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Colombia Peace Process: Lurching Backwards
Colombia Peace Process: Lurching Backwards
Security and Electoral Perils for Colombia’s Peace Accord
Security and Electoral Perils for Colombia’s Peace Accord

Colombia Peace Process: Lurching Backwards

Colombia’s peace process faces its most serious crisis yet, after the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) suspended a five month old unilateral ceasefire. Instead of more measures to de-escalate the conflict ahead of a final peace agreement, there are now new risks that the confrontation will escalate, causing fresh humanitarian damage, crippling trust between the parties and further weakening public support for the process.

FARC´s decision came on the heels of a military air and ground operation against a guerrilla camp in the southwestern municipality of Guapí (Cauca), which killed at least 26 fighters. Details have remained scarce, but according to official information, the attack was part of ongoing operations against drug-trafficking and illegal mining activities in which the FARC’s 29th front has long been involved. This event came only five weeks after a FARC ambush in the same region, which killed eleven soldiers and prompted President Santos to revoke an earlier suspension of aerial bombardments.

The scale of the losses arguably left FARC little other choice than to call off the ceasefire. Its leadership, many of which are now part of the negotiation team in safe Havana, has already come under pressure from combatants in Colombia who have remained exposed to offensive operations by the security forces. The suspension of the ceasefire is a costly move for the already highly unpopular guerrillas, but showing no decisive reaction might have seriously impaired their control and command abilities.

Shared Responsibilities

FARC have blamed the “incoherence” of the government for the end of ceasefire. This is disingenuous. The guerrillas have used the unilateral measure not just as a humanitarian gesture or a way to shore up political support but also as an instrument to pressure the Santos administration into an early bilateral ceasefire, despite being aware of the strong resistance to this idea within the government, significant parts of public opinion and, last but not least, the security forces. They have also failed to halt drug-trafficking and other criminal activities, including extortion, thus undermining the credibility of their ceasefire pledge.

But questions remain regarding the government’s handling of the situation. Security forces are doubtless entitled to carry out strikes against guerrilla camps. But military leaders should have anticipated that an operation which easily counts among the bloodiest against FARC in the last five years risked forcing guerrillas into giving up their ceasefire, with potentially significant negative implications for the entire peace process. In a speech on 22 May, Santos sounded the right tone when he expressed grief about the deaths of the FARC members. Yet the high number of casualties and the fact that the attack was against the regional structure that is held responsible for the April ambush have also given the entire operation unhelpful overtones of revenge.

Looking Forward

Dragging the talks out of this hole will not be straightforward. FARC have repeated their call for a bilateral ceasefire. But that remains a highly unlikely ambition. If anything, skepticism towards silencing the weapons before a final deal has grown. Negotiations on a formal bilateral ceasefire, underpinned by a robust and independent verification mechanism, are underway, but an agreement on this point is probably months away. In the meantime, the parties should consider the following steps to bring the process back on track.

  • First, as bilateral hostilities are about to resume, both parties need to show maximum restraint on the battlefield. In particular, they will need to strictly protect the civilian population and abstain from disproportionate attacks, in an effort to maintain, as much as possible, recent humanitarian gains and prevent public support for the process from falling even further. FARC must also ban planting new land mines and refrain from attacking energy infrastructure, one of its most frequently used offensive operations.
  • Second, the parties will need to ring-fence the negotiations from this new conflict dynamic. Preliminary agreements on rural development, political participation and the problem of illegal drugs need to be preserved and completed, and complemented by similar achievements in the talks on the “end of the conflict” and transitional justice, the last two points of the agenda. The announcement that negotiations will continue as planned on Saturday (23 May) is a positive early sign in this regard.
  • Third, the parties will need to redouble efforts to demonstrate concrete progress. With discussion on transitional justice moving slowly, this should entail a new push to implement conflict de-escalation measures, including a joint humanitarian demining scheme agreed on earlier this year.

Despite the setbacks of the last few weeks, the government and the FARC leadership appear to remain firmly committed to reaching a deal, not least because a collapse would be very costly for either side. The shared interest in a successful peace process is a strong base from which the parties can reset and relaunch the negotiations, ideally with the support of the trusted guarantor countries, Cuba and Norway. In April, we warned against the risks of an involuntary breakup over military escalation or a political backlash. As is clear now, such dangers can no longer be ignored.


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.


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.