Former FARC commanders Iván Márquez, Jesús Santrich and El Paisa have announced that they are rearming less than three years after signing a peace agreement with the State. Alfred Davies reports for BristoLatino on what this announcement might mean for peace in Colombia.
The peace process in Colombia was dealt a severe blow at the end of August as Iván Márquez, a former commander of the FARC rebel group, called on his followers to take up arms less than three years after the signing of a peace agreement between the group and the State.
Márquez was a key negotiator in those peace talks, but in a video released on 29 August, the former commander announced that this was the start of a “new phase of the armed struggle.” Surrounded by camouflaged men and women, the former commander appears alongside Jesús Santrich and a man known as El Paisa, both prominent figures in the group who were also involved in negotiations in Cuba.
Two days after the announcement, in a sign of what may be to come, nine FARC dissidents were killed in an air raid in rural southern Colombia. Following the bombing, Minister of Defence Guillermo Botero tweeted: “The criminals are warned: they surrender or they will be defeated.”
The November 2016 peace deal, signed by former president Juan Manuel Santos’ administration, was due to bring over 50 years of violent conflict between the State and the left-wing FARC guerrilla group to an end. Over 260,000 people were killed and 7 million were displaced in violence between left-wing guerrillas, the State, right-wing paramilitaries and drug traffickers. However, there have been long-growing concerns about the implementation of the peace accords, as BristoLatino reported in February of this year.
Under the terms of the deal, the former guerrilla group became a political party, using the same acronym (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia became the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force). The FARC party remains active and legal, led by Rodrigo Londoño – better known as Timochenko – who, after Márquez’s announcement, confirmed his and his followers’ commitment to peace in Colombia.
La guerra no merece darle eco, somos muchos más los que seguiremos trabajando por la paz.
— Rodrigo Londoño (@TimoFARC) August 29, 2019
Over 90% of ex-combatants remain committed to the peace process. The concern, however, is that the current Colombian administration is somewhat less committed. Political representation and protection for former members were key on the agenda in negotiations, however since the signing of the agreement, around 150 former FARC combatants – as well as many family members – have been murdered.
The FARC party stated in May that the murders were the result of a ‘lack of guarantees and security on behalf of Iván Duque’s administration’ and demonstrate that the ‘current policy of the Government is still to tear the deal to shreds’.
The security of former members and their families, social leaders and local politicians has been one of the key challenges of the implementation of the peace accords. A recent study by the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (INDEPAZ) stated that, since Colombian President Iván Duque came to power in August 2018, 229 human rights defenders have been murdered.
The peace deal has never been universally popular in Colombia. The original agreement was rejected by the Colombian people in an October 2016 referendum, only to then be ratified and eventually signed in November.
The ongoing peace process was central to many debates in the build-up to the election of Iván Duque in June 2018. Duque is of the same party as former president Álvaro Uribe, who led the campaign against the signing of the peace deal in 2016.
According to a report by the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, the State has yet to begin the implementation of 31% of the total commitments of the agreement. The study notes that, ‘in some cases, there have been delays and/or significant obstacles that prevented commitments from being implemented.’
Speaking at a UCL Colombian Society event on 5 September, Mariela Kohon, former Director of Justice for Colombia and adviser to the negotiations in Havana, stated that what is particularly worrying is that it tends to be the articles relating to the causes of conflict rather than its consequences that are yet to be tackled by the current administration.
Many rural communities in Colombia still suffer from severe lack of investment and infrastructure. A limited or non-existent State presence in these regions provide a breeding ground for conflict. In many of the territories that the FARC operated, a vacuum of power has been created, allowing other left-wing guerrilla groups such as the ELN (National Liberation Army), as well as paramilitaries and drug traffickers to fill the void.
Despite the continued conflict in their regions, many rural communities continue to show tremendous courage in their commitment to peace. The peace community of San José de Apartadó is a perfect illustration of this, as BristoLatino reported in February of this year. Increased government support for these communities is essential to ensuring the peace process can still prove to be a success in Colombia.
The crop substitution program, for instance, was a key aspect of the 2016 agreement. Around 100,000 families signed up to the program, which promised to support rural communities who wished to no longer rely on coca production for their income. However, a United Nations report revealed the State has failed to fulfil its promise of financially supporting those communities in their move to farming legal produce.
Catatumbo, a region bordering Venezuela in north-west Colombia has struggled particularly due to a lack of investment, worsened by the knock-on effect of the ongoing crisis in the neighbouring country. A recent El Espectador video report showed that many Venezuelan migrants, faced with little choice and living in destitute conditions, have been working on coca plantations in the region.
Venezuelan migrants work on coca plantations in Catatumbo.
The consequences of Venezuelan instability are wide-reaching. Revista Semana released documents earlier this week revealing the presence of FARC dissidents and ELN guerrillas in Venezuela. The weekly magazine claims that Maduro offers the groups protection and assistance, and that this is one of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s methods of destabilising Colombia. Ironically, Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, played a key role in paving the way for the negotiations that led to the peace deal. However, these latest revelations have reignited fears of a possible Colombian military intervention in Venezuela.
As well as the negligence of the peace deal which Duque’s administration inherited from the previous administration, a recent New York Times (NYT) investigation alleges that the Colombian armed forces have returned to some of their most violent tactics.
NYT journalist Nicholas Casey reported in May 2019 that ‘the head of Colombia’s army, frustrated by the nation’s faltering efforts to secure peace, has ordered his troops to double the number of criminals and militants they kill, capture or force to surrender in battle — and possibly accept higher civilian casualties in the process.’
This is a frightening reminder of the bloody tactics employed under the presidency of Duque’s political patron, Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010). During this period, the Colombian army systematically killed civilians to boost figures, in a scandal that became known as los falsos positivos (the false positives).
According to a recent study co-authored by a former police colonel, around 10,000 civilians were executed by the army during this period. Those executed were often vulnerable young men, including instances of disabled boys being specifically targeted.
Following the scandal brought to light by NYT, Revista Semana revealed in June that Colombia’s army has been attempting to silence whistleblowers in what the Colombian magazine dubbed Operación Silencio (Operation Silence).
Revelations of extrajudicial killings and corruption in the military have sometimes been made through the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP). The JEP is the country’s transitional justice system established as part of the November 2016 accords, designed to address war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the conflict.
This body has come under various attacks since its creation. Confessing rebels may receive reduced sentencing, which has led many to criticise the tribunal for failing to provide sufficient punishment for those guilty of committing atrocities.
The current administration has taken to attacking the JEP, with Duque stating: “We want a peace that genuinely guarantees truth, justice, reparation and non-repetition.” Earlier this year, Duque took the unprecedented step of attempting to file objections to a JEP bill that had already been passed by the Constitutional Court. These objections were eventually rejected in the Senate.
On 27 October of this year, Colombians will head to the polls to vote in local elections. Shockingly, six mayoral candidates have already been murdered, while at least five local city council candidates have died in targeted attacks.
A recent victim was Karina García, mayoral candidate in the municipality of Suárez (Cauca, western Colombia). The body of García, her mother and four community leaders and politicians were found in a burnt-out vehicle.
The 31-year-old lawyer had warned on social media accounts recently about the possibility of a fatal attack, following the spread of fake news surrounding her candidacy and personal threats. Rumours circulated suggesting that García was planning to bring paramilitaries into the area and take land away from locals.
Cauca is a region with fertile ground for growing coca, and it is in these departments that candidates are often most at risk, as various groups battle for control of the narcotics trade in the FARC’s absence. Candidates who dare to challenge these groups do so at great risk, as has been proven by the bloody build-up to these regional elections.
Despite recent elections being some of the most peaceful in Colombian history, these attacks on candidates have led to fears that polling day itself may be marred by violence.
The reality is that the that the journey to peace following a 52-year conflict was inevitably going to be a lengthy and complex process. Indeed, it is worth noting too that this unstable journey to peace is not unique to Colombia.
Also speaking at the UCL Colombian Society meeting, Dr Roddy Brett, a specialist in the field, noted that around half of all peace processes collapse within the first 5-10 years. Considering the lengthy and bloody history of conflict in Colombia, this latest lapse in the process is hardly surprising.
State commitment and funding as well as international support have consistently proved to be key in successful examples of peacebuilding elsewhere. The vast majority of former rebels are still committed to the process and have surrendered their arms, however the State must ensure that it upholds its promises and supports the socioeconomic reintegration of ex-combatants.
It is clear that, for now, Márquez and his entourage are in a minority. What is perhaps most worrying about this announcement though, is that it demonstrates a clear break down of trust that extends much further than this this minority group.
The dissidents’ announcement undoubtedly provides a timely gift to right-wing populists in Colombia. For those who had always criticised the peace deal, the rearming of former FARC commanders will provide evidence that a negotiated peace was never a viable option. However, the real issue is that the current administration is clearly unwilling to commit to the process. The root causes of conflict must be addressed, and the Government must wholeheartedly implement the terms of the accords.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
Within Colombia, civil society can buy into initiatives that support the socioeconomic reincorporation of ex-combatants. Products on offer include craft beer and children’s dolls, as well as adventure holidays run by former rebels. However trivial these activities may sound, they are evidence of a significant part of Colombian society which is moving in the right direction.
Internationally, individuals must begin to make informed decisions about their direct and indirect support of the continuation of conflict in Colombia. Groups like Rodeemos el Diálogo, an organisation that has continuously supported the peace process since the beginning of negotiations in 2012, can also play a key role.
Raising awareness of the situation and providing a safe space for dialogue can have an invaluable effect that could lead to increased pressure on the international stage, if the current Colombian administration continues to fail to adhere to its obligations toward the peace process.
Márquez, Santrich, El Paisa and their followers undoubtedly hold their share of responsibility for abandoning the peace process. Ultimately, however, it is Mr Duque and his administration who hold the key to the future of Colombian peace, in choosing whether to begin to fully comply with their responsibilities agreed in the 2016 accords.
Image credits: Colombia Reports, El Tiempo, El Espectador, Revista Semana, RCN, Contagio Radio