Colombian Government Desperately Fast Forwards a Peace Deal with FARC; history, root cause, institutional failure and political decay By Lejla Brackovic

On December 1st, 2016, the Colombian Government decided to go against the people and approve the peace accord with FARC, two months after Colombia held its breath while the majority of the citizens voted against the peace-deal that was set between the Colombian government and guerilla group, Las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, better known as their acronym FARC. Despite the fact that the people of Colombia were not ready to forgive, a revised agreement that had been four years in the making with Cuba and Norway as main peace negotiators was approved by the government in a 130 to zero vote after eleven hours of debate.

With over half a century of dealing with both insurgents and paramilitaries, the key points to this peace deal are designed to address the fundamental causes of the violence for both sides: the FARC’s grievances against the government and the drugs and illegal activities that have funded the FARC. The deal encompasses provisions for long-term stability: political inclusion, agrarian reform with rural development, and the replacement of illicit economic activity with a legal one.

Homes for the well-off and the poor are clearly demarcated in most Colombian cities

Since its independence in 1820, Colombia has been one of the most unequal countries in the world. Social and political elites have been very well established and they have been the ones deciding Colombia’s political and economic model, which has not always benefited poorer populations, nonetheless, social mobility has been pretty much non-existent. The country lacks national identity because of strong regional identities that have yet not found a way to integrate nationally in addition to its geographical obstacles. Historically, the country has been going through repeated conflicts that have all had same main causes: land and inequality. Smallholder farmers were displaced in favor of landlords who amassed huge portions of land. Since all of this technically was legalized, poor farmers were left without a way to sustain their livelihoods in addition to few rights. These farmers had to make the best of what they had and due to land limitation, small profit margins and transport difficulties, many got into the coca production. In fact, the origin of the armed conflict in Colombia can be dated back to 1920 with agrarian disputes over the Sumapaz and Tequendama regions where Peasants tried to get ownership of coffee lands. What began as an uprising of 48 farmers in the mountainous valley of Marquetalia in Colombia’s central Tolima province grew to become one of the world’s longest-running guerrilla insurgencies.

Both the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party which equally emerged in the 1840s have remained central in Colombian politics since they first developed, causing them to take sides in the conflict and by that worsening it. The Conservative party had close links with the Catholic Church and believed it to be central to the social fabric of Colombian society. Its members came from the wealthy landowning elites that advocated a centralized, hierarchical state. The Liberals, on the other hand, were traditionally drawn from a merchant class that opposed the idea of a centralized state, arguing instead for increased international trade and a secular, federalist government. However, the key is that despite these differences, the two ruling parties of Colombia were made up of elites and represented elite interests. Most of the members of the conservative party came from wealthy landowning elites that advocated a centralized, hierarchical State while the Liberals traditionally had members from a merchant class that were against the idea of a centralized state and pro-federalist government. While deep political polarization has been non-existent, a poll from 2014 revealed a rising percentage of Colombians that identify themselves as either strong left or right, creating a bigger distance between the tail ends of the political spectrum.

Solider with a patch of t Las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia's (FARC) official flag

The rise of FARC in 1964 has made Colombia pay a high price and suffer incredibly for more than half a century, going through an exceptionally violent conflict that has claimed more than 220,000 lives and displaced more than five million people over the past five decades. FARCs communist ideology that roots back to protesters in Marquetalia was considered a threat to big landowners and the state which lead to governmental use of army in order to disband the commune. However, even though the military power was significantly reduced within the original guerrilla army in Marquetalia, the ideology produced from a time of brutal repression continued to live and was inherited by even a worse terrorist army. The mistreat of the Marquetalia farmers lead to the growth of a new military power, Las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC).

Two decades after its founding, FARC created a political party, the Patriotic Union, but the idea didn’t last for long. Soon after the birth of the party, close to 3,000 of UP members were killed by right-wing paramilitaries, convincing the FARC that the use of hard power was the only way to go, giving this incident a political genocide status. Violent crimes have increased significantly over the past decade and many Colombians have become a victim of brutal kidnapping, grenades and landmines. Even though the Colombian government have used landmines around 34 military bases to protect key infrastructure, they were primary used by FARC to protect their bases and illegal drug corps. It is estimated that FARC have deployed antipersonnel mines up to 100 square kilometres, however, the rebel group stated that they would start humanitarian demining in selected parts of Colombia in March 2015.

Inspired by Marxist ideology and the Cuban Revolution, FARC demanded more rights and control over the land and have fought successive governments in Colombia, blaming them mainly for the long-lasting problem; unequal land redistribution and inequality in addition to serving the interests of foreign oil and mining companies at the expense of poor Colombians. While most of the well-off Colombians are of Spanish descent, the vast majority of the poor population are of mixed race. This has created an ethnic dominance and discrimination that has been present since the birth of the country. The divine between rich and poor has become so much more complex than just being about inequality and and economic status. Despite the conflict, Columbia is considered South America’s most solid democracy. Interrupted only once by a short-lived military dictatorship of General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla between 1953-1957. However, it has the largest economic inequality on the mother continent. Urban centers like Bogota, Medelin and Cartagena dramatically contrast from the poverty that has been haunting the countryside for centuries. One can even argue that this fight over land and poverty could have been avoided if the Colombian state didn’t sell off large parts of the land to private owners in the 19th and 20th century to pay for long-growing debts. The signed peace-agreement will, if followed successfully, benefit the country economically, creating stability and infrastructure that will convert former FARC territory to the government. However, like most conflicts, there are several obstacles in the way of achieving the goal and peace will not happen overnight.

Colombia Cocaine Cultivation 2001 - 2015. Source: UNODC

Polls show that the yes-supporters did not necessarily agree with agreement nor the current President, but the option of continuing the war was far less appealing than what the peace-agreement offered. The yes side was ready to put aside their anger and need for revenge to possibly achieve peace for the future generations. As they move towards hope for peace, Colombians will have to learn quickly. It will take years, maybe even decades before achieving full peace. Just like those against the peace agreement, the yes voters are terrified of what will happened to the drug-demand gap that will be open for anyone that don’t mind getting their hands dirty. Despite the agreement, 170,000 acres of illegal green plants still threaten the country with violence. Even with the success of putting an end to FARC, it is unlikely that the drug-demand in the world will decline anytime soon. Unfortunately, until people stop using drugs, source countries like Colombia will always have a battle on their hands but where there is hope for a change, change can be achieved. Meanwhile, the government hopes to convert current cocaine farms to other crops. Anyhow, this may be the most challenging part for the Colombian government to change and obtain the country free from cocaine production. The illegal business is estimated to have earned between 200 and 3.5 billion USD in a year. In July 2016, the United Nations published an alarming report that stated 40% increase in cocaine production in Colombia between 2014 and 2015, nevertheless, the total acreage under cultivation in 2015 was double the amount in 2013.

According to the US Justice Department report from 2006, FARCs main income in fact comes from illegal drug trade and the paramilitary group supplies more than 50 percent of the world’s cocaine. 60 percent are claimed to be provided to the United States, making illegal drug trade which quickly has made it their main income. FARC also profits well from kidnappings, extortion schemes, and an unofficial taxes in the countryside for protection and social services which has made it possible for the paramilitary group to stay alive for such a long time. The production of the illegal highly addictive drug makes FARC one of the world’s richest guerrilla armies and puts them on the terrorist organization list by the United States and the European Union. It is important to take in consideration that even if FARC stick to their part of the agreement, and end the cocaine trade, their absence in the drug-trafficking business will create a whole that may develop easy access to other criminal groups that are hungry for money and looking to fill the drug demand. Anyhow, the Colombian government needs to keep their eyes open at all times so other criminal groups won’t take over the peace challenge in the country. Bandas Criminals, known as BACRIM and the National Liberation Army, better known as ELN are already involved in the cocaine trade and continuously looking for opportunities to gain control. With FARC pulling out form the business, the countries safety may be even more jeopardized then prior to the peace-deal agreement. Nevertheless, if the integration ends up being un-successful, it is assumed that some FARC soldiers will convert to ELN, which may even increase the problem, giving them monopoly of the illegal trade.

Percentage of yes voters in the referendum
Percentage of no voters referendum

The fourth attempt to a peace agreement between the Colombian government and FARC was initiated in October 2012, but the hope appeared to be short-lasting even when it was considered a remarkable achievement on paper. In reality most Colombians had no interest in what was happening. Likened to the fallout from Brexit referendum and Trumps victory in United States, experts wrongly predicted the outcome of the FARC referendum. Many were confident that majority of the population would vote for the peace-deal and decided therefore not to vote, considering they would get it their way, even without their participation in the referendum. Ironically enough, polls show that only 37 percent of eligible voters made it to the voting stations for what appeared to be a life-changing event for Colombia as we know it today. However, less than one percent stood in the way of a successful peace deal. Officially, 50.24 percent of the voters rejected the agreement. President Santos was aware that the Colombian constitution grants him the authority to sign a peace agreement without winning the popular vote, however, he still choose to proceed with a referendum that once again raised the debate about what peace really means to Colombians. Despite the negative results, the Colombian government took the peoples fate in their own hands and approved a revised peace-agreement on December 1st, hoping it would put an end to the 50-yearlong conflict between the rebel group and the government. One of the biggest objection to the original agreement was that it treated guerrilla leaders who had committed war crimes too leniently. As in the original agreement, guerrillas (and members of state security forces) who confess to crimes before a special tribunal will continue to avoid jail. But the new agreement reduced the discretion the tribunal will have to interpret the ‘restricted liberty’ to which they will then be subject. They will now serve their sentences in areas no bigger than the demobilization zones in which guerrillas will be concentrated once the deal takes effect. The new peace accord is designed to move Colombia away from a long tradition of ‘private justice,’ to the usual process of transnational justice into what the government promises will be ‘restorative justice.’ This is a peace-deal that many international organizations referred to as one of the best treaties in human history, nevertheless, a terrific example of a future negotiating model for other conflicts. Pope Francis blessed the accord, and United Nations Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon endorsed it, yet it was not accepted by majority of the Colombian people. The President Santos says that the revised agreement is stronger and take into account changes demanded by opponents of the scheme. However, the Colombian citizens are still not convinced and people don’t want FARC to be given seats in the legislative organs.

The peace-deal campaign has more or less revolved around two men; former President Alvaro Uribe and cNobel Peace Prize winner and current Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.

The peace-deal campaign has more or less revolved around two men; Nobel Peace Prize winner and current Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and the former President Alvaro Uribe. While Uribe’s popularity grew accordingly to his No-campaign for the peace referendum, Santos’s dropped down in popularity. Naturally, starting any kind of negotiation with FARC was a risky card to play for president Santos due to the paramilitary’s strong dislike in the country. Negative stereotypes about the rebel group are very present throughout Colombia and will not go away any time soon. The majority of Colombians associate FARC with nothing but criminals presented in a non-human form. One can say that Santos has been brave for opening the discussion with the country’s most hated people. Colombian people wanted harsher punishment, less political power and no financial support. Santos previous position as Defense Minister under Uribe’s governance helped him win the presidential election in 2010, but his popularity was short-lasted once he announced his intention to seek help from FARC-allied governments in Caracas and Havana to achieve an end to FARC as we know it today. While Santos tried to convince Colombia that this was the right approach, Uribe promoted and encouraged the people to vote against the peace-deal and convinced them that the whole country would eventually end up under FARC’s power. He convinced people that an agreement would not only open the doors into the Colombian society but also let them walk away with no punishment. Even though he completely opposed any negotiation with the paramilitary group to begin with, he moved on to a more positive note once he saw that the negotiations were going in the positive direction. However, he still stands by his opinion that any deal under which FARC members should include proper judicial sentence and avoid any possible seat in the government. He has continued to say that the only way of winning over this group was with use of hard power, while well-developed countries around the world see the opportunity to cleverly benefit from the brilliance of soft power. Uribe managed to convince majority of Colombians to agree with him on the matter that ending the war with injustice is too painful to accept.

The ex-President repeatedly used Colombia’s neighboring country, Venezuela as a powerful example to scare as many as possible away from voting yes in the referendum. Many argue that the situation in Venezuela was the backbone of those who voted against the peace-deal in addition to the fact that majority of Colombian people don’t trust the government. A study from 2014 showed that only 25 percent of Colombians have faith in the current political parties, dragging Colombia to the bottom of the list in South America. Politically speaking, many saw this is a great opportunity for FARC members to sit at the top tables with the big guys and influence the rest of the country. They see the benefits given only to be in FARC’s favor. At its peak in early 2000, FARC claimed to have 20,000 active fighters. However, with the help of United States in particular, the paramilitary group was downgraded to approximately 7,000 soldiers. This made Colombia one of the closest allies with United States in South America. Over the past 15 years, US congress has sent ten billion USD to Bogota through a program of military and diplomatic support aimed at fighting drug cartels. It’s alliance with United States have caused friction between Colombia and neighboring countries, Venezuela and Ecuador. In fact, experts claim that the only way FARC survived despite the help provided by United States while being under ex-president Uribe’s watch was through their alliances with neighboring countries Ecuador and Venezuela. Venezuela at one point even informally opened the borders between the countries, allowing narcotic trade to grow.

Colombian soldiers fighting against FARC.

An important factor to note in assessing the impact and perceptions of inequality on the conflict is the nature through which the inequality has raised in the South-American country. The fact that much of Colombia’s unequal distribution of land has to do with violent expropriations is important. Political scientist Charles D. Brockett points out that, ‘the most explosive situations arise when peasants believe that have been ‘unjustly’ dispossessed of land.’ Some of the most historically marginalised people in Colombia are of Indigenous and Afro-Colombian heritage. They have been excluded economically, socially and politically. According to a Development Report provided by the United Nations in 2011, more than half of the country’s land is owned by slightly more than one percent of the population explaining why more than 60 percent of Colombian people living in rural areas are considered poor, nonetheless, lacking running water, hospitals and access to education. Their social status has lead them into the hands of FARC, making this part of the Colombian population an easy recruit. Nevertheless, poverty and lack of opportunities in these areas has lead innocent children into the guerillas arms. According to UNICEF, 70 percent of Indigenous and Afro-Colombian children suffer from malnutrition, more than two million children have been displaced from their homes and more than 45,000 have lost their life in this war. Since the last peace talk was introduced, approximately 1,000 children have been forcibly recruited. The report also states that almost 30 percent of Colombia’s Indigenous and Afro-Colombian population lives in extreme poverty.

Like in most referendums, propaganda was unavoidable and a very powerful tool used to convince both sides, nonetheless, misinformation played a significant role in the outcome. Many voted no because there was a very well-coordinated disinformation campaign promoted by the ‘no’ leaders. One widely spread rumour was that former FARC soldiers would receive a monthly salary which majority of the Colombian population interpreted as un-fair. However, in the actual agreement, there is no mention of a monthly salary but rather a one-time payment of approximately 600 dollars, giving them the opportunity to accommodate back to the regular society. A minimum wage salary could be offered for two years from the government in exchange of work which would make it just as fair as anyone else working for it. Nevertheless, polls show that most of the people who voted against the agreement have never directly suffered from the war and in the areas where the FARC disrupted the society the most. According to the polls, almost 90% of those voted yes to the peace deal had been directly affected by FARC’s cruelty and crimes. In fact, very few have been informed that since the discussion of the treaty started, the violence rate has actually dropped significantly. Still majority of the people who voted no are angry and feel the need for revenge before justice and peace can be achieved. They want to see the FARC destroyed either through annihilation or incarceration, not understanding the deeper issue that goes beyond FARC’s military power.

When the time for demobilization comes, the paramilitary group that operates in 25 of Colombia’s 32 provinces will have to convert to designated safety zones and begin the government-supervised process of reintegration. According to the agreement, 7,000 demobilized FARC members need to turn in their weapons to the United Nations commission that have various centers located around the country. Even though all agreed weapons need to be turned in within 150 days of the signed agreement, Colombia has yet not started to celebrate. A time of hope has yet not come and many still feel fear, maybe even more so than prior to the agreement. The re-vised agreement also states that some leaders will be tried and punished while most will be granted amnesty and provided a reintegration program before returning into the non-FARC communities. In addition to this, FARC has been granted a political party status, allowing them seats in Colombia’s legislature by the creation of electoral districts from areas that were previously under the terror groups rule.

Majority of the Colombian people were angered by what they see as insufficient punishment for those who perpetrated a litany of crimes against their people. However, the important distinction to understand here is that the peace deal was not a vote for peace but rather for peace treaty. Even though, many think that this peace-deal won’t bring real peace and that the war is going to continue, they have to start somewhere in order to achieve peace in the future. It needs to be stressed that no deal or agreement will heal the country’s sorrow over night. It is important to take into account that for those who voted against the peace-deal are not against peace, but rather against the peace under the given terms. They want to see harsher punishment of the FARC but proposing a bigger punishment may have led to FARC’s rejection of the whole peace-deal. Colombia faces a lot of work to do with the integration of FARC into the society, but this is just the beginning of a violent free future. It will take time before Colombians start considering former FARC members as a natural part of their society and not just criminals that have been harming them for decades. Peace does not mean going from high levels of violence to harmony over-night but if handled correctly lead to it eventually. It is important to take into account that sub-paramilitary groups have indicated that they disagree with the circumstances of the agreement, making it harder to eliminate violence but if the big guys decide to go for it, it may send signals and change circumstances to the remaining FARC commanders. In the post-conflict setting the Colombian government needs to consider the political, economic and social exclusion that divides the country. However, this whole effort is useless unless there is a deep change in Colombian society that addresses the root causes of the conflict. Nevertheless, this whole process could lead to further divide a country that already is deeply divided. This is a conflict that is about much more than military power and both the people and government have a long way to go before they see improvement. Even though this may end in complete failure and raise another Pablo Escobar, the price no-peace agreement currently has is much greater than testing out one.

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