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Post-conflict in Colombia: The International Potential of Peace
Post-conflict in Colombia: The International Potential of Peace
Local Polls in Colombia Put Peace to the Test
Local Polls in Colombia Put Peace to the Test

Post-conflict in Colombia: The International Potential of Peace

Originally published in Open Democracy

A Colombia in peace should be welcomed by the region because it means the return to the neighbourhood of an important, relevant resident, with first-order hemispheric tasks ahead.

If everything goes according to plan, the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) will be signing in the coming weeks an agreement to put an end to more than 50 years of armed conflict. This is certainly momentous news for Colombia, but also for the international community, which has expressed unanimous support for the process currently under way in Havana. Much has been said about the role of the international community in achieving peace and implementing the future agreement. I would like to propose here an analysis of the other side of the coin: the meaning and impact of this process on the international scene.

The anomaly

To many international analysts and Latin American political actors, the armed conflict in Colombia was, to some extent, an anomaly or an exception.[fn]Historical Commission of the Conflict and its Victims (CHCV): Contribución al entendimiento del conflicto armado en Colombia, February 15, 2015.  The documents by Alfredo Molano and Sergio de Zubiría are particularly useful for this reflection.Hide Footnote The fall of the Berlin Wall triggered or accelerated peace processes in Central American countries. Since the late 70s and early 80s, political transition processes had begun there from the once-dominant military dictatorships to democratic regimes. The influence of the United States fluctuated between active support to the democratic cause during the Carter administration, the campaign against the "evil empire" under Reagan, then towards appeasement and new democratic emphasis under President George Bush Sr. This swinging back and forth caused deep geopolitical changes in Latin America.[fn]Daniel Pécaut, Las FARC: ¿una guerrilla sin fin o sin fines?, grupo editorial Norma, 2008.Hide Footnote

The backdrop and ulterior purpose of the centre-stage role of Latin America in the peace processes in Central America (for example, in the Contadora Group) was the resolution of all ideologically-based armed conflicts. The presumption was that once the wars in Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador were appeased, the impact of the success of these processes would naturally open a peace process in Colombia. The Colombian constituent process of the nineties is coincidental with widespread optimism about the beneficial effects of the end of the Cold War. The peace negotiations and the disarming and demobilization of several Colombian guerrilla groups were seen as confirming the Latin American chapter of the "end of history".

But, as we know, the war in Colombia went on and became increasingly toxic due to the increasing overlap of its actors with drug trafficking and other illegal economies. In addition to Colombia, only Peru was going through a bloody internal conflict with the Shining Path and the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA). To any observer, it was no coincidence that the two countries most affected by coca cultivation and trafficking were suffering the brunt of violence.

This coincidence – while peace was being signed in El Salvador and Guatemala in 1992 and 1996 respectively - implied a different analysis of the roots of conflict. Led by the vision in Washington, the conflicts were interpreted as a direct and almost immediate consequence of drug trafficking and, therefore, their solution had to be found in a head-on struggle with the drug cartels and through aggressive crop eradication and prohibition policies. Latin American countries were mostly absent from these discussions, losing the centre-stage role they had had in Central America.[fn]Coletta Youngers and Eileen Rosin (eds), Drugs and Democracy in Latin America, The Impact of U.S. Policy, Boulder, 2005.Hide Footnote

The war ended in Peru during the 90s, more as a result of police and intelligence successes, and the rejection by civilians of the illegal groups, than to the fight against drug trafficking. The enormous corruption that held together the government of Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) showed also that those fighting subversion are not always interested in concrete and public interest results. In any case, the armed conflict in Colombia continued and extended through the brutal presence of paramilitary groups.

From justice and peace to Havana

The demobilization process of most of the blocks and paramilitary groups in Colombia was a result of a negotiation the full reach of which is still unknown, unrelated to international intervention. On the contrary, some external agencies viewed the scheme with suspicion, blaming it for being ineffective and promoting impunity, especially after the extradition of the main paramilitary leaders to the United States.

International support materialised, rather, for the management of the consequences of the enforcement of the law, such as the land restitution act, and, under Santos, the launching of a system of assistance to victims of the conflict.

The peace process in Havana was also a product basically drawn, designed and executed by the parties. Facilitators, associates, and other international actors were useful in resolving specific crises, giving confidence to the FARC, providing logistical aid, and expanding consultations. Resolution 2261 (2016) of the United Nations Security Council consolidated a process of increasing participation and oversight by the international community.

Peace in Colombia as a global opportunity

The peace process in Colombia has been welcomed with open arms by the international community, which is burdened with some intractable conflicts, growing tensions and new failed states. Unanimous international support for the talks in Havana is an expression of complacency with this process, a reaction that is almost unique if we compare it to the heavy boxing going on in the discussions on Syria, North Korea, and Iran. Talking Colombia in the international sphere tempers the spirits and pacifies relations.[fn]Amanda Taub, At last, some really good news: Colombia´s war with FARC could finally end, January 28, 2016, Vox The Latest.Hide Footnote

At the same time, the forthcoming Colombian post-conflict is an opportunity not only for Colombia, but for the recent experience in United Nations peacekeeping operations. There has been much questioning, for example, of UN peacekeepers taking military action against armed groups in African countries and of security interventions not being consistently supported by other components. In terms of results, the balance is dismal, as can be seen in Burundi and South Sudan.

The nature of an accompanying civil mission is consistent with the post-conflict requirements in Colombia, and eases the concerns of countries contributing human and financial resources to peacekeeping operations around the world. It remains to be seen, however, how soundly do countries which effectively provide personnel to any such operations located in high-risk areas sleep, but the experience of the civil and unarmed mission of the Peace Support Mission of the Organization of American States (MAPP-OEA) shows that security on the ground does not have much to do with bulletproof vests and armored vans, and more with a deep understanding of the context and with constantly measuring the threats.

And an opportunity for Latin America

If successful, the international mission in Colombia may carry important lessons for similar operations in other parts of the world, but the impact in Latin America should not be underestimated, even though it is of a different kind.

Peace in Colombia would put an end to the anomaly mentioned above - although it would still leave several pending questions - and lead the country into a more "normal" relationship with its neighbours. For years, the Colombian foreign policy has revolved around its own armed conflict. Its friends and foes have had to do with the positions and attitudes of other countries on Colombian domestic violence. As if the country was a sort of South American Israel, Colombian diplomacy has suffered from some degree of defensive cloistering.

But at the same time, relations with other countries and, more generally, the inclusion of Colombia in the regional context, may change substantially, although gradually. After some prominence in the eighties, Colombia has been absent from the hemispheric crises, such as the coups in Honduras and Paraguay or the latent conflicts on yet-to-be-defined borders. Its participation in the Organization of American States has been faint, as has its role in promoting other sub-regional trade agreements or blocks, such as UNASUR (with which it maintains a quiet animosity) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (Colombia being the only middle-economy country absent).[fn]A critical (and official) analysis is unusually to be found in the 2010 Report of the Foreign Policy Mission, published by the Universidad Militar Nueva Granada on April 19, 2010. For an external critical view: Alfredo Molano Rojas,Política exterior, crónica de males crónicos, UN Periódico Number 135, July 2010.Hide Footnote

A Colombia at peace would open up significant prospects for a country that has an undeniable geostrategic location, being a natural bridge between the Andean region, Central America, the Caribbean and the Amazon. No other nation in the region has Colombia’s potential for strengthening regional integration on water, energy and communications resources. And no other actor in the neighbourhood has shown such a political and macroeconomic stability, despite its internal weaknesses and frailties. That the war in Colombia has deprived the region of a consistent and relevant actor for a better consolidation of Mercosur, for example, for being more serious about UNASUR, and for an objective discussion of the relationship of the region with the US, has certainly been a tragic anomaly.

The impact of peace in Colombia will be felt particularly in Venezuela. Somehow, while the former moves hesitantly towards greater stability, the latter is rapidly plunging into political and social chaos. All forecasts are pointing to an implosion of tremendous proportions as a result of the erosion of the Bolivarian regime and huge uncertainty about how the Venezuelan transition will turn out to be. President Santos is right in saying that what keeps him awake at night is Venezuela.[fn]See the Crisis Group reports: Venezuela: un desastre evitable, July 30, 2015, and Fin de la hegemonía: ¿qué sigue para Venezuela?, December 21, 2015. The quote about the nightmares of President Santos comes from a Blu Radio interview, February 3, 2016.Hide Footnote

The border closure crisis in October last year was only a small sample of the instability waves that may be coming. Even if the peace process with the FARC appears to have been isolated from the vicissitudes of Venezuela, there are many other potentially dangerous elements at play. On the one hand, the National Liberation Army (ELN) will hardly enter into negotiations if the scene in its main refuge remains unstable. On the other hand, implementing the agreements with the FARC will be very difficult in key regions such as Arauca and Catatumbo North. Finally, the clash of these two countries has practically destroyed legal trade, which is the source of enormous resources and opportunities for both.

Colombia is expected to play a positive role in a major crisis in Venezuela. Not only for its own short-term interest, but because it is perhaps one of the few countries that can have an impact, given Venezuela’s growing food dependency. So far, Colombian diplomacy has been low-key and, again, too focused on Venezuela’s role in the armed conflict. It is time to push UNASUR and the OAS into taking concrete steps to prevent Colombia’s anomaly from being replaced by an even scarier Venezuelan anomaly.

Overall, the economic slowdown and the crisis of the left populist regimes in Latin America will open new, no less fearsome challenges. If Colombia succeeds in overcoming ideological violence, it must show the region that it is possible to reduce inequality and respect the rule of law, an equation that has been difficult to come by in the region in the last decade.

Conclusion

Peace in Colombia is undoubtedly good news for the international community and for the region. The participation (hopefully proactive and instrumental) of Colombian citizens is crucial to sail in the dangerous waters of the post-conflict. But also, in the medium and long term, a Colombia in peace should be welcomed by the region because it means the return to the neighbourhood of an important, relevant resident, with first-order hemispheric tasks ahead.

Campaign banners crowd the street corners ahead of 27 October local elections, in Monteria, Cordoba. CRISISGROUP/Zaida Marquez

Local Polls in Colombia Put Peace to the Test

On 27 October, Colombia will hold its first local elections since a 2016 peace agreement between the government and FARC rebels. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Elizabeth Dickinson explains what is at stake politically and why so much violence has accompanied the campaign.

What do these elections tell us about shifts in Colombian politics?

The run-up to this year’s local elections, which has been marked by an uptick in violence, offers a window onto the evolution of Colombian politics three years after the landmark 2016 accord between Bogotá and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

As a rule, Colombia’s state, city and municipal elections (held every four years) have attracted a high voter turnout. Big city voters tend to focus on urban preoccupations like public transportation and crime. Rural voters are likely to be more interested in issues like stalled progress on land reform and the persistence of armed groups and criminal gangs in their regions. Wealthy families with outsize influence in some parts of the country and illicit armed groups also have a major stake in local elections and often try to swing outcomes through campaign funding and coercion.

The most significant change this year may be in the ideological diversity of candidates

When compared to earlier local elections, the most significant change this year may be in the ideological diversity of candidates, who represent a far wider spectrum of views than in prior years – especially on the political left. Colombia’s left has long been one of Latin America’s weakest, in part because the public associated it with a violent insurgency that had Marxist-Leninist ideological origins. With the peace agreement starting to remove that taint, leftist candidates from the rebranded FARC, the Green Party, indigenous groups and grassroots organisations are standing for election this year. The Common Alternative Revolutionary Force (a party born of the now disbanded FARC) is running more than 300 candidates for mayor, local councillor or regional assembly representative.

At the same time, on the other end of the political spectrum, the right-wing Democratic Centre party of President Iván Duque, which is just five years old, is seeking to consolidate its regional power bases. With its focus on security, the party is aiming to win state and municipal races in regions where it does not yet have a significant local presence, such as the Venezuelan border state of Arauca.

While the 2016 agreement has substantially changed the political landscape, some of the electoral reforms that it contemplated have stalled. In May, the government abandoned reforms that would have helped insulate political parties from the disproportionate influence of monied and powerful actors, including by increasing transparency around campaign financing, in the face of congressional resistance.

Nearly two dozen candidates have been killed over the course of the year leading up to these elections and 605 candidates have reported receiving threats. What is going on?

Violence has clouded nearly every Colombian election in the last four decades. Threats and assassinations, including of various presidential candidates, have waxed and waned with the intensity of armed conflict. In comparison to regional elections in 2015 and 2011 – both prior to the 2016 peace deal – this year’s campaign season has been relatively peaceful. But relative to the 2018 national vote, which was among the most peaceful in 40 years, trends look less positive. Authorities have already warned that municipalities appear to be at greater risk of violence and fraud in the present election than in 2018.

The resurgence of non-state armed groups vying for regional influence explains at least some of the violence attending this year’s elections.

The resurgence of non-state armed groups vying for regional influence explains at least some of the violence attending this year’s elections. Over the last three years, new and evolving armed groups and criminal organisations have scrambled to move into areas the FARC gave up when it demobilised. Over twenty FARC dissident groups maintain dominion in areas of the Pacific coast, Venezuelan border regions and parts of the interior, such as Bajo Cauca, where they engage in illicit coca cultivation. The National Liberation Army (ELN), the largest remaining guerrilla movement, has consolidated control in its strongholds in Arauca and laid claim to some of the FARC’s former illicit markets and territories, such as in Chocó. (Talks between the ELN and the government broke down in early 2019, and so unlike in 2018, there will be no ceasefire in place for the vote.) ELN and FARC dissidents also compete with criminal organisations like the drug-trafficking Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces.

The election has made competition among these armed groups both more visible and more dangerous. The highest rates of pre-electoral violence are in regions where two or more armed elements are vying for control. These regions include Cauca and Nariño in the country’s south west and Catatumbo and Arauca along the Venezuelan border. In some areas, locals see the spike in violence as evidence that the 2016 deal failed to bring meaningful peace. As a community leader from Chocó described it, “the conflict never stopped”.

Candidates of all ideological leanings have faced intimidation, attacks and threats of assassination.

Candidates of all ideological leanings have faced intimidation, attacks and threats of assassination, often from actors with economic motives. Armed groups that have emerged from demobilised paramilitary forces and are involved in drug trafficking, illegal mining and other black-market activity have a strong incentive to silence candidates – territorial or indigenous leaders, for example – who might oppose their economic interests. In some parts of Cauca, Córdoba and elsewhere, groups have circulated pamphlets on social media telegraphing their threats against candidates. Government sources report that candidates who have resisted ELN demands – for example, members of the Democratic Centre party in Arauca – have faced threats and violent intimidation.

While part of this year’s violence is linked directly to armed groups, the wealthy families and individuals behind Colombia’s patronage politics also bear some responsibility. In areas such as the Atlantic coast, prosperous dynasties that straddle the business and political worlds have greater influence than political parties, and may use assassinations and threats in an effort to shift electoral outcomes. The masterminds of the violence, in these cases, tend to be candidates or their funders, even if they employ armed groups or contract killers to carry out their designs.

Although the dynamics behind much of Colombia’s pre-election violence seem fairly clear, finding the individual culprits behind threats and violent acts can be much more difficult. Many of those facing intimidation in this year’s campaign profess that they do not know who is threatening them or why. Partly as a result, election-related violence is rarely prosecuted, and impunity for recent acts of political violence stands at over 70 per cent.

To be sure, the police investigate in certain high-profile cases – for example, the harrowing 1 September assassination of Karina García, a Liberal Party candidate for mayor of Suárez in Cauca. In that case, initial reports indicate that a political rival may have paid FARC dissidents as hit men. Yet authorities are struggling to learn the origin of threats reported by at least 280 other mayoral aspirants across the country.

What has the government done to provide security for candidates standing for office and for voters on election day?

The government has recognised the resurgence of targeted political violence ahead of the elections and plans to send 60,000 soldiers to protect polling sites on election day. Bogotá has identified 315 high-risk municipalities where it should focus its efforts. In addition, the state has given more than 1,000 candidates some form of protection – ranging from bulletproof vests to armoured cars – though this is only about half of the number of political aspirants who requested help. As a final measure, Colombia will close its official border crossings with Venezuela from 24 October until election day in order to limit the threat from armed groups like the ELN that have a strong presence there.

As the record demonstrates, these efforts have thus far met with mixed success. The large number of potential targets, resource limitations and a somewhat fragmented response – with separate ministries assigned protection responsibilities for different groups of threatened individuals (eg, candidates, civil society leaders and ex-FARC members) and sometimes struggling to coordinate their efforts – have made an already difficult problem yet more challenging for the government.

How could the 2016 peace agreement influence the elections, and how could the election results affect the peace accord’s future?

Although an historic leap forward for peace in Colombia, the 2016 agreement accelerated the estrangement between Colombia’s relatively secure cities and the poorer countryside. In large cities such as Bogotá and Medellín, implementation of the peace agreement is not a major electoral issue compared to public transportation, the environment and crime. Yet in rural areas, where conflict persists, a growing sense of disbelief surrounds some of the accord’s more ambitious promises. Chief among these are land reforms and development initiatives aimed at eliminating the root causes of Colombia’s insurgencies. Community leaders in many rural areas say President Duque’s government has displayed only half-hearted commitment to these reforms.

Nevertheless, Colombians are unlikely to see the election as a referendum on the Duque government’s performance in implementing the peace deal. Local elections have historically favoured the country’s traditional establishment parties – ie, the Liberal and Conservative Parties that traded power in Colombia until the 1990s, together with their offshoots. That is likely to be the case on Sunday, regardless of whether or not the government-aligned Democratic Centre or the newly emerged left-leaning parties pick up seats.

Colombia’s external partners should maintain pressure for the reforms and support for the development projects.

The election of a new crop of leaders supported by traditional parties is likely to be both good and bad from the perspective of implementing the 2016 deal. On the positive side of the equation, many candidates support implementing key elements of the agreement that require a political push to make it happen – including land and other rural reforms as well as regionally focused development projects for conflict-affected areas, known locally by the Spanish acronym PDETs. A surge of effort from newly elected officials might generate momentum behind these reforms and projects, which are needed to wrest local economies away from the armed groups and drug traffickers that continue to wield great power in Colombia’s countryside.

But on the negative side, many of the traditional party candidates who are likely to prevail on Sunday are highly dependent on powerful interests – wealthy families, landowners and illicit actors – whose grip on the nation’s periphery constrains licit and broad-based economic development. This dependence in turn entrenches the lack of opportunity that drives people into the arms of armed groups. For this reason, Colombia’s external partners should maintain pressure for the reforms and support for the development projects – especially land tenure reforms and coca substitution programs – that can help create alternatives to the illicit markets that fuel conflict.

The FARC’s political successor is participating in local elections for the first time. What are their chances?

When the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force (the FARC’s political successor) ran in national legislative elections in 2018, it campaigned hardest in large cities and won a miniscule 0.5 per cent of the vote. Its candidates seem to have absorbed a lesson from that disappointment, and are focusing their current efforts on rural municipalities where their insurgency formerly enjoyed support (whether real or coerced). They are aiming for offices below the level of gubernatorial and mayoral seats, in hopes that they can begin building public confidence in their ability to govern.

At least 60 former FARC members are also running for other political parties or in coalition with other parties. One of the most common connections appears to be with Colombia Humana, a left-leaning party founded by former Bogotá mayor and last year’s presidential runner-up, Gustavo Petro. Aligning itself with this highly popular national leader could be part of a strategy by some former FARC members to shed the organisation’s tarnished image and eventually appeal to an emerging leftist urban constituency.