simply to retreat and wait for state forces to leave. The army announced a new plan in December 2017 (Plan Orus) that would send security forces on a permanent basis to over 500 prioritised villages throughout the country.

In the meantime, peace negotiations with the ELN have been hampered by lack of trust at the negotiating table and a general atmosphere of public scepticism or apathy. The government recently reshuffled its negotiating team to speed up progress, though attacks by the ELN on other armed groups have undermined public support for talks. On 9 January, the ELN failed to extend the ceasefire in place since October, and resumed a campaign of violence including oil pipeline bombings, kidnappings and the killing of members of state forces, principally in the eastern department of Arauca. Efforts to renegotiate the ceasefire are now afoot.

Meanwhile, former FARC fighters must be reintegrated into society to prevent them from reverting to organised violence, but the process has advanced at a snail’s pace. There is still no national reintegration plan, which means that progress generally depends on the initiative of local FARC commanders. There is also no national-level education program for former fighters, except one financed and implemented by the international community. Part of the government would prefer to shift FARC ex-combatants into the highly successful individual reintegration program, which has been used previously for demobilised paramilitary combatants and guerrilla deserters. The FARC, however, wants to pursue a collective integration model, as outlined under the accords. It has set up an economic cooperative, but still has not put any business projects into action.

The government is beginning to implement the peace agreement’s crop substitution program, which provides farmers who stop growing coca with up to $12,000 in financial and technical assistance. Some 123,000 coca-growing families have signed agreements to take part in the program, including about 30,000 who have already received their first financial assistance payment. But the program requires funding beyond what the Colombian state is likely to provide: it would cost about $2 billion to offer assistance to 170,000 families. For international donors, including the EU, to support this program, robust donor coordination around its objectives and methods will be crucial.

Crop substitution should allow the state to establish a presence and legitimacy in remote rural areas. But the effort is undermined by continued forced eradication, which reduces cultivation only temporarily. These coercive efforts sparked protests in Guaviare and Catatumbo in September 2017, and violent clashes in Tumaco, where police reportedly killed seven farmers in October. Neither effort appears to be curbing coca production, which is booming. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, there were 146,000 hectares under cultivation in 2016, up from 96,000 in 2015.

Recommendations

Given an electorate that remains divided over the 2016 peace agreement, Colombia may elect a leader in 2018 who opposes implementing the accord in whole or in part. Avoiding such a scenario depends on, first, whether the government can communicate peace dividends to a predominantly urban society unaffected in recent years by conflict; second, whether the FARC accepts transitional justice mechanisms in good faith; and, third, whether pro-peace agreement candidates are able to address other public concerns, especially corruption.

The EU and its member states have long supported Colombia’s peace process, both financially, through the EU Trust Fund for Colombia, and diplomatically, with the EU special envoy. It now needs to adjust to a more adverse political climate. EU engagement with opposition leaders, highlighting the costs of not implementing the accord, would be important, as would EU readiness to adapt its financial support to shore up those parts of the accord that risk being neglected or downplayed by a new government.

Peace talks with the ELN in Quito have so far advanced little and are now at a standstill, which means the next president could halt the process without incurring much political cost. For negotiations to progress, the ceasefire needs to be renegotiated and preferably last at least until the presidential elections. Of the eleven countries accompanying the process as guarantors or “friends”, four are EU members: Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden. They should use their influence to encourage the ELN – which appreciates the legitimacy they bestow on the talks – to negotiate a new and improved ceasefire. A complete cessation of violence by the ELN might also shift Colombian opinion in favour of the process and prompt the next government pressured to continue it.

EU engagement with opposition leaders, highlighting the costs of not implementing the accord, would be important, as would EU readiness to adapt its financial support to shore up those parts of the accord that risk being neglected or downplayed by a new government.

Lastly, the Colombian government has considered creating “judicial submission” processes. These would allow other armed groups – such as the neo-paramilitary Gaitán Self-Defence Forces, which has offered to lay down its arms and imposed a unilateral ceasefire with surprising levels of compliance – to surrender to the courts in exchange for more lenient sentences and, potentially, development programs for the regions in which they were based. Congress has yet to draft and pass a law for the voluntary surrender of such groups, which would have to be flexible enough to fit each one’s particular internal hierarchy and interests, while also guaranteeing improved security and economic conditions in the areas where these groups operate.

Colombia has endured armed conflict since 1948. It still has the opportunity to make historic advances toward peace by implementing the agreement with the FARC; negotiating with the ELN; and creating a “judicial submission” process acceptable to other armed groups. But to do so, it needs international support, including EU resources and diplomatic engagement. This will be especially important in 2018, when Colombians will cast votes in elections that could determine whether and how the peace process survives.