The Colombian peace process under duress

On Jan. 17 a car bomb exploded in the General Santander police academy in south Bogota, killing 21 police officers and injuring 68 more plus the perpetrator.
The National Liberation Army, or ELN, guerrilla group claimed responsibility for the attack four days later. Recently inaugurated President Ivan Duque Marquez (2018-2022) effectively ended the already-suspended peace talks with the ELN—Colombia’s largest remaining guerilla organization—the day after the bombing and demanded the arrest of the guerrilla’s negotiating team in Cuba.

This bombing attack was Bogota’s most lethal since 2003 and the third most lethal in the city’s violence ridden history. In effect, it underscored the ongoing resurgence of guerrilla violence in the country despite the demobilization of the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces, or FARC, in November 2016 via the peace accords struck with the previous government of Juan Manual Santos (2010-2014; 2014-18)

Background of the Peace Accord                                                                  
Following two years of secret, behind-the-scenes discussions (2010-12) and four years of formal negotiations in Havana, Cuba (2012-2016), the government of former President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC-EP (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Ejercito Popular) signed an historic peace agreement on Aug. 24, 2016 that promised to put an end to Colombia’s 52-year old armed conflict (1964 - 2016). As of year-end 2016, the country’s brutal internal war had left some 220,000 dead, 25,000 disappeared, and 5.7 million displaced Colombians. It had also cost the Colombian economy an estimated average of 1-2 percent of GDP growth over the previous half century.

The Santos-FARC peace accord included five key elements: 1. Future political participation of FARC members; 2. FARC rebels’ reintegration into civilian life; 3. Illegal crop eradication and rural development programs; 4. Transitional justice and victim reparations; and 5. FARC demobilization anddisarmament and implementation of the peace deal.
This historic agreement was initially rejected by a razor-thin margin of less than 1 percent of Colombian voters in a public plebiscite that took place on Oct. 2, 2016. The Santos government and most international observers were openly shocked by the intensity of the opposition to the agreement (led by former President Alvaro Uribe Velez) and by the Colombian voting publics unexpected, narrow defeat of the accord at the polls. Over the next two months the Santos government hurriedly introduced a number of modest modifications to the original agreement and the Colombian Congress then approved the revised version on Dec. 16, 2016.

During the first eight months of 2017 (January-August), implementation of the final peace agreement in Colombia showed some important signs of progress, especially with regard to the FARC’s demobilization and disarmament. According to United Nations monitors, the disarmament and demobilization of the FARC combatants as stipulated in the accord was finally completed in July 2017, only a few months behind schedule. Some 6,900 FARC members were relocated to the 20 Transitional Local Zones for Normalization and six Transitional Local Points for Normalization. In practice, FARC combatants surrendered 7,132 arms to the UN verification mission – more per demobilized member than in any other previous disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) process in the world. After the FARC completed their weapons handover in June 2016, the U.N. Mission in Colombia has worked to extract weapons and explosives located in 779 hiding spots with the help of FARC members and the police force, but skeptics remain unconvinced. Indeed, prominent critics of the Santos peace deal have repeatedly expressed suspicions that the FARC leadership has held back substantial caches of arms that they believe remain hidden around the Colombian countryside.  

Implementation Problems (January 2017-August 2018)
While the initial success of the demobilization and disarmament process during the first six months of implementation of the accord unquestionably constituted a major initial achievement for the Santos government, as of Aug. 7, 2018, at the end of the second Santos presidency, there were ominous indications that other key aspects of accord implementation were not going well.

Among the most significant of these  looming challenges were: 1. The Colombian state’s incapacity to deliver promised services and facilities in the demobilization zones; 2. The Colombian government’s inability to provide credible security guarantees to the demobilized and disarmed FARC; 3 The Santos’ government’s difficulties in financing its multiple commitments to the FARC regarding income subsidies, training, job creation, and access to land and credit ; 4. The inability of the Santos government to control the upsurge in illicit drug production and trafficking and related violence in the countryside; and 5. The possibility that the 2018 Colombian presidential election would bring to office a new Colombian president opposed to the Santos-FARC accord who might seek to dismantle significant parts of the agreement.
Alalmost 7,000 former FARC fighters initially demobilized in 2017-2018, although some FARC combatants did refuse to accept the agreement or to demobilize. Those FARC members, especially key commanders, suspected of war crimes are presently waiting for their cases to be processed by transitional courts, which have moved very slowly. Most rank-and-file FARC fighters had already been granted amnesty by August 2018. Nonetheless, there were clear signs in late 2017 and early 2018 of dissidence among at least six FARC “fronts” or units and their commanders, especially in coca-growing regions, that decline to accept the Santos government’s peace proposal or to lay down their arms. In July 2017 one of the dissident fronts attacked a Colombian military patrol, wounding two soldiers and injuring four civilians. Evidence from Colombia’s previous armed group demobilizations suggests that a 15 percent to 20 percent FARC recidivism rate over the first five years of the accord’s implementation is entirely predictable. 

Negotiations with the ELN began in Quito, Ecuador, in March 2017. A major initial goal was to obtain a bilateral ceasefire agreement before Pope Francis’s scheduled visit to Colombia in September 2017. A temporary cease-fire was achieved, but because the ELN doggedly demanded that the Santos government agree to end hostilities before a final peace accord could be completed, the ELN's attacks on Colombian civilians and security forces alike never stopped. Indeed, in violent incidents in July and August 2017, several Colombian soldiers were ambushed and killed. The ELN’s refusal to halt kidnappings in advance of a truce has led to suspensions of the talks on several occasions. For its part, the Santos government continued and even intensified military operations against the ELN. As a result, violent confrontations with the ELN continued while negotiations proceeded only very slowly.
Meanwhile, the ELN has moved rapidly to replace the FARC as one of the key actors in Colombia's continuously expanding illicit drug trade and also seized control of lucrative illegal gold mining operations in various rural areas. Rather than renounce these revenue sources as on-again, off-again negotiations plodded along, the ELN instead sought to consolidate and even expand its operations in key sectors of Colombia’s criminal economy, greatly exacerbating rural insecurity around the country. 

In 2016 during his last full year in office, President Obama pledged $450 million annually from the U.S. government in support of the Colombian peace accord over ten years for a total U.S. aid package of $4.5 billion. Following the U.S. lead, the European Union and various countries on a bilateral basis also pledged economic and technical support for the peace process. In all, the Santos government was hoping for roughly 20 percent of the estimated $45 billion that will be needed to fund the first ten years of the peace accord to come from foreign assistance.

That foreign aid in such amounts will ever actually materialize is highly doubtful. The Trump administration backed away from Obama’s aid commitment to Colombia in 2017-18. For FY 2019 Trump has promised the Duque government $391 million, none of which can be used to finance the peace process with the FARC or the ELN. Indeed, recent statements from William Brownfield, a former U.S. Ambassador to Colombia and current high-level State Department appointee, have tied any future U.S. assistance to more effective Colombian government coca eradication programs, including the renewal of aerial spraying of coca fields - a program abandoned by the Santos government almost three years ago as a result of World Health Organization (WHO) warnings that glyphosate spraying could cause cancer in affected human populations. European Union and other bilateral foreign aid promises have also been cut back as a result of slow economic growth in Europe, human rights concerns, and other problems.
Former President Juan Manuel Santos won the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize in 2016 for his efforts to bring Colombia’s half century-long civil war to an end. Despite his historic peace deal and the resulting Nobel Prize, however, throughout his second term (2014-18) his popularity remained very low, holding consistently at just a 24 percent approval and sometimes dipping below 20 percent.
Clearly, Santos’s negotiations and agreements with the FARC were one major factor behind his high disapproval rates. Many Colombians believed that his concessions to the FARC, such as allowing the FARC to avoid prison time, were far too lenient. Moreover, many continued to view his leniency as a threat to Colombia’s democratic institutions. Widespread resentments of the “generous” monthly government stipends extended by Santos to the demobilized FARC combatants (nearly equal to Colombia’s minimum wage for a two-year period) and the one-time payment of $2,500 to be used for economic pursuits such as starting a farm or other business, certainly contributed decisively to Santos’ declining popularity. Former President Uribe and his Uribista followers, in particular, were highly skeptical of the FARC’s sincerity and trustworthiness and extremely doubtful of the FARC’s ultimate reintegration into society through the political process.

Other Santos critics disapproved of his overall policy agenda, contending that his myopic focus on peace with the FARC had caused him to overlook or ignore other key issues of greater importance to the country as a whole, such as the economy’s poor performance, high unemployment, growing inequality, excessive taxation, pension reform, among many other knotty issues. In 2017, just 5 percent of Colombians believe that the FARC and ELN were the most important problem in the country, while 63 percent of Colombians believe unemployment, healthcare, and corruption should be the top priorities, followed by issues such as poverty and petty crime.
President Santos finished his second term in office on Aug. 7, 2018. His low approval rating, the country’s mounting economic difficulties, and the relentless attacks of his political opponents (especially former President Uribe) on the errors and mistakes of the Santos-FARC peace agreements were key reasons that brought Santos’ political opponents and President Duque to power in 2018.

Colombia was almost evenly divided between support for and opposition to the Santos-FARC peace accords as of mid-2018. The victory of the anti-Santista candidate Duque did, therefore, quite rapidly lead to the undermining of the peace process and its virtual collapse by the end of 2018. Not only has the Santos-FARC peace accord unraveled, but President Duque’s suspension of any negotiations with the ELN until they completely halt all military operations against the Colombian government (which they continue to refuse to do) essentially terminated the peace negotiations with the ELN, and brought on the deadly car bombing in Bogota on January 17.

The precise consequences of President Duque’s partial dismantling the Santos-FARC accord and his refusal to deal with the ELN at all are, of course, unknowable at this juncture, but there can be little doubt that the country is likely to experience a return to violent conflict as the ELN steps up its guerrilla war and disillusioned FARC members revert once again to armed conflict (perhaps rejoining the FARC dissidents who remained outside the Santos-FARC deal) or filling the ranks of Colombia’s burgeoning organized criminal groups.
Bruce Bagley is a professor in the University of Miami College of Arts and Science’s Department of International Studies.



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