The Colombian Armed Conflict and Giving Peace a Chance
Since the early 1900s, Colombia has experienced a whole host of problems that have propelled the country into the international spotlight—striking banana workers in the 1920s massacred by the Colombian government and the United Fruit Company, ten years of extreme violence in the countryside in the 1940s and 1950s, the rise of communist guerrillas in the 1960s, the rise of the drug trade in the 1970s and 1980s, and the resurgence and strengthening of the communist guerrillas combined with the rise of paramilitaries in the 1990s and early 2000s. All the forces mentioned above, have made the current iteration Colombian conflict, now in its 52nd year, one of the bloodiest and the longest running in the Western Hemisphere. As individual organizations, as co-conspirators, and as bitter enemies, a combination of guerrillas, paramilitaries, drug traffickers, common criminals and some sectors of the state killed their way to Colombia’s classification as failed state in 2002 by various academics and NGOs. Now Colombia has a new opportunity to receive international attention – peace.
As hardline policies against guerrillas in the 2000s by president Álvaro Uribe Vélez (2002-2010) cleared major highways, strengthened the state, and severely debilitated the urban militias of the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia –Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – National Liberation Army), a majority Colombians finally felt that they were taking back their country and leaving violence in the past. Uribe’s successor, Juan Manuel Santos, continued the hardline policy until 2012 when he announced the beginning of controversial peace dialogues with the FARC. Four years later, on August 25, 2016, the FARC and the government reached an agreement that will bring Colombians to the polls on October 2nd to answer a simple question: “Do you support the final agreement to end the conflict, and the construction of a stable and lasting peace?” Colombians’ answer to that question will determine its immediate future.
A Brief History of the Current Iteration of the Colombian Conflict
As the conflict in the 1940s and 1950s, known in Colombia simply as “La Violencia” – The Violence – wound down with an agreement between the two warring Colombian political parties, the Liberals and Conservatives, the institutionalized bipartisan system in which the two parties rotated holding free elections within their parties began. For example, in 1958 voters received a choice between candidates of the Liberal Party, and in 1962 voters received a choice between candidates of the Conservative Party. This system continued until 1974 when voters once again received the option to select between parties. Although many factors contributed to the rise of guerrilla groups in the 1960s, dissatisfaction with the agreement, state abandonment of large swaths of Colombian territory, and the ever-increasing tide of communist ideology across Latin America are commonly cited as the main reasons. The FARC based their ideology on classic Marxist ideology, with the goal of overthrowing the state, while the ELN was based in Catholic-Marxist liberation theology.
Other major guerrilla groups included the M-19, an urban guerrilla that emerged in the 1970s. In 1985, the M-19 took over the Colombian Supreme Court, followed by the military retaking the building. In the aftermath half of the Court was dead—the details of the operation, who killed who, and the rationale are still unknown today, a story all too common in Colombia’s conflict-ridden history. In 1989, the M-19 laid down its arms partly under the condition that a constitutional convention occur, eventually replacing the 1886 Constitution with a more decentralized, rights-based document in 1991. Many former members of the M-19 remain active in Colombian politics today, including center-left Senator Antonio Navarro Wolff, leftist ex-Mayor of Bogotá Gustavo Petro, and right-wing Senator Everth Bustamante.
Unfortunately for Colombia, the 1991 Constitution did little to quell the violence. At the time of its ratification, Colombia was at the peak of its newest form of violence—drug trafficking. Beginning in the 1970s, the Colombian drug trade exploded into a ferocious, multi-faced behemoth, which by the late 1980s had made Colombia one of the most violent countries on earth. s the USSR and Cuba declined, the FARC and ELN found new sources of revenue in drug trafficking through taxing coca production in areas controlled by the guerrillas and protecting drug routes, eventually controlling the entire supply chain. The drug trade pertaining to non-ideological groups such as the famous Medellín Cartel, headed by its ruthless boss Pablo Escobar, and the Cali Cartel headed by the Orejuela brothers, grew to be the main source of violence in Colombia beginning in the mid-1980s until the mid-1990s.
The conflict between the state and drug traffickers debilitated the state to the point that its control of the country—which was weak to begin with— shattered practically beyond repair. Colombian cities were the most dangerous in the world with kidnappings, murders, and bombings occurring daily without discrimination between victims. As the two major cartels fell due to government pressure, the guerrillas helped fill the vacuum left in the drug trade. The guerrillas became wealthier off the drug trade and the almighty dollar (or peso) wreaked havoc upon their Marxist ideology. Kidnappings, murders, and extortions began to characterize their relationship to the vast majority of Colombians.
The late 1980s and 1990s gave way to a new source of violence that also used the drug trade to its advantage—paramilitaries. Medium and large-scale landowners, especially cattle ranchers, began to band together to protect their land and their holdings from guerrilla attacks because of the lack of state presence, arming workers and directing attacks themselves. As the paramilitaries grew larger and larger, their involvement with the drug trade to fund operations increased, and the violence used against suspected collaborators and family of guerrilla groups equaled and even exceeded that of the guerrilla groups themselves. Further complicating the situation, sectors of the state began to work in conjunction with paramilitary groups to repel guerrillas from territories across Colombia. It is necessary to learn the basic ingredients of the violent, complex, and lucrative stew that is the Colombian armed conflict in order to construct peace—the problem is finding the right recipe.
Álvaro Uribe Vélez—Colombia’s Salvation… to an extent
The election of right-wing president Álvaro Uribe Vélez in 2002 signaled a turning point in Colombian history. His hardline policies against the FARC and ELN drove the guerrillas out of the major cities and highways, reduced kidnappings by 90% and murders by over 50% by the end of his term, and helped make Colombia into an emerging “alternative” tourist destination. His charismatic and face-to-face leadership style endeared him to many Colombians, while his spats with neighboring Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez over his giving refuge to the FARC created strong feelings of Colombian pride across the country—exemplifying the new face of Colombia.
Despite the improvements made on nearly every front in Colombia relating to security, his alleged involvement with paramilitary groups, going as far back as the 1980s, was and remains controversial. A policy employed by some in the military of killing civilians, dressing them up as guerrillas, and presenting them as guerrillas killed in combat in exchange for alleged monetary bonuses received international condemnation, especially from human rights groups within and outside of Colombia. However, Uribe’s repeated military successes, and popularity ranging from 70-90% of Colombians, allowed him to avoid serious questioning until after the end of his term.
Juan Manuel Santos—Uribe’s Friend Turned Enemy
As Álvaro Uribe’s former Minister of Defense, Juan Manuel Santos was expected to continue Uribe’s hardline policies against the FARC upon his election in 2010. Although the Santos
administration made key military strikes that killed top FARC leaders during the first two years of his administration, in 2012 the initiation of peace dialogues was announced—the first attempt at a peace process since 1999-2002 when talks failed after the FARC kidnapped a Senator, and a presidential candidate soon after. Uribe and many of his followers responded furiously, stating that the FARC had yet to show any signs of a desire for peace.In 2014, his victory over his uribista (follower of Uribe) opponent guaranteed the continuation of peace talks.
A Glimmer of Hope
On October 2, Colombia takes to the polls to vote on a referendum asking whether or not they would like to implement an agreement between the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the Colombian government after four years of negotiations. The agreement itself, which has already been signed by both parties, still needs the approval of the Colombian people for its implementation. Years of complicated conflict and differing opinions regarding the true nature of the conflict make a strong case for both the “Yes” and the “No” campaigns. Many disadvantages to the eventual peace accords—in addition to the half-century of bad blood between most Colombians and the FARC, make for a very difficult campaign for the “Yes”. However, the desire to once and for all end the conflict and adhere to the agreements reached in Havana have also led to a difficult campaign for the “No”.
No simple solution exists to the Colombian armed conflict. Many parts of the agreement are difficult to accept for the hundreds of thousands of victims and their relatives, and other parts of the agreement may cause temporary economic instability. Despite the disadvantages, Colombian society will benefit in the long run from voting on the peace agreement.
The Peace Deal
The peace agreement encompasses six topics that were discussed during the four-year long negotiation. This section will examine the benefits of key aspects of each topic, as well as discuss potential drawbacks that may come as a result.
a) Rural Development
The goal of this portion of the agreement is to develop rural areas of Colombia to reduce the inequality between urban and rural citizens, help eradicate poverty, promote equality, and ensure people’s equal access to rights. One of the most important policies enacted with this part of the agreement is the formalization of small and medium plots of land, often occupied by farmers without formal titles to the land. This will guarantee property rights for poor farmers, an often-cited condition for development.
Agrarian reform—a much attempted though largely unsuccessful policy in Colombia—would do the country some good. Large plots of land are often unproductive in areas, and allowing farmers to work that land would put it into production, while also compensating the original owners. Infrastructural improvements, in addition to funds going towards health, education, and housing should also help to develop the Colombian countryside.
b) Political Participation
Political participation entails an enlargement of democratic participation in politics to allow more diverse opinions to enter the political sphere. This includes those of the FARC and other smaller political parties and social movements. The agreement also involves designated seats in Congress for regions especially affected by the armed conflict, which will lead to new voices in Congress that have been often ignored or silenced.
This section would also put an end to the disbandment of political parties if they don’t reach a certain minimum threshold in Congressional elections. Previously, Colombian parties would have to dissolve if they were not voted into Congress; this agreement allows for the proliferation of social movements and political parties without their dissolution hanging over their heads before election.
c) The End of the Conflict
This topic deals with the demobilization of the FARC, and their reincorporation into civil life. It also guarantees the safety of demobilized FARC members and prosecutes those who have committed human rights violations. The major source of opposition to this is the FARC’s formation of a political party.
The obvious advantage of this section is that the FARC agree to demobilize, thus ending their 52-year war against the Colombian state. Of course, as happened with previous demobilizations in Colombian history, dissidents are likely to continue operating for several reasons, most likely to continue their involvement in the lucrative drug trade.
One of the largest controversies among dissenters emerged over the fact that the FARC would receive 10 seats in Congress for two terms (until 2026). Although the public will have to elect them, they receive 10 seats guaranteed regardless of the amount of voters they manage to sway. The FARC also has the opportunity to change the name of their party during elections, perhaps making people less hesitant to vote for them. This action would make the FARC—if using taking today’s congressional makeup—the fifth largest party in Colombia, despite having over 95% disapproval among the Colombian public according to polls.
Ex-FARC combatants will receive 90% of the Colombian minimum wage monthly for two years to assist the transition from guerrilla life to civilian life. As many FARC members were forcibly recruited—often as children—this measure is a step forward to ensure that they don’t continue armed life in the Colombian jungles.
d) The Illicit Drug Trade
The agreement discusses the illegal drug trade and defines it as both a catalyst and an effect of the internal conflict in Colombia. Notably, it establishes a crop substitution program for coca growers, and declares drug abuse as a public health issue.
A recent uptick in coca production has been attributed by the “No” campaign to Santos’ policies, but it is more likely that farmers are taking advantage of the potential subsidies offered by the government as a result of the peace deal. Despite this, one of the strengths of this agreement is the crop substitution program, which will work with campesinos to change coca crops for alternates. Coca is one of the consistently lucrative crops for lots of poor farmers, so this measure will provide much-needed monetary security.
This section provides the additional benefit that the drug addiction is seen as a public health problem, and not an offense worthy of jail time—although with the personal dosage laws in Colombia, this has not been an issue recently.
This point discusses the reparation of victims of the armed conflict—and the creation of a truth commission that will determine the guilt of individual aggressors of the conflict, and the determination of who constitutes a victim. In addition, it lays out the mechanisms that will prevent a similar conflict from occurring in the future.
Victims are the most contentious subjects of the agreement. Significant portions of Colombia’s population from all social classes, races, and ethnicities have found themselves victimized by one or multiple actors in the conflict. The major projects that would come about as a result of this agreement include a temporary, independent truth commission, which will determine the aggressors, victims, and the truth of what happened during the conflict.
A 24-member extra-legal body will investigate, judge, and convict those deemed as responsible. Guerrillas and state actors will be judged in an equal manner—a controversial subject as state actors were acting in the defense of an internationally recognized state, while guerrillas attempted to overthrow the same. Imprisonment will occur for those guilty of crimes against humanity regardless of whether or not the truth is told—those that provide honest recollections of their role will serve 5 to 8 years under a watchful eye doing essentially community service, while those that do not collaborate could be imprisoned for up to 20 in a normal prison.
f) Implementation and Verification
This point discusses how the agreement will be implemented, and who is tasked with overseeing its implementation. An important point, but no additional entities or policies are created as a result of this section of the agreement.
Notably, the agreement does not include Colombia’s second largest guerrilla group, the ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional—National Liberation Army). The ELN still kidnap, extort, and kill, especially in the coca-rich Norte de Santander province and the oil-rich Arauca province. This has led to fears that many FARC members will simply trade in yellow, blue, and red armbands for red and black ones. There is reason to believe this may happen: in 2005 with the demobilization of the umbrella paramilitary group, the AUC, many of the members simply formed smaller paramilitary organizations that no longer enjoy a national network, opting instead to fight each other over drug routes. The fragments of these groups, the BACRIM (bandas criminales— criminal bands), are still active in many parts of the country, and many will seek to undo that which was agreed upon in Havana. Peace with the FARC as an organization may exist as a result of the peace deal, but there are many other threats to the day-to-day safety of many Colombians.
Money is another major issue of the deal, with many wondering where it will come from. The deal has an estimated cost of $20-30 billion, which is not helped by the decrease in the cost of commodities, a large part of the Colombian market. A tax reform proposed by the Colombian government which would likely place a heavy burden on the wealthy, and would likely further complicate the already complicated and inefficient Colombian tax system. The deal’s endorsement by a majority of Colombian political parties, top Colombian and international economists and political scientists, various international organizations such as the IMF, IADB, World Bank, UN, the EU, as well as foreign governments signal a desire from the international community to assist Colombia financially with the implementation of the peace agreement—meaning all the burden will not be placed on Colombian citizens. The IMF has pledged an $11 billion line of credit specifically for the implementation of the agreement. The support from the largest lending organizations in the world implies Colombia’s generally stable macroeconomic policies will not change as a result of the agreement. The extent to which this is the case is not yet known, although the FARC, according to the Economist, have an estimated $10.5 billion accumulated through illicit activities in liquid and in property. The actual amount is unknown, another area where the agreement comes short. Regardless, it is important that these assets are located and put towards the cost of the peace process.
Impunity for members of the FARC is another legitimate concern coming from the “No” campaign. After countless abuses by the FARC, many find it incomprehensible that leaders of a group that tried to overthrow the state could see little to no jail time despite the extent of their crimes. Human Rights Watch has criticized this portion of the agreement as a facilitator for impunity, criticizing their use of sexual violence, kidnappings, murder, and use of child soldiers. For victims of the conflict, seeing the person that held a loved one hostage for over ten years without effective restriction of movement may be unsettling. It is uncertain whether the highest-ranking members will get off the hook, and their participation with the truth commission will determine their punishments. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the guerrilla would have entered negotiations knowing they would face 20 years in jail; supporters of the agreement say a certain amount of impunity is necessary for the agreement’s success.
The government has framed the vote as one of peace or war, implying that if the agreement fails, uncertainty will take over. One government negotiator even framed the vote as “literally life or death.” To an extent this is true—the outcome if the “No” vote wins is uncertain, and not likely to initiate a new round of discussions. Although the peace agreement is a reasonable start there many more challenges before having “peace” in Colombia. A functioning health and education system, a more diversified economy, safety on the streets, a streamlined tax and bureaucratic system, and working infrastructure are difficult objectives that will help bring the long-awaited security and comfort most Colombians desire. A vote for “Yes” has many disadvantages, it is however the only guaranteed way that the FARC’s estimated 6,000 members demobilize and put an end to one chapter of the conflict. The peace agreement is a start. A beginning of the end to the conflict that has displaced nearly 7,000,000, killed over 130,000, and over 30,000 kidnapped.