The Tide Turns

If the early part of the first decade of the twenty-first century was the peak for the FARC, the latter portion of that decade would see a substantial reversal.

The year 2007 started a series of events that clearly weakened the group and set the stage for peace talks, specifically several high-profile escapes by FARC hostages and a number of public relations blunders by the group.

However, it was 2008 when the ground truly shifted. First, early February saw large anti-FARC protests in Bogotá and 100 other cities worldwide. The protests were promoted via a Facebook group called “One Million Voices Against the FARC” and included events in places such as Caracas, New York, Paris, and Washington, D.C.

A 2007 protest against FARC kidnappings and military rescue attempts. Protesters signs read: “Yes to the humanitarian agreement for the right to life. No to a blood and fire rescue.”

In March 2008, the Colombian military struck a FARC base just over the border in Ecuador, killing one of its key leaders, secretariat member Raúl Reyes, and capturing a great deal of intelligence. Two other members of the secretariat died later that month. Iván Rios was killed by one of his own men (hoping for a government reward), and then the group’s founder, Pedro Antonio Marín, died of a heart attack. In July the Colombian military rescued Ingrid Betancourt, three U.S. contractors, and numerous others from FARC captivity without firing a shot.

Without a doubt, February to July 2008 was the most difficult stretch in the FARC’s history and clearly contributed to the willingness of the group to talk.

Pedro Antonio Marín  allegedly hiding out before his death in Venezuela.

Over the next several years, a number of key leaders were killed, including two more of the secretariat: El Mono Jojoy in 2010 and Alfonso Cano in 2011. It is difficult to overstate the number of setbacks the group endured from 2007 to 2011, only a few years after its seeming apotheosis around the turn of the twenty-first century.

The Current Peace Process

Juan Manuel Santos was elected to his first term as president of Colombia in June 2010. He came to office from a prominent Liberal family, although he would be elected as a member of the National Social Union Party. His most significant résumé line was his service as defense minister (2006-2009) in the administration of Álvaro Uribe. During this time the Colombian government was pressing the FARC hard and scored a number of victories against the rebels (some noted above).

Santos did not come to office as a dove. Nonetheless, he started secretly reaching out to the guerrillas only a few months into his first term. These back-channel offers to talk led to preliminary meetings in Colombia and Venezuela before secret talks were fully initiated in Havana.

With the help of Cuban and Norwegian facilitators, an agreement between the FARC and the Colombian government was signed on August 26, 2012. Santos formally announced the beginning of these talks to the public in an address given on September 4.

The multi-year process focused on six substantive areas: land reform, political participation, end of conflict, illegal drugs, victims’ rights, and implementation.

Land reform was the first item settled, fittingly since the issue harkens back to the peasant uprisings of the 1920s and 1930s. This agreement promised redistribution of several million hectares of land to landless peasants, displaced persons, and decommissioned combatants. The accord was signed on May 26, 2013, roughly eight months into the process.

FARC soldiers marching in 1998.

It would be almost another year before the next accord would be signed, on the matter of illegal drugs, on May 16, 2014. This accord focused on crop substitution, public heath, and drug prevention as well as an agreement by the guerrillas to swear off the narcotics business. Exactly one year later, the accord on political participation was signed, focusing on the transition of the guerrillas to electoral politics.

A December 15, 2015 accord on victims’ rights and transitional justice created a “Comprehensive System for Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-Repetition.” This agreement was a watershed as it was the most difficult issue to address before the ceasefire could be negotiated.

The accord on a formal end of the conflict was supposed to be signed in March 2016, but negotiations dragged into June. Its completion was a major breakthrough that signaled that the negotiations, at least, were nearing their conclusion.

Politically this has not been easy, for as much as the generic idea of peace is favored in Colombian society, there is a great deal of disagreement as to what such a peace should look like, or how it should be established. Santos’ predecessor and former boss sees the current peace process as a “capitulation” to the FARC and frequently states that it is endorsement of impunity rather than a pathway to justice.

Indeed, in the 2014 electoral cycle, Uribe formed his own party, the Democratic Center, and headed an electoral list for the Senate, winning a substantial number of seats. His main purpose in running was opposition to the Santos peace plan.

Later that year (Colombian legislative elections are in March and the first round of the presidential contests are in May), Uribe backed another former cabinet member, Óscar Zuluaga, for president. Zuluaga came in first in the first round and Santos second. This set up a run-off between Zuluaga’s anti-peace process coalition (to include Conservatives) against Santos and his pro-peace process allies. Santos prevailed with just over 50% of the vote, but continued to face uribista opposition in the Congress (i.e., those allied with the Uribe faction).

Going Forward

The stakes for peace are high.

The Colombian conflict with FARC that started in the 1960s has resulted in an estimated death-toll of 220,000 and one of the largest internal displacement crises in the world (close to 6 million Colombians). It made things like bombings and kidnappings commonplace and diverted substantial state resources to security and away from education, infrastructure, and development. The suffering in the rural zones of the country, where most of the fighting between the FARC and the armed forces has taken place, has been especially acute.

An anti-kidnapping rally in 2008. The banners read: "No more kidnappings. No more terrorism. No more deaths. No more FARC." (Photo by Camilo Rueda López).

Santos promised that a final deal would be in place by July 20 of this year (Colombia’s Independence Day), but the final signing date has now been set for September 26.

Once the signing takes place, the next major step will be a plebiscite on acceptance scheduled for October 2. This step was approved by Colombia’s Constitutional Court in mid-July. The Court ruled that at least 13% of eligible voters (approximately 4.5 million people), would have to agree with the accords for the decision to be binding. Santos is taking this agreement to the population as a means of achieving legitimacy for the outcome.

Between general skepticism in large parts of the populace and the uribista opposition, it is unclear how the plebiscite vote will play out. For one thing, Santos’ own approval ratings are poor, with various polls taken in July and August placing it anywhere from 20% to 29%.

In regards to the plebiscite itself, a poll from Datexco published on August 24 in the Colombian daily El Tiempo showed the Yes position at 32.1% and the No position at 29.9%, with 9.7% not having a position and another 26.9% stating they would not vote. This poll further indicated that the final tally would have Yes edging No 51.8% to 48.2% if the undecided and abstainers were removed.

It is unclear what will happen if the result of the vote is No. It could mean renegotiation or continuation of the process without public support, a politically difficult option for Santos. 

Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta meeting with Colombian Special Forces in 2012.

Public skepticism is exacerbated by the length of time this process has taken. President Santos originally projected that a deal could be reached by the end of 2013, but negotiations over the last several accords have taken far longer. In general, it is also fair to note that not only have numerous past processes failed, but the very longevity of the conflict makes it difficult for the general population to believe an end is in sight.

The uribistas are actively campaigning against approval, with Uribe himself stating that “We can only say yes to peace by voting no to the plebiscite.” He and his political allies are focused both on depressing voter turnout (due to the terms dictated by the constitution court) as well as for a “no” outcome.

So while there are reasons to be optimistic that the outcome will be a binding, lasting deal with the FARC, the politics of the moment dictate a close contest.

As anyone who has studied Colombia knows, it is a complex place and concepts such as peace are not going to be easily defined, let alone attained. Even if the process with the FARC is flawlessly executed, it will not mean the end of organized violence. The ELN remains active and there is substantial violence connected to drug trafficking and other crime.

Further, while the major paramilitary groups of the later 1990s and early 2000s have been disbanded, some of them live on as smaller regional groups that fall, along with some drug groups, under the label “bandas criminales” or bacrim.

The Peasant Self-Defense Forces of Córdoba and Urabá, a right wing paramilitary group opposed to the FARC.

The good news about the ELN is that the process with the FARC has inspired talks with the government. In March 2016 it was announced that two years of preliminary talks had led to an agreement on formal talks. It does, therefore, appear that Colombia’s guerrilla war may be coming to conclusion.

Assuming that the final stages of negotiations are successful, and assuming that the “yes” vote can win at the ballot box, there remain formidable challenges. There is the issue of following through on transitional justice, evolving the FARC into a political party (or parties), and extending the presence of the state into the Colombian countryside.

There is also the fact that it is likely that some rump of the FARC will not cooperate with the process either due to political conviction or, more likely, because of lucrative criminal opportunities that will remain available. Whether such a scenario resembles Peru where Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) continue to nominally exist as a drug trafficking organization or whether former members of the FARC abandon the name and become part of the bacrim umbrella remains to be seen.