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Hope for Colombian Peace in Serious Peril

October 27, 2016

In a shocking turn of events, Colombian citizens vote against a formal peace deal with FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, one of Latin America’s deadliest paramilitary organizations. It is unclear how this failure of prolonged negotiations will be resolved, if it will be at all. Can government officials and FARC leaders reach a new compromise to end over five decades of warfare?

After 52 years of armed insurrection, over 220,000 deaths, and four years of negotiations, Colombian officials announced from Havana that they had finalized a peace deal with FARC in late August. Hailed by the international community as a comprehensive solution to the decades-long conflict, the treaty’s main provisions include the disarmament of FARC members, stricter regulations for narcotics trafficking and production, and a special judicial commissions to hear human rights cases against the guerillas and to establish transparency. However, on October 2nd, 2016, in a stunning turn of events, the Colombian people narrowly voted to reject the peace accord in a referendum largely seen as a formality by the negotiators of the deal.[1] With the status of the peace in limbo and FARC fighters already prepared to relinquish their arms, Colombia’s best chance at stability may soon crumble. 

Colombian government officials and FARC leadership met to negotiate in Havana (source: Wikimedia Commons).

Leadup to Negotiations

Originally founded as a Marxist paramilitary response to government corruption, multinational corporate extortion, and economic inequality, FARC began in 1964. Ironically, however, FARC has consistently resorted to kidnapping, ransoms, mass murder, and narcotics trafficking in order to support their guerilla efforts over the years. Fighters have also bombed churches and social venues, hijacked airplanes and oil refineries, and assassinated numerous political figures.

In response to the escalating violence seen toward the end of the 20th Century, the United States gave billions of dollars to Colombia to crack down on the narcotics trade and fight FARC and smaller guerrilla groups like the ELN, the National Liberation Army, another Marxist paramilitary organization. Plan Colombia, the United States’ financial and logistical aid initiative in Colombia, began in 2000 and provided financial resources and CIA backing to national security forces. With American support, Colombian security operatives have targeted major FARC leaders and drastically reduced its forces. FARC entered formal negotiations for a ceasefire in 2012.

FARC has maintained strength in the coastal departments of Nariño, Cauca, and Choco, where it has been especially deadly. FARC and ELN forces are also active in northern regions bordering Venezuela (source: Congressional Research Service). 

Rejection of the Deal

Most of the opposition to the deal came from its leniency toward FARC rebels.[2] If ratified, many fighters would be exempt from jail time if they peacefully disarmed, and financial assistance would be offered to fighters in order to reintegrate into Colombian society. Another major point of contention is that FARC would be guaranteed five seats in each of the houses of the national legislature, which many saw as legitimizing a terrorist group with no right to political representation.[3]

President Alvaro Uribe, who served before current President Juan Manuel Santos and was responsible for the military crackdown that forced FARC to the negotiating table, publicly opposed the peace accord. He and many of his supporters argued that they are not opposed to a peace deal, but argue that the deal should be renegotiated to be more punitive toward the guerillas.

President Juan Manuel Santos, lead proponent of the Colombia-FARC peace deal and 2016 Nobel Peace Prize Recipient (source: Wikimedia Commons).

Future Projects for Peace and Policy Implications

Many FARC forces already began the transition to peace prior to the referendum vote.[4] UN mediators and rebels that have left their isolated territorial strongholds have continued to push for a modified peace deal that is more likely to be ratified by the public.

Just as David Cameron pinned his political future on the recent Brexit referendum, President Santos’ fortunes are riding on his ability to produce a successful peace deal. With his domestic credibility in jeopardy, the Santos administration announced an extension of the cease-fire until the end of 2016, hoping that they can reach a new agreement before the country slips back into violence.[5] The international community is also behind a quick resolution of the failed deal; awarded to President Santos[6] days after the referendum vote, the Nobel Peace Prize brought increased legitimacy and awareness to the negotiations.

Since America has made significant investments in Colombian stability in the last sixteen years, this failure has substantial policy implications for the United States. While the surge in financial and military support from the United States was initially aimed at decreasing violence linked to the illegal drug trade, US-Colombia relations have since diversified to focus on economic growth, trade, and human rights issues.[7] President Santos involved Secretary of State Kerry in the peace negotiations in Cuba, and the United States was one of the major international proponents of the final agreement. American officials would like to transition support from counter-violence measures to long-term measures to build a relationship between the United States and its Latin American neighbor. However, with the possibility of armed conflict resuming, this goal is becoming less and less feasible.

Figuring out how to forge a new path to peace will prove challenging. FARC leaders have made it clear that they do not want to go back on the terms worked out over the last four years, while those opposing the deal require stricter measures for punishing the guerilla forces. The future of Colombia’s security is unclear as the international community, the Santos government, and even opposition leaders scramble to resolve this situation before the cease-fire ends and violence resumes. Government officials and FARC commanders returned to Havana on October 22 to attempt to negotiate a new deal that can create a formal peace long overdue in Colombia.[8]

Works Cited

  [1] Renwick, Danielle. “Colombia’s Civil Conflict.” Council on Foreign Relations, 3 Oct. 2016.http://www.cfr.org/colombia/colombias-civil-conflict/p9272

  [2] “On the Verge of Peace: Colombia Reaches Final Agreement with the FARC.” Crisis Group. International Crisis Group, 25 Aug. 2016. https://www.crisisgroup.org/latin-america-caribbean/andes/colombia/verge-peace-colombia-reaches-final-agreement-farc

  [3] Williams, Jennifer. “The Stunning Collapse of Colombia’s Peace Agreement with the FARC, Explained.” Vox. N.p., 4 Oct. 2016. http://www.vox.com/world/2016/10/4/13147194/colombia-farc-peace-deal-referendum-vote-defeat

  [4] Otis, John, and Yari Savannah. “Neither at War Nor at Peace, Colombia’s FARC Rebels Watch and Wait.” TIME. N.p., 17 Oct. 2016. http://time.com/4533750/colombia-farc-rebels-peace-accord/

  [5] Kennedy, Merrit. “Colombian President Extends Cease-Fire With FARC In Bid To Save Peace Deal.” The Two-Way. NPR, 14 Oct. 2016. http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/10/14/497922943/colombian-president-extends-cease-fire-with-farc-in-bid-to-save-peace-deal

  [6] https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2016/santos-lecture.html

  [7] Beittel, June. “Peace Talks in Colombia.” Congressional Research Service, 31 Mar. 2015. https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R42982.pdf

  [8] Forero, Juan. “Colombia, Rebels to Negotiate New Peace Pact in Cuba.” Wall Street Journal, 21 Oct. 2016. http://www.wsj.com/articles/colombia-rebels-to-negotiate-new-peace-pact-in-cuba-1477087711

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