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The struggle for peace in Colombia | The World Weekly

When the Colombian government and leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed a peace agreement in November 2016, many hailed it as the end of one of the longest running conflicts in the world. After over 50 years of armed conflict and various failed negotiation attempts, members of the country’s largest rebel group last year began a process of peaceful reintegration into Colombian society. 

However, as criminal organisations and other armed groups seek to fill the power vacuum left by FARC, and violence persists in many rural regions, there is no guarantee that lasting peace is around the corner.

Systemic violence has plagued the cities and countryside of Colombia for decades. In 1948, the assassination of liberal politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán sparked a period of widespread political violence in rural areas. Later, left-wing armed groups such as FARC began to emerge, clashing with right-wing paramilitary groups and government forces. A third type of violence erupted as prominent drug cartels exploited the unemployed urban youth for cheap, disposable labour and violently collided with rival cartels, local security forces and US law enforcement. 

Violence and conflict in Colombia have deep roots. “People have been quick to talk of Colombia’s ‘post-conflict’ era,” Mimi Yagoub, an investigator at InSight Crime, a think-tank focused on organised crime in the Americas, told The World Weekly, “but FARC was far from the only powerful armed group in the country”. 

Whilst all eyes remain centred on FARC, different actors are seizing the opportunity to take control of some of the country’s most strategic - and vulnerable - territory.

Filling the void

The security situation in several former FARC strongholds has deteriorated since the signing of the peace agreement. The guerrillas had previously monopolised power over many regions, regulating and controlling drug trafficking and illegal mining operations. 

“Now, with the guerrillas gone, there is a power struggle,” Sergio Triana, a Colombian peace and conflict expert from the University of Cambridge, told TWW, “and violence comes from many different state and non-state armed groups.” Indeed, the power vacuums left by FARC have attracted multiple actors. Remaining guerrilla forces such as the National Liberation Army have clashed with criminal bands and members of former paramilitary groups. These armed groups are acting more quickly than government forces, consolidating control where FARC once held sway.

Furthermore, they “offer quite an outlet for frustrated FARC members, for whom the peace agreements are not living up to expectations,” Kyle Johnson, the senior analyst for Colombia at Crisis Group, told TWW. Mid-level commanders are the most likely to lose out on power and reincorporation in the peace process, according to Mr. Johnson, and have proved to be the most prone to leave FARC. “The risk is that if they do join other armed groups, there are more actors with the know-how about war re-joining that war”.

The coca connection

Nationally, homicide levels are down. Yet, in some more remote parts of the country, violent deaths are steadily on the rise. Many of those killed are local community leaders, leaving the communities themselves all the more vulnerable. The government is reluctant to link these deaths to the power struggle which has resulted from the demobilisation process. However, studies suggest that the increased homicide and displacement rates in certain areas stem from disputes over narco-trafficking routes, as various armed actors clamour for control of coca-rich regions. 

Coca is the plant from which cocaine is produced. In recent years, the amount of coca being grown in Colombia has risen, reaching quantities not seen since 2001. 

According to UN estimates, coca cultivation in Colombia increased by 52% between 2015 and 2016, with coca plants covering 146,000 hectares of land across the country. 

Coca proves more profitable for locals than other crops. However, the connection to the cocaine industry means coca-growing communities fall under the thumb of criminal organisations, implicating them in the deadly chain of the international drug trade.

A farmer stands in front of a coca plant on a farm in a small village in Corinto, Colombia

Following the 2016 peace agreement, the government promised to implement a coca-substitution programme. The scheme will see farmers switch to legal crops, with financial aid from the government and mediation by demobilised FARC members. 

“As much substitution is needed as possible in order to change the relationship between communities and armed groups,” Mr. Johnson told TWW. “Presently, this relationship is one of complete dependency, but crop substitution very pragmatically leads the communities to depend directly on the government instead.” Accordingly, the successful substitution of crops would offer development opportunities and undermine the power of criminal organisations. But progress is slow and relationships between the government and rural communities remain far from cordial.

“At the same time that these substitution deals are being hashed out, authorities are forcefully destroying coca fields, removing the source of income for many poor families,” says Ms. Yagoub. “Inevitably, this has caused clashes between communities and security forces.” 

A protest by coca growers, locally known as cocaleros, recently ended in tragedy when at least six people were allegedly killed by state police forces. The protest took place in a rural area of Tumaco, a municipality on the Pacific coast with the highest concentration of coca cultivation in the country. President Juan Manuel Santos called the incident “regrettable”.  

If the crop substitution programme is to work, observers say, the government must stop the forced eradication of crops, supply a permanent police presence in affected areas, and change its attitude towards communities who have worked with guerrillas or traffickers.

An uncertain future

The road to peace will not be easy. The government is struggling to push many laws through Congress. President Santos is performing badly in the polls, and at least two frontrunners in the 2018 presidential elections, Germán Vargas Llera and Iván Duque, openly oppose parts of the peace agreement. 

Another issue that is stirring controversy is FARC’s participation in the political process. The group has established its own political party, the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force (FARC), symbolically retaining its infamous acronym. Commander Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri “Timochenko”, who currently has 21 criminal convictions against him, will run as a presidential candidate in the upcoming elections.

The leader of the FARC, Rodrigo Londoño delivers a speech after signing the historic peace agreement with the government

Despite all these problems, there are many positive elements to draw from the peace process in Colombia. “The agreement signed between the government and the FARC is one of the most comprehensive peace agreements signed in the world,” says Angélica Durán-Martínez, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts. Indeed, if successful, the process could serve as an example to other troubled regions, proving that “even the most difficult of conflicts can be resolved through dialogue, and that dialogue can bring lasting results,” adds Mr. Johnson.

A similar strategy of dialogue and negotiation could be used in countries such as El Salvador to tackle organised crime, as well as between President Nicolás Maduro and the opposition in Venezuela, says Mr. Johnson. The region as a whole, he adds, could also take note when dealing with potential hostility from the administration of President Donald Trump.

Colombia has shown that dialogue is possible, even with the most violent of actors. The government has successfully dismantled a powerful armed group after 52 years of brutal conflict. Yet, violence and conflict continue to plague the lives of many Colombians for whom the prospect of peace remains all too distant.  

“The real peace agreement takes place when people feel safe,” Mr. Triana concludes, “and, right now, many living in rural areas do not.”

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