Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Two Years In, Is Peace Taking Hold in Colombia?

Colombian President Iván Duque, who took office this year, has backed away from suggestions he would scuttle the 2016 peace accord. // File Photo: Colombian Government. Colombian President Iván Duque, who took office this year, has backed away from suggestions he would scuttle the 2016 peace accord. // File Photo: Colombian Government.

This month marks the two-year anniversary of Colombia’s peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, rebels. While the FARC has largely disarmed, there have been recent reports of hundreds of Colombians being displaced in Norte de Santander department due to fighting between the National Liberation Army, or ELN, rebels and a crime gang, which are fighting for control of the area. How well is peace taking hold in Colombia, two years after the signing of the peace accord? To what extent is the FARC simply being replaced by other criminal groups? Does President Iván Duque have the right approach to establishing control and the rule of law in all of Colombia’s territory?

Antonio Navarro Wolff, Colombian senator and former commandant of the M-19 guerrilla movement: “Two years after the peace accord between the government and the FARC, results are contradictory. On one hand, thousands of guerrillas were demobilized and disarmed. That is an indisputable fact. But, on the other hand, the territories vacated by the FARC have almost all been taken by other armed groups: a mix of FARC dissidents, members of the ELN or criminal groups. The main problem is the huge expansion of illicit crops, essentially coca. There are some 200,000 hectares of coca in Colombia right now, three times more than when negotiations between the FARC and the government started. Whoever controls these territories gets a lot of money, which in turn finances illegal armed activity and attracts these kinds of groups. There are two regions where the situation is worse today than under FARC control: Catatumbo, at the Venezuela border, and Tumaco, at the Ecuador border. In Catatumbo, territorial disputes between a fraction of the demobilized EPL (Popular Liberation Army) and the ELN, plus FARC dissidents, have created a complex violent situation. In Tumaco, FARC dissidents associated with Mexican drug cartels are behaving brutally. According to Colombia’s Red Cross, the number of displaced people in these and other rural regions has gone up this year. This is not surprising—if illicit crops are not reduced, insecurity in rural areas will continue. The government still hasn’t developed a clear policy. Threats to tear up the peace accords have fortunately not materialized, but compliance with the agreement is also unclear. We’re in a transition period with no end in sight. Meantime, several issues could produce negative effects: the possible extradition of Jesús Santrich, alongside unfulfilled agreements, could lead a certain group, roughly the same size as the FARC, to think the state is not complying with the accords, prompting them to leave for the mountains. We’ll know in the next few months. We must recognize that most of the older FARC leaders are keeping their word. In one year, we’ll know with much greater certainty if the peace accord has passed the initial post-conflict challenges. Hopefully, results will be positive.”

Adam Isacson, director for defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America: “The big mystery of Colombia’s peace process is why, after the FARC disarmed, the government did so little to occupy and administer the vast stateless territories that the guerrillas left behind. A year and a half later, even zones of great strategic value—with oil, mineral wealth or geographic advantages—have seen only a minor increase in state presence, or even just military presence, if they’ve seen any at all. Money may be to blame: the Colombian government’s revenues were hit hard by the post-2013 drop in oil prices. Bureaucracy may be to blame: the national government is uncoordinated and slow-moving. Expertise may be to blame: there is a gulf between the technocrats making sophisticated ‘territorial peace’ and ‘territorially focused development’ plans, and managers able to carry out those plans on the ground. Whatever the cause, there is slippage in Colombia’s security situation as other armed groups fill the territorial vacuum. Official data for the first four months of 2018 showed an 11 percent increase in nationwide homicides. With more than 26,000 victims, forced displacement has long since surpassed the 2017 figure. New actors include the ELN, the Gulf Clan neo-paramilitaries, more than a dozen FARC dissident units and more than a dozen smaller trafficking groups. These are more regional than national in scope, have more interest in illicit income than politics and often work by corrupting local officials and security-force personnel. But they are making steady territorial advances, and the Duque government has yet to make clear how its territorial approach will differ from that of its predecessor. The mystery remains unsolved.”

Martha Maya, former chief of staff to the Colombian minister of interior: “It is hard to assess both how well peace is taking hold and the extent to which other criminal groups have been growing in conflict-affected territories in few words. There are different organizations in charge of doing that kind of assessment, and they can provide specific information regarding each of the issues included in the Peace Agreement using a specific matrix, including elements related to security and criminal activities. Putting in place the agreement’s institutions has taken time, effort, discussions and controversy. The plebiscite, political campaigns and government change have all aggravated the difficulties of implementing the agreement. Currently, there are significant challenges to consolidating the progress made under the accord, particularly related to violence reduction and the disarmament of the FARC. The Colombian state urgently needs to strengthen its territorial control in the areas vacated by the FARC. This territorial control implies not only the presence of security forces, but also improving justice and investment in public goods to improve the living conditions of citizens in these areas. President Duque needs to promote a comprehensive strategy to establish the rule of law. The task of peace-building must be a long-term undertaking, related to state-building. In conflict-ridden regions, citizens’ trust in the state depends on tangible benefits: roads, agricultural projects, access to land. It is important that President Duque acts on his own terms within the roadmap defined in the agreement. The implementation of the peace accord is at a crucial stage. The institutions and plans have been established, and now the government needs to deliver.”

María Teresa Aya, professor at Universidad Externado de Colombia: “Two years ago, Colombia began a transition process from a country living in conflict to a country in peace. However, the power vacuum left by the dismantling of the FARC has led to the rise of different criminal groups. These groups are not trying to replace the FARC—they are trying to fill the power vacuum. Among these, there are right-wing armed groups that have killed over 120 social leaders in the last year as they move into the territories formerly occupied by the FARC. There’s also the ELN, the last guerrilla group left in the country, which gives their actions a false sense of grandeur. They no longer share the limelight with others. This does not mean their actions are irrelevant. They are despicable. Colombia, a country that believes in the rule of law, has, with the peace accords, a unique opportunity to increase its state presence and as such deal with the hurdles of the transition period. It must do so militarily, but also within the development arena. Peace is indeed taking hold in Colombia; however, it is not doing so at an equal pace throughout the country. The government’s challenge is to understand that peace does not mean the total absence of conflict. We are in a transition period.”

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