Colombia’s Tenuous Peace

Colombia’s Tenuous Peace

“Colombia’s 2016 Peace Deal with the FARC helped to lessen violence. However, without increased development efforts in rural areas, the toll of past conflict on society may prevent long-term sustainability, justice, and recovery. The new administration of Colombian President Iván Duque Márquez is projected to subvert major post-conflict initiatives and risks reigniting paramilitary conflict.”

By Cassandra Stimpson

The Peace Deal signed between the Colombian government and the paramilitary Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016 brought “closure” to nearly sixty years of conflict. Yet, rampant threats remain after the deal was signed including poverty, inequality, illicit economies, corruption, and non-state actor violence.

Since 2002, conflict with the FARC has declined and ultimately ceased through negotiations and increased state control of rural areas. Differences in the three administrations of Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010), Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2018) and recently elected President Iván Duque (August 2018-present) lie in strategic approaches. Uribe’s militarism emphasized counterterrorism and combating the drug trade. Santos relied heavily on rural development and peace process negotiations with rebel groups. Duque, who recently took office, is closely tied with past President Uribe. Duque was able to secure the party’s nomination through Uribe’s endorsement, and both were strong critics of Santos and the peace deal throughout the campaign. It appears that Duque will take Uribe’s hardline no-negotiation approach, which may revive conflict with the FARC and potentially influence other non-state armed groups [i].

The removal of the FARC’s paramilitary presence after sixty years of intra-state conflict has highlighted chronic issues such as high rates of internal displacement, a lack of government presence in rural areas, ubiquitous organized crime, and unequal access to and ownership of resources. This leaves the “peace” in Colombia tenuous. Although Duque is obligated to fulfill certain peace treaty pledges, the funding of said activities is reliant on an economically stressed local tax base for politically unpopular, long term solutions. They key issues outlined below will determine if this “post-conflict” era can endure[ii].

A major challenge is the FARC’s reintegration into society after their demobilisation and subsequent transformation into a political party. After the peace deal was signed, about 2,800 former FARC members have joined or formed insurgencies to fight other criminal groups and the government to illegally obtain natural resources[iii]. A key factor to the sustainability of the government deal is employment and literacy training, as well as psycho-social support, given to ex-combatants in zonas verdales (green zones, which are essentially transition camps) for reintegration purposes. However the zonas have already been implemented improperly due to lack of financing and administrative attention, and Duque will likely further subvert activities and defund many aspects of the plan[iv].

Part of the new president’s popularity was due to his campaign rhetoric that disapproved of Santos’ peace deal, especially its leniency towards past FARC combatants, many of whom have terrorised ordinary Colombians for decades. The FARC not only evaded punishment in the deal, but were also guaranteed seats in Congress. Political posts will go to prior FARC military officials. Ex-FARC members were promised support in the peace deal, though this has not thus far been actualised, leaving the ex-combatants with little government assistance. This carries high risk of recidivism to illegal activities. Though some former fighters receive short-term monthly stipends, lack of access to land or jobs will inhibit societal engagement. Most ex-FARC have already left the zonas with no functional oversight mechanisms to  account for their whereabouts[v].

In absence of the FARC, the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) remain the largest leftist paramilitary group after decades of conflict, and remain an active threat, having committed large-scale violence within 2018[vi]. After government negotiations stalled under Santos, the group took control of remote areas along the Venezuelan border, displacing people and disrupting local economies[vii]. The Duque administration’s hardline stance on pre-emptive conditions for negotiations may stall them for the foreseeable future, leaving the ELN to destabilize areas that already have decreased government presence. The ELN also participate heavily in Venezuelan illicit economies and are entrenched with Venezuelan politics, which complicates the Colombo-Venezuelan relationship[viii]. With Venezuela’s porous border and current migration crisis, the ELN will likely remain on the strategic backburner for Colombia. Duque’s harsh conditions for negotiations, combined with the ELN’s decentralized nature will likely allow this issue to fester.

Concerns remain that ex-combatants and other opportunists will fill the FARC power vacuum due to lingering societal inequities. While Colombia has scattered major non-state groups, new and smaller criminal gangs perpetuate the same type of violence and crime, mainly in remote, jungle, or otherwise inaccessible terrain[ix]. The peace deal ostensibly addresses this by increasing oversight in rural areas, but this is politically unpopular and expensive.

Regional relations have a large impact on Colombia’s internal conflict. Venezuela and Ecuador harbour paramilitary units and criminal gangs, and deal in illicit economies. Additionally, instability in Venezuela has led to a mass migration, which Colombia may not have the capacity to handle alongside implementation of key peace accord developments. Colombia cannot afford to ignore these relationships if it truly wants to fight illicit trades and transnational crime. Yet, Duque and his ill will toward Caracas may re-suspend Venezuelan relations, complicating cross-border co-operation to dismantle paramilitary groups[x]. 

Internal development hinges on implementation of the post-conflict FARC deal in many ways. The new Duque administration puts the deal at risk, though institutional and state backing of the accord (from regional partners, the EU, the UN Security Council, and more) may keep key actions from subversion. Either way, state consolidation is vital. Through different administrations, the goal has been essentially the same: to have presence in, and the ability to secure, regulate, and tax, all corners of Colombia. Duque’s security strategy is due for release in 2019, and may bridge Santos’ peace deal approaches on development with Uribe’s militaristic expansion. In the meantime however, risks run high of a resurgence of non-state control of the economy, security, and overall control of Colombia.


 [i] “Risky Business: The Duque Government’s Approach to Peace in Colombia” (Bogotá/Brussels: International Crisis Group, 2018), https://www.crisisgroup.org/latin-america-caribbean/andes/colombia/67-risky-business-duque-governments-approach-peace-colombia.
[ii] “Risky Business: The Duque Government’s Approach to Peace in Colombia.”
[iii] Nicholas Casey and Federico Rios Escobar, “Colombia Struck a Peace Deal With Guerrillas, but Many Return to Arms,” The New York Times, November 1, 2018, sec. World, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/18/world/americas/colombia-farc-peace.html.
[iv] Vanda Felbab-Brown, “Death by Bad Implementation? The Duque Administration and Colombia’s Peace Deal(S),” Brookings Institution, July 24, 2018, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2018/07/24/death-by-bad-implementation-the-duque-administration-and-colombias-peace-deals/.
[v] Vanda Felbab-Brown.
[vi] Shannon Kirby, “FARC Dissidents and the ELN Turn Venezuela Into Criminal Enclave,” InSight Crime (blog), December 10, 2018, https://www.insightcrime.org/news/analysis/farc-dissidents-eln-turn-venezuela-criminal-enclave/.
[vii] June S. Beittel, “Colombia: Background and U.S. Relations” (Congressional Research Service, November 14, 2017), https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R43813.pdf.
[viii] Beittel.
[ix] Kelly Grant, “EPL,” InSight Crime (blog), March 9, 2018, https://www.insightcrime.org/colombia-organized-crime-news/epl/.
[x] Kirby, “FARC Dissidents and the ELN Turn Venezuela Into Criminal Enclave.”

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