As Barack Obama was leaving Cuba after his historical visit, the first by a U.S. president in 80 years, and as Belgium and the world were mourning the victims of Brussels’ recent terrorist attacks, an important date in Colombia’s history went by almost unnoticed on the world stage. March 23rd 2016 marked the self-imposed deadline for the signing of the peace accord between the Colombian government and the country’s number one insurgent group, the infamous FARC. Regardless of the missed opportunity, the deadline has been postponed, after half a century of civil war Colombia has a real shot at achieving peace with the FARC-EP (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Ejército del pueblo). The Marxist-Leninist guerrilla group is the biggest, and most resilient non-state actor in the longest ongoing conflict in Latin America.
Although this is the third negotiation attempt with the FARC, the talks held in La Havana have a strong possibility of success, which could entail great economic and social benefits for the country. This article will present some of the pros and cons a successful deal could provide the country in terms of security and economic and social development.
Colombia has been plagued by insecurity and stigmatized as the cocaine country for decades. Some of this fame is due to Pablo Escobar, who yet again is being glorified, this time in the recent Netflix series Narcos. However, a wide array of players are to blame for the evolving climate of insecurity: politically-motivated guerrillas; drug cartels; paramilitary groups and their small but tenacious offshoots that stem from their dissolution; and even the Colombian government and military carry part of the blame. To understand the issues at play, a brief history of the FARC and the broader conflict is necessary.
Created in 1966, as part of an anti-imperialist agrarian resistance against the oppressive state, the FARC is the longest standing illegal group in South America. It saw the light of day in response to the bloody 10 year civil war aptly named La Violencia, a politically motivated confrontation between the Liberal and Conservative parties to gain control of the country, resulting in an estimated 200,000 deaths. This bloody war for control of the state forced a number of small leftist collectives and farmer groups to create their own independent republic in May 1964, known as Marquetalia. As the Colombian army retook control of the region by force, the remaining communist groups united under the “Bloque Sur”, paving the way to the creation of the Guerrilla we know today. To retaliate against the brutality of the FARC, paramilitary groups (backed by the government and the U.S.) organized and engaged the FARC in combat. They were quickly accused of similar atrocities such as kidnappings, and were consequently feared by the local population, thus exacerbating the quagmire.
According to the FARC, political and social issues are at the core of the group’s identity: the main demand – besides security of their members – is the redistribution of land from the rich landowners to the local peasants.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s the very lucrative drug trade began to fill the group’s coffers as the demand exploded in Europe and the United States. But drug trafficking, illegal mining and kidnappings are only a few of the fund raising mechanisms used by the guerrilla group nowadays.
A history of peace … attempts
The present endeavor to establish a long-lasting peace with the FARC is the third iteration of such negotiations. The first peace talks in 1984 were doomed before they began, for two major reasons: they lacked the inclusion of all the conflict’s stakeholders and they provided inadequate guarantees to parties regarding the prevalence of justice and their security.
Although the demobilization of the FARC wasn`t attained, the government approved their political participation, which led to the creation of the Union Patriotica (UP), a party comprised of an amalgam of leftist groups, scholars and armed fighters. Tensions were high in the country and rich landowners took the matter of securing their interests into their own hands, leading to the creation of powerful paramilitary organizations mentioned earlier. The violence spread by these organizations took on such a momentum that upon the creation of the UP, as the ideologist members of the guerrillas turned to politics and became public figures, a violent wave of extermination led by the paramilitary groups decimated thousands of UP members and activists. In fact the majority of victims were active members of the party: publicly elected mayors and governors who enjoyed a huge popularity. The politicide ignited a violent retaliation by the FARC, which escalated into bombings, selective killings and kidnappings, and forced recruitments (the use of child soldiers persists to this day). The country quickly plummeted back into chaos.
In 1990, the FARC engaged in a second series of peace talks. This time the government thought it best to include other leftist revolutionary groups, such as the Ejercito Popular de Liberacion (EPL), the M-19 and the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN). Although the FARC and the ELN backed down from the talks, the government managed to successfully demobilize the smaller EPL and M-19. But success was short lived, as the dissolution of these two organizations was not followed by a meaningful reinsertion of its warriors into society. Naturally, many of them joined other organizations, and they continue to terrorize the country to this day.
Simultaneously, the paramilitary organizations began uniting at the end of the 1990s, creating the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC). The AUC are credited with more than 302,000 deaths to date. To compete with the lucrative drug trade, the paramilitary group allegedly sold part of their defense apparatus to another warlord, whose organization ultimately became the very dangerous criminal group los Urabeños, now thought to be the second biggest illegal group in the country with 1,200 fighters in its ranks.
Lessons were learned from these failed attempts. The accords between the FARC and the Santos government, brokered since 2012 in La Havana, contain six points covering both causes and effects of the war, which are not exclusive to the confrontation opposing the FARC and the Colombian government, but necessary to its success. Here is a brief review of these points and their status:
- Rural reform (Agreed)
It was appropriate to start with this agenda item as this is the issue at the center of the FARC`s creation. An agrarian reform intends to lower poverty levels in the countryside by amending unequal land distribution. Obviously opposed by large landowners, this point is hardly contested by the government, who have numerous reasons to seek the alleviation of poverty by providing work, which will boost the economy, lower political instability and reduce the crime rate.
- Political participation (Agreed)
Political participation is the key to transition. This point can be separated in two: political guarantees a special “status for the opposition”. The former is a hypersensitive subject for both sides, due in part to the last attempt resulting in a politicide. The FARC thus demand a mechanism ensuring their free, fair and secure inclusion in the political system. However, a 2013 national poll showed in that 76.4% of the public opinion deemed it unacceptable to allow the FARC to participate in politics. Having criminals in the senate when the country has made great strides in cleaning up its political institutions in the last decade, is seen as a step back by many. Nevertheless, the government has agreed to reserve temporary seats in the Senate for specific areas deeply affected by the conflict, without confirming the number of seats and their reserved span. As for the oppositions’ status, the FARC demanded a special status to create their party, political movement and political associations without any restriction free, in order to guarantee their full inclusion, such as not being accountable to any established thresholds.
- Illicit drugs (Agreed)
Illicit drugs have been the fuel of the FARC`s movement for decades, but also its worst advertisement. It has attracted a lot of attention from insiders, and outsiders such as the U.S. To attack this problem head on, the parties have agreed to an ensemble of factors, ranging from laws making it easier to combat illegal groups dealing in the drug trade, to crop substitution and a focus on drug consumption as a national health issue.
- Victims (Agreed)
The fourth point agreed upon is the issue of victims: their rights, needs and demands. This point seeks the population’s approval in the peace process. According to the UN, out of the 7 million victims, almost half a million died and an estimated 6 million have been internally displaced due mainly, but not solely, to the conflict and the drug trade. Colombia comes a close second to Syria`s 6.6 million internally displaced people, and has almost double Iraq`s 3.3 million. Needless to say, civil society has paid the highest price in this conflict. To face this reality, the government has invited victims from all sides to provide their opinion and insights. This point has not been fully ratified. However, both the government (the military) and the Guerilla have accepted part of the responsibilities for the crimes committed and are looking for ways to make amends and be held accountable.
- & 6. End of conflict and implementation (In negotiation)
To obtain full closure, the last two points complement each other: the end of conflict covers the imperative disarmament issue and the reinsertion of FARC combatants into civil society, while implementation looks at the possibility of an approval by the population before the official ratification. Although it is of the President’s prerogative to be able to unanimously sign the deal, it would validate the five previous points and give both the deal and the President credibility.
Disarmament, demobilization and reinsertion of combatants, or DDR as they are known in the field of conflict studies, are the recommended steps to be taken to de-escalate a conflict situation and attain a lasting peace. The trick is to combine both short and long term solutions. The first two steps allow for a return to security and stability: a progressive disarmament can increase the chances of a successful transition by providing some confidence to the disarming faction that they won’t be too vulnerable. The last step aims for a complete social, political, and economic reinsertion of the warring parties into civilian life to avoid the possibility that they will drift back into the conflict. These steps would ensure that this deal overcomes the failures of the previous peace talks and avoid another politicide.
Rodrigo Uprimny, director of Dejusticia, a Colombian legal research center, explains that a plebiscite is a necessity for national acceptance of the peace agreement, as neither the constitution nor the law covers the issue of a referendum, a new mechanism has to be created to obtain the peoples approval and commitment. Moreover, this would legitimize the whole process by letting civil society own the issue and so prevent it from being perceived as a political deal between a government wanting to boost its popularity and a rebel group in search of an exit strategy.
Lastly, the issue of a transitional court, an institution which would allow FARC members to be tried outside the official judiciary system and be forgiven, is a major point of contention. The question of how to establish the courts and who will be granted access to them is central to the success of the peace negotiations.
Although some of these points are agreed upon, none of them are final until the whole package has been agreed upon and officially ratified. Some insiders think it could be as early as June 2016, but if the government wants to yield more popular support by recommending a referendum, additional time will be necessary.
The rising star
Colombia’s economic takeoff in recent years has made it one of the most successful countries in Latin America. In 2014, Colombia’s economy -the third strongest Latin American economy behind Mexico and Brazil- grew by 4.6%. Its GDP was expected to go up by 1 or 2 percent this year and was expected to keep growing -in 6 to 7 percent increments- every year, according to Bloomberg. This prediction was made just before the sudden drop in oil prices (below USD $30 a barrel) and a drop in general commodities, which slowed down the country’s progress in 2015 to a GDP growth of 3.1%.
Although it has fared better than its giant neighbor Brazil, Colombia remains heavily dependent on commodities, especially on hydrocarbons royalties, which are estimated to have dropped from USD $8 billion in 2013 to $1.1 billion in 2016. Before the downturn, these royalties amounted to almost 66% of Colombia’s exports, a painful reminder of its dependence on coffee revenues in the 1950s. Colombia is expecting to hit a record high inflation of 8% this year, the highest in the last 15 years. Nevertheless, diversification and healthy finances give Colombia some options when faced with the commodities bust, compared to its Venezuelan neighbors’ astounding inflationary explosion from 275% last year to an estimated 720% in 2016.
Diversification combined with the peso’s devaluation softens the blow for Colombia. As one of Bloomberg’s analysts put it: “Despite falling prices for its oil, coal, coffee and gold, Colombia’s economy is out-pacing other major economies in the region. Third-quarter growth compares to 2.9 percent in Peru, 2.6 percent in Mexico and 2.2 percent in Chile, while Brazil’s economy endures its deepest contraction in a quarter century.”
However, 2015 and 2016 did not bring about the desired success story the Santos government was advertising. Many international companies decided to move away from Colombia due to its economic downturn. Paypal and the London based Lloyds Bank, to name only two, withdrew their operations from the country. In this climate, general spending was indubitably slowed.
Other issues besides security and a bust in commodity prices can explain this slow progress. Democratic institutions are partly to blame. Corruption and clientelism remain significant obstacles to development. According to Latino Barometro, a public opinion survey NGO, 39.7% of Colombian respondents said that transparency in the political and judicial institutions was low, and 33.7% said there was none. Trust in the elites and especially in the government is still a big issue in Colombia. Yet 69.5% said that their security against crime was not guaranteed (35.4%) or poorly guaranteed (34.1%), which indicates that security is the most pressing matter for civil society.
Increased security in the last decade has proven effective in creating a productive atmosphere for economic growth. Mr. Mauricio Cardenas, the finance minister, believes that raising further investments in infrastructure, up to USD $30 billion over the next five years, will bring another percentage point of growth annually on a permanent basis.
Security opens the door to a wealth of opportunities, from a decrease in the country’s important brain drain, to a reduction of the informal economy. Indeed, cracking down on the vast informal sector is a very important issue for Latin America as a whole. It would benefit the treasury by filling its coffers with income taxes, and it would benefit society by integrating workers into the country`s social security net, which provides insurance and stable and fair working conditions. Similarly, a safer atmosphere would mean an increase in tourism, better trade, an increase in foreign investment, and let’s not forget a bigger share of the pie focused on developing issues such as agriculture, sustainable development and social spending, all favoring a diversified economic growth.
Evidence proves that economic health and security are tightly related. Security is indeed improving: homicide rates in Columbia have decreased by half in the last decade, with an additional 5% decrease in 2015. Kidnapping, a once lucrative and very popular business in the country, was down by 27% in 2015 compared to its shocking peak of 3,572 in 2000. It is important to underline the current shift from Guerrilla to organized gangs known as Bacrim (bandas criminales) in crimes being perpetrated throughout the country.
The peace deal created a favorable environment of transition for additional players to join in. As the FARC were moving forward with their agenda, the second biggest Guerrilla group, the ELN, has seized the opportunity to open dialogue with the government. The Santos government used a firm grip to deal with the group by making it clear that the talks with the FARC were exclusive, but that the timing was ideal and would not come back around, forcing the ELN to open separate discussions. In March 2016 the ELN and the government made public an agreement to formally kickoff peace dialogues.
Getting rid of the FARC and the ELN will not entirely change the widespread insecurity and criminal activity in the country, nor will it entirely relieve Colombia of its impediments to development, but it will be a major step forward and will create an example to be replicated elsewhere across the region and the globe. The real challenge, however, will reside in the crucial demobilization and reinsertion.
History shows that demilitarization is no guarantee of a general reinsertion. Because many Colombians are demanding accountability for over fifty years of crime, many lower ranking henchmen will be faced with three possible options: the first and most profitable one for the country’s peace and prosperity is the demilitarization and reinsertion (or prosecution) of its fighters. Sadly, chances are minimal that all of them will accept. Reasons range from ideology, to fear of facing justice and the unwillingness to leave the very profitable drug trade, especially due to the lack of marketable skills in regions with high unemployment levels. The second and third options are either the creation of one or many illegal subgroups stemming from the already fractious branches of the rebel groups, or the integration into an active illegal organization.
A recent show of force in April 2016, by los Urabeños, forced a partial shutdown of some of the northern parts of the country, resulting in the murder of five policemen and causing millions of people to fear for their lives. This should serve as a vivid reminder that these powerful gangs can overshadow the government in large swathes of the country; it could help convince civil society to back the government in their negotiations, and allow the security apparatus to concentrate on such violent organizations.
The reality in the field
In 2012, when I asked a taxi driver in Bogota what he thought of the peace deal and the reinsertion of insurgents, he answered angrily that the people responsible, on both sides, after so many years of human rights abuses and atrocities, had to answer for their crimes.
“And demilitarization?” I asked.
“For a guerrillero whose only skill is gunslinging, do you really think he’ll start selling candies on the sidewalk? No, he’ll keep doing what he does best.”
That taxista had a point: the government’s task to reinsert FARC members within the socio-political sphere is colossal. The elite might be granted immunity and be able to participate in politics just like the UP had been able to do from the 1980s until 2002. However, the majority of foot soldiers will have a tougher time. As with the paramilitary demobilization in 2006, lack of skills and refusal of the civil society to accept them will undoubtedly push many to enlarge the ranks of the Bacrim.
A peace deal is not a win-win situation. Due to the nature of the conflicts, it can only be achieved by compromise from all parties. This is especially true in an internal conflict, with shared and finite geopolitical boundaries.
The stakes are high but the benefits will be even higher. Although security issues will remain important, demobilizing the FARC and the ELN could produce a wealth of opportunities for the country. Economic opportunities will expand and could snowball into foreign and infrastructure investment, boosting employment and contributing to social changes and a decrease of the informal sector. Security breeds better social and economic opportunities, which in turn decreases the need for unemployed youth to turn to crime.
A FARC demobilization and disarmament may cause a rise in violence in certain areas: the FARC will be seen as weakened and this will lead to turf wars and possible attacks from groups such as los Urabeños, who are dedicated to the eradication of the FARC. Therefore, cracking down on these organizations will provide confidence to the warring parties in the crucial first months of the peace process. Regardless, dismantling the 50 year-old FARC and ELN will inevitably lead to more stability and economic benefits for the country.
 Colombia has seen more than 10 peace processes attempts with different groups in recent history.
 Colombia’s democracy has equipped itself with reserved seats for underrepresented groups such as first nations and has mandatory thresholds for women inclusion.