Colombia: Peace Withers amid the Pandemic
Colombia: Peace Withers amid the Pandemic
Protest in Colombia, 21 November 2019. CRISISGROUP/Zaida Marquez
Commentary / Latin America & Caribbean 11 minutes

Colombia: Peace Withers amid the Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare shortcomings in the implementation of the FARC peace agreement. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2020 – Autumn Update, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to continue pushing for full implementation of the 2016 accord and encouraging the government to pursue a humanitarian ceasefire with the National Liberation Army (ELN).

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2020 - Autumn Update.

Four years after the government’s peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country may be watching its tentative but hard-won progress toward peace start to unravel. Well before authorities detected the first COVID-19 case in Bogotá in March, armed and criminal groups were consolidating their influence in the areas hardest hit by conflict before 2016. In doing so, they took advantage of delays in fulfilling the accord’s terms, especially as regards measures to remedy the sources of violence in Colombia’s countryside, among other things, by stimulating the development of legal commercial activity to create alternatives to the drug trade and other illicit economies that fuel conflict. The pandemic has laid these shortcomings bare, while offering spoilers the chance to exhibit their growing power. The country’s largest remaining leftist guerrilla movement, the National Liberation Army (ELN), FARC dissident groups and organised crime have all expanded their territorial reach in the past year. 

A national COVID-19 lockdown has tightened the armed groups’ grip and, in some places, made them quicker on the trigger. The year 2019 saw 36 massacres (ie, killings with three or more victims), the highest number since 2014. Yet 2020 had already surpassed that total by mid-August, including several mass killings of young people at social gatherings, mostly by armed groups, and at least one of which appeared to involve the enforcement of informal lockdown restrictions. As of 2 September, 225 ex-FARC combatants had been killed since the peace accord was signed (including 52 in 2020), including by armed FARC dissidents seeking to pressure ex-combatants to take up arms once again. Meanwhile, pandemic-related health concerns have slowed implementation of the 2016 accord yet further, putting on hold many grassroots peace accord projects aimed at boosting rural economies and improving public services. As conflict resurges nationwide, the border with Venezuela has also become a hotspot for clashes. 

To help halt these worrying trends, the European Union and its member states should consider the following steps:

  • Continue leading international efforts to push for full implementation of the 2016 peace accord, with an emphasis on tackling extreme poverty in rural areas through the Territorially Focused Development Programs (PDETs) and support for ex-combatants in developing new livelihoods.
  • Press the government to encourage voluntary coca crop substitution rather than apply forced eradication. The EU could use its experience supporting legal economic alternatives to drug production to strengthen the National Integral Program for Substitution, which is fraught with delays, and help design supplementary approaches that include a wider set of coca growers.
  • Work closely with Colombia’s Attorney General’s office to strengthen criminal investigations into killings of social leaders and ex-combatants, as well as massacres of civilians. The EU’s financial support for the Attorney General’s special investigation unit is vital to chipping away at prevailing impunity.
  • Encourage the government to pursue a humanitarian ceasefire with the ELN aimed at alleviating pandemic-related hardships. Despite mutual distrust, the ELN in July signalled a willingness to negotiate a bilateral pause to fighting during the health crisis, following their own unilateral one-month ceasefire in April.

A New Wave of Violence

Two ominous patterns marked Colombia’s start to 2020: sluggish government efforts at carrying out the 2016 peace accord, paired with the accelerated advance of armed groups into former FARC-controlled territories. Weighed down by reservations that the 2016 accord was too lenient with the former rebels, the two-year-old government of President Iván Duque has pursued its implementation at a plodding pace. The accord’s primary vehicle for bringing economic growth to rural areas, the PDETs, also aims to bolster the state’s feeble presence in districts that suffered most during Colombia’s half-century of guerrilla warfare. Yet, according to a congressional oversight report released in August, it will take 40 years to finish establishing the PDETs at the current rate of progress. In the south-western province of Cauca, officials told Crisis Group that municipalities where security dramatically improved as the FARC laid down its arms, and which were included in the PDETs, are today inaccessible to many state agencies due to violent feuds between various armed groups. 

Indeed, many of the country’s historical war zones have slid back into discord. These new conflicts for territorial control are notably more local and less ideological than the conflict with the FARC. The peace agreement ended the FARC’s insurgency, but its aftermath spawned dozens of new armed groups, including nearly 30 FARC dissident factions, while also empowering the country’s other main guerrilla group, the ELN. Criminal groups, which emerged from the remnants of demobilised right-wing militias fifteen years ago, have also grown in strength and number. Across formerly FARC-controlled areas, these various armed outfits exert power over residents while also seeking dominion over illicit economic activity, including coca cultivation, extortion, human trafficking, mining and logging. To corner these black markets, and to achieve monopolies in legal commerce, criminals seek to control territory and those living in it while preventing rival groups from doing the same. Most gain this control by imposing regulations on everything from movement to behaviour in public.

Indicators of violence that fell following the FARC accord have begun to rise again. Civil society groups that track killings of social leaders, for example, count nearly double the number of murders in 2020 so far as in all of 2016, when the accord was signed and ratified. New forms of violence have also emerged, such as forced confinement within “invisible borders” across which rival groups restrict movement. Nearly 50,000 people – 65 per cent of them women and children – have suffered this maltreatment in 2020 so far, up 226 per cent from the first half of 2019 according to statistics from the state Ombudsman’s office (which is responsible for overseeing the protection of civil and human rights in Colombia). 

The pandemic has made the strangulation of rural communities yet worse. Between 24 March and 1 September, the government prohibited inter-municipal travel, leaving residents with poor or intermittent telephone connections even more isolated and unable to share information about threats they faced. In July, three quarters of households nationwide told the national statistics agency that their economic situation was either worse or much worse than the previous year, while unemployment rates doubled from 10 to 20 per cent. Armed groups across the board seized upon the health crisis to intensify their control, imposing additional social restrictions under the guise of quarantine regulations, and in some cases limiting movement to local supporters while harshly penalising rule-breakers. The ELN, for example, declared a “total” lockdown in its stronghold communities in southern Bolívar department from 3 to 17 August, advising the population in a 30 July communiqué that they should supply themselves for the entire period as “no type of vehicle” would be allowed to transit during the two-week period. The quest to impose similar rules at whatever cost appears to lie behind the killing of eight young people at a social gathering in Samaniego, Nariño on 15 August. 

Restrictions on movement have also prevented community organisations and the government from carrying out some programs linked to the 2016 accord. Recently demobilised ex-FARC members are particularly disadvantaged by the lockdown and deep economic recession. A total of 30 per cent of former combatants have received support for livelihood alternatives, but the pandemic has disrupted half of these projects, according to the UN. Of these, projects led by women in urban areas were the hardest hit of all. Coupled with the stubbornly high rate of murders of former combatants, many attributed to dissident factions seeking to coerce ex-members to take up arms again, the economic slowdown has raised questions as to the sustainability of the peace accord’s one indisputable success: the demobilisation of the vast majority of FARC fighters.

Bogotá attributes the fresh violence exclusively to drug trafficking and criminality, rather than also pointing to the deep-seated rural poverty and the almost complete absence of effective state institutions across large swathes of territory.

The government has responded to rising insecurity mainly by targeting armed groups with military force and forcibly eradicating coca plants. Bogotá promises to honour the peace accord, but it views the agreement as extraneous to its security strategy. It attributes the fresh violence exclusively to drug trafficking and criminality, rather than also pointing to the deep-seated rural poverty and the almost complete absence of effective state institutions across large swathes of territory, which allow illegal markets and alternative providers of law and order to thrive. There is little to suggest the government’s strategy of taking out the armed groups (which tend to proliferate in these conditions) or eradicating the coca trade (which saw an increase in cocaine production last year, notwithstanding an acreage decline, indicating new efficiencies in the refining process) will be successful unless underlying issues are effectively tackled. That is why the 2016 peace accords emphasised crop substitution as a mechanism for easing farmers away from the coca crop and building new licit economies.

But the Duque administration does not see it this way. It has blamed the massacres on a recent bumper coca crop and it has attributed the size of that coca crop to a 2015 government decision to end aerial fumigation. Rather than moving to complete crop substitution programs for around 100,000 coca-growing families that signed up, the government has stressed the need for forced eradication and vows soon to restart aerial fumigation. It has not met its promises to help coca farmers find new crops and has left the programs underfunded, even as the enrolled areas continue to suffer consistently high rates of lethal violence. While there was a roughly 15 per cent drop nationwide in homicides between March and August, coinciding with the lockdown, largely attributable to the impact of stay-at-home orders, violence rates in conflict-affected areas remained high. 

Moreover, enhanced eradication alongside additional military deployments has other downsides. For one thing, it risks exacerbating humanitarian needs. For example, in August, the UN documented severe food insecurity among 200,000 people in the traditional coca-growing hub of Putumayo; this resulted from a combination of forced confinement at the hands of armed groups and/or the loss of coca crops – their only source of income – to forced eradication. For another thing, eradication programs can erode trust and create friction between the government, on one hand, and coca farmers and the communities where they live, on the other. This was illustrated by a mid-September incident in Policarpa, Nariño, where the Ombusman reported that FARC dissident factions pressured the community to insist that a military eradication unit leave their area. 

Coca also contributes to insecurity along Colombia’s 2,200km border with Venezuela, with the frontier state of Norte de Santander now hosting the country’s largest concentration of coca crops according to the UN, but there are also other dynamics at play. Even though official crossings between the two countries have been closed during the pandemic, with some humanitarian exceptions, contraband and people, as well as drugs, continue to move via informal crossings known as trochas. Control of this illegal commerce is fiercely contested. The ELN now enjoys the strongest single hold on the frontier’s various illicit economies, but Crisis Group field research suggests that post-paramilitary groups and corrupt police on both sides of the border maintain lucrative niches of their own. Bogotá and Caracas frequently trade accusations that the other is stirring up bilateral hostilities by offering support to armed proxies along the border. On 19 September, for example, clashes broke out between the Venezuelan military and, reportedly, a FARC dissident faction, leaving at least four soldiers and fifteen fighters dead. With cooperation between the two states at a minimum, tensions sparked by armed group activity or other mutual suspicions could heighten rapidly.

A Role for the EU and Its Member States

The window is closing on the deep reforms promised in the 2016 peace accord. The European Union has been among the agreement’s strongest proponents, and the bloc should remain focused on its implementation in spite of the health and economic emergency facing Colombia. Funding is a key area to watch. With budgets stretched by the pandemic and recession, the government might be tempted to reassign resources allocated to satisfying commitments in the peace accord. The EU and its member states should urge Bogotá to prioritise funding and implementation of territorially focused development projects, the PDETs, which are intended both to stimulate economic development and prevent conflict by easing entrenched rural poverty and isolation. In addition, targeted assistance to the Attorney General’s Office – through the EU’s fast and flexible conflict prevention and peacebuilding instrument – can help reduce the persistently high rates of impunity for violent crime, including massacres and assassinations of social leaders. Just 60 perpetrators of 415 such homicides have been tried and sentenced since 2016; in some cases, they are hired guns, not the masterminds. With limited risk of prosecution, groups and interests that rely on terror are unlikely to relent.

The EU should use its wealth of experience working to assist farmers in converting from illicit crops to help modify Bogotá’s current focus on eradicating coca and eliminating drug trafficking.

The EU should use its wealth of experience working to assist farmers in converting from illicit crops to help modify Bogotá’s current focus on eradicating coca and eliminating drug trafficking. There is broad political consensus in Colombia that in its current form the crop substitution program is flawed and impossibly expensive. The EU could help authorities think of different ways to expand substitution more efficiently, while maintaining existing commitments to coca producers. For reasons of cost, participation in the program was capped despite great interest, although in a few areas – particularly where forced eradication or fumigation would prove difficult – the government is piloting local agreements with additional coca growers to trade voluntary eradication for aid. The EU should encourage Bogotá to scale up these efforts instead of relying on forced eradication and restoring aerial fumigation. More urgently, the EU can suggest that the government halt forced eradication during the pandemic so as to avoid ratcheting up humanitarian need in many rural areas. 

With the same end in mind, the EU should support efforts to secure a humanitarian ceasefire by the ELN for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis. The ELN observed a unilateral ceasefire in April that significantly reduced violence, particularly in Chocó along the Pacific coast, and offered to do so again in July if the government reciprocated. Bogotá could agree to ad hoc humanitarian talks in order to rekindle the group’s willingness to negotiate a bilateral pause in fighting, without guaranteeing that it would lead to formal political negotiations, which it might make subject to the guerrilla’s behaviour over a certain period of time. Steps to peace by the ELN would also help calm tensions along the Venezuela frontier and might even inspire closer cooperation between Bogotá and Caracas over the shared health and security crisis in the borderlands. Having strongly backed humanitarian relief for Venezuela as well as for its migrants and refugees, the EU should support the development of confidence-building measures between the neighbours, along the lines of the communication channel established between the two countries’ health ministries in April. Easing mistrust across the border will be crucial to controlling the risks of a violent flare-up or disease transmission.

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