On 24 November 2016, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Rodrigo Londoño (alias Timochenko), the leader of Latin America’s oldest and longest running guerrilla group, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolutionaries de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC) signed a final peace agreement in Havana to end 52 years of armed conflict.

Now, after a year of peace, the jubilant air of hope that surrounded the historic signing in Bogotá’s Teatro Colón in November last year has nearly all evaporated. With implementation of the accord facing massive hurdles both in Congress and the countryside, it seems that negotiating for peace may have actually been the easy part.

Movement in the right direction

When evaluating the past year in Colombia, it is important to acknowledge that the peace accord has brought significant, positive changes. The end of conflict has had a tangible impact on the country. CERAC, a Colombian think-tank, estimated that between August 2016 and May 2017 alone, up to 2,600 deaths had been prevented by the end of hostilities between the FARC and government forces. For obvious reasons, there has not been a single conflict-related death this year – compared with a high of 3,000 in 2002.

Since the accord was signed, 7,000 FARC members have gathered in temporary camps and turned in their weapons, and begun the process of reintegration into Colombian society.

Timochenko looking happy
Rodrigo Londoño (alias Timochenko) remains influential in Colombia’s remodelled political landscape.

Furthermore, the FARC’s commitment to exchange bullets for ballots seems steadfast. The UN mission charged with overseeing the demobilisation process noted that the weapons turned in by the FARC were new and functioning, refuting skepticism that the guerrillas would only comply nominally with the disarmament.

Political rebirth

Over the summer, the FARC took steps to formalise its participation in the political arena when it announced the creation of a political party – also using the FARC acronym, although with new meaning: Fuerza Alternativa Revolucionaria del Común (Common Alternative Revolutionary Force). The FARC has entered candidates into the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections.

Even with these positive developments, implementation of the peace process continues to face formidable challenges. If these are not resolved quickly, roadblocks in Congress, violence in the countryside, and ineffective social reintegration of former FARC members threatens unravel Colombia’s hard-won, fragile peace.

Crisis in Congress

As the anniversary of the signing of the final accord approaches, so too does the end of a crucial mechanism to pass legislation for its implementation. The government has been using “fast track” protocol to try to speed up the implementation of the accord. This reduces the number of debates a law must be subject to before congressional approval and allows for block voting, theoretically cutting legislative approval time in half.

The fast track window is set to expire on 30 November, and as of the beginning of last week, only 10 of more than 40 initiatives that President Santos has introduced have been approved by Congress. Among the bills still awaiting either debate or final approval are provisions considered to be the “backbone” of the peace agreement.

Most significant among these are the Special Justice for Peace commission, the transitional justice system, land reform programs and other political reforms that the FARC considers necessary to facilitate their political participation.

Divided then, divided now

The delays in approval may be traced back to the plebiscite to approval the accord in October 2016, which demonstrated that the country was deeply divided over peace with the FARC. The vote was split 50.2 percent against Santos’s peace agreement and 49.7 percent in favour. A large percentage of voters abstained, however, and the plebiscite forced the FARC and the government to go back to the negotiating table to find a compromise that would appease the opposition.

Those divisions have played out on the floor of Congress with increasingly hostile rhetoric. Members of the Conservative and Cambio Radical parties, two of Colombia’s more conservative groups, have coordinated walkouts before key votes on peace accord legislation. As a result, Congress has not been able to reach a quorum for voting, essentially freezing the legislative process.

This past week has seen some forward movement, however. On Wednesday, the Senate approved the Special Justice for Peace commission, meaning that the transitional justice system now only requires approval by the House of Representatives before being signed into law. It seems, however, that this one step forward comes with two steps back for peace.

The law approved by the Senate includes a provision that prevents human rights advocates from serving as justices for the Special Justice for Peace commission, requiring some members of the previously selected council to step down. For its part, the FARC has refused to accept this provision, sending an open letter to President Santos accusing the legislative body of “unilaterally” modifying and dismantling the agreements made in Havana.

Chaos in the countryside

While lawmakers and FARC representatives battle on the floor of Congress, parts of the country resemble a literal battlefield. During the process of demobilisation, the Colombian government moved too slowly to establish effective state presence to fill the vacuum left by the FARC. As a result, organised crime groups, drug cartels, and other guerrilla groups have moved to assert their dominance in these areas.

According to a report released this month by the Organization of American States (OAS), violence in conflict-affected areas has actually increased since the FARC’s demobilisation. Homicides in the municipality of Tumaco, in the southeastern department of Nariño, for example, have increased by 43 percent, while the murder rate in the neighboring department of Cauca has increased 29 percent. The broader pattern of violence in these regions is also increasing, and it is unclear how the Colombian state will be able to wrest back control.

Inconsistent commitment

Even though the FARC’s leadership has continuously reaffirmed its commitment to demobilisation, not all ex-combatants have complied with their orders. FARC dissidents – groups of guerrillas who have abandoned the peace process and retaken up arms against the government – have been spoilers of peace in the south of the country.

Estimates vary, but the number of dissidents is likely between 800 and 1,000 fighters divided between 14 individual groups. With social reintegration programs for demobilised FARC members moving far slower than planned, analysts fear that the number of dissidents will continue to grow.

FARC members may also be pushed towards dissident groups if the government fails to improve the security of demobilised guerrillas. Former FARC members have been targeted for assassinations in areas like Tumaco, southern Antioquia, and Cauca. In the small town of Ituango alone, four former FARC members have been killed this year.

These assassinations are part of a broader wave of violence against social leaders and human rights defenders across the country. October was a particularly bloody month that began with the killing of six peasants by government troops in Tumaco on October 9; and ended with a final tally of 23 leaders killed across Colombia. Both the OAS and the UN have expressed concern at the killing of social leaders as a marker of instability in the peace accord.

Colombia marching in the streets
Colombians have been vocal on both sides of the debate as to how to move forward with the country’s brittle peace. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Is time running out?

Colombia is at a critical juncture. Violence continues to plague the countryside; meanwhile Congress has not yet approved legislation required to give legal stability to the peace process. Without security or legal guarantees from the government, an expert in the peace process warned in a private meeting that the peace process is approaching a point of no return, where a critical mass of former guerrillas may decide that war is more stable than peace.

The bad news is that this moment could not be coming at a worse time. With presidential elections slated for August next year, the political climate will likely become increasingly hostile, as candidates try to appeal to a voter base deeply divided over whether the peace accord was a good idea.

The success or failure of the peace process will define President Santos’s legacy. However, with the future of the peace process so tantalisingly unsteady, perhaps the only certainty for Santos is that the burden of keeping the peace in Colombia will no longer rest on his shoulders.


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