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In the period 1964-71 left-wing guerrilla groups emerged in Colombia, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), National Liberation Army (ELN), the Maoist People’s Liberation Army (EPL), and M-19. The roots of their armed campaign lie in the “La Violencia”, a ten-year civil war (1948-57) between the Liberal and Conservative parties. Communist guerrilla groups were excluded from the power-sharing agreement which ended the violence and took up arms against the new unified government.

These guerrilla groups were largely concentrated in rural areas, and controlled significant proportions of territory; many of them raised revenue by cultivating and trading in cocaine.

Peace initiatives by various Colombian governments in the 80s, 90s and 00s all failed to end the violence.

Former President Juan Santos, first elected in 2010, began a new peace initiative in 2012. After four years of negotiations, his government signed a peace agreement with Colombia’s main paramilitary force -the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in November 2016.

The conflict was, according to the Economist: “the longest-running domestic conflict in the western hemisphere, [it] killed over 200,000 people and displaced around 7m.[1]

The main elements of the peace deal were:

  • The end of violence: FARC agreed to end their armed campaign and move their fighters into U.N.-monitored camps where they will disarm in phases over a period of 180 days.
  • Justice for victims of the conflict: Colombia would establish a transitional justice system (JEP). Special tribunals will adjudicate war crimes and other atrocities committed by the rebels as well as paramilitary groups and government security forces.
  • If combatants fully attest to their crimes, they will be eligible for alternative sentences (with a maximum of 8 years of restricted liberty) and “restorative” justice aimed at making amends to victims. If they don’t tell the truth, they will be vulnerable to criminal prosecution and up to 20 years behind bars.
  • Rural development: The government promised to invest heavily in infrastructure projects and state-building in FARC-controlled areas which have previously seen very little investment.
  • Seats in Congress: FARC will be assured a minimum of five seats in Colombia’s Senate and five seats in its House of Representatives for two legislative terms, starting in 2018. After that they will have to win seats competitively.
  • Ending the drug trade: FARC agreed to stop drug trafficking and work with the government to wean Colombia’s rural farmers off coca.

The peace deal was narrowly rejected by the Colombian people in a referendum in October 2016. President Santos made changes to the agreement to satisfy some of the less-strident opponents of the deal. Rather than putting the new agreement to the people, Mr Santos ratified the deal through Congress, where the President had a governing majority.

The new deal still contained the most unpopular elements of the previous accord: firstly, seats in Congress for FARC – opponents of the deal wanted FARC leaders found guilty of the worst crimes barred for running from office until they had served their sentences; and secondly, the transitional justice system which many Colombians saw as too lenient.

One of the most outspoken critics of the FARC peace deal was former President Alvaro Uribe (2002-10). Mr Uribe co-founded a new political party the Democratic Centre (Centro Democrático), in 2013, largely to oppose the peace process in the 2014 elections.

The 2018 Presidential elections were won by Iván Duque, a protégé of Uribe, who ran on a platform of overhauling the FARC peace deal and taking a tougher line against guerrilla groups. He promised to impose tougher punishments on crimes committed by the rebels and remove their guaranteed rights to seats.

In the 2018 Parliamentary elections, the new FARC political party didn’t gain enough votes to win any competitive seats, achieving less than 1 per cent of votes for both the House of Representatives and Senate. Duque’s Democratic Centre party gained the second largest share of seats.

The Kroc Institute, which monitors the progress of the peace accord, produced its second report last month, finding the two sides have after 18 months made “steady progress”. A press release announced:

  1. Implementation activity has been observed for 61 percent of the 578 stipulations in the accord, with no activity observed yet for 39 percent of the stipulations, as of May 31, 2018.
  2. […] The report identifies three key areas of concern: inadequate guarantees of security and protection for human rights advocates and social leaders; the slow processes of long-term political, social and economic reincorporation for ex-combatants; and pending legislative and regulatory adjustments needed in order to promote broad participation in democratic processes.

Former President Santos had hoped to sign a ceasefire deal with the ELN – the second largest guerrilla group, before he left office in August. However, the two sides were unable to reach a full agreement, issuing a joint statement saying that “although we haven’t reached full agreement […] in this cycle, significant progress has been made”.[2]

President Duque, however, has promised a tougher negotiating stance towards the ELN.

[1]     ‘Why Colombians distrust the FARC peace deal’, The Economist, 24 May 2018.

[2]     France 24, ‘Colombia’s Santos admits defeat in ELN rebels ceasefire talks’, 2 August 2018.

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