Colombia and the FARC: Problems with Creating Peace

Colombia and the FARC: Problems with Creating Peace

The peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia: FARC) is slightly over a year old, and while the peace is holding and violence has dramatically decreased, there are a number of issues that will continue to be a concern from a practical and moral perspective. This commentary will briefly discuss some of them.

The “Missing” Insurgents

Any peace agreement that includes full demobilization must ensure that all insurgents lay down their weapons and return to civilian life. The first part of demobilization appears to have been achieved, as the United Nations mission in Colombia has overseen the FARC’s disarmament: 7,132 weapons have been retrieved from the insurgents.

The outstanding issue is the fate of the insurgents themselves. The number of FARC insurgents who surrendered via the peace deal and are now in camps is reportedly around 6,900. One major concern, obviously, is that if the demobilized insurgents are not reintegrated fast enough into civilian life, they may feel inclined to return to criminal activities. In fact, according to late-October reports by the Colombian media, some 800 fighters have not agreed to the peace deal and continue their illegal, violent activities (the number may actually be higher depending on what Colombian news outlets are consulted).

This situation is not new: last decade Bogota brokered a peace agreement with the paramilitary movement United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia: AUC). In a scenario similar to what is occurring today, many paramilitaries demobilized, but a number went on to create narco-criminal gangs (commonly known as Bandas Criminales: BACRIM), like the dreaded Aguilas Negras. The obvious fear is that the situation could repeat itself once again with the FARC.

Peace Over Victory

Another issue with the peace agreement is an ethical one: if the Colombian government was able to successfully bring an end to a five-decade war via peaceful means, did it not have the moral obligation to do so and prevent further loss of life?

At this point, it is worth mentioning a couple of facts about the FARC: its number of fighters has drastically diminished, from a high of an estimated 16,000 in the late 1990s to around 7,000 today (not counting those in prison). Nevertheless, in recent years the group maintained its fighting power, regularly attacked security units (11 soldiers were killed in an ambush in 2015), and protected its territory while profiting from drug trafficking and “taxing” mining companies, among other activities.

Certainly, an argument could be made that, since the FARC leadership was open to dialogue, this probably meant that they saw themselves on the losing side of the war. Thus, the Colombian military could argue that the agreement was unnecessary as they could have defeated the FARC militarily if the war had continued.  With that said, there was no real indication, at least from the author’s perspective, that the Colombian security and defense forces were close to dealing a devastating blow to the FARC when negotiations commenced in 2012. If anything, the FARC proved to be adaptable, able to overcome the loss of its leadership (e.g. the controversial 2008 airstrike in Ecuador that killed FARC leader Raul Reyes) and to continue fighting. The Colombian defense forces could have, probably, militarily defeated the FARC, but it would have certainly taken years with further loss of life for both sides as well as civilians—the conflict has already cost an estimated 220,000 deaths between 1958-2012, according to Colombian statistics.

Since a government’s primary duty is to protect its citizens, and there was no clear indication that the FARC could be militarily defeated in the near future without further significant loss of life (including civilian), there is a moral argument to be made in favor of the peace agreement.

Peace Over Justice?

Colombians have also had to deal with whether the peace agreement signifies amnesty for the insurgents. According to media reports citing Colombian government data, Bogota has granted amnesty to so some  6,000 FARC fighters as of July 2017, while 1,400 have been released from prison and granted conditional liberty. As part of the peace process, the FARC fighters were (only?) accused of crimes such as illegally carrying weapons and military uniforms, not actually taking part in attacks or murders, and they had to sign documents stating that they will not carry out any criminal activities again.

Understandably, there is debate about whether individuals accused of murder or drug trafficking have been given amnesty too as part of the peace agreement. For example, there are conflicting reports about whether a FARC leader, known as Jesús Santrich, has been granted amnesty.

Certainly, the fact that most insurgents will not serve jail time (or be released from it) is a bitter development to those who fought the FARC or suffered due to it. On the other hand, it would be absurd to believe that any insurgent movement would have agreed to demobilize in exchange for its members serving (lengthy) prison sentences.

The amnesty, a minimum government salary for a number of months, and representation in congress with 10 guaranteed seats—the FARC is now a political party—is the price the Colombian government had to pay for the peace. An insurgent movement like the FARC had to have some “wins” in order to be convinced to be demobilized, and the government’s challenge has been to find a balance between how much the FARC could get in exchange for peace and how much was ethically (and politically) acceptable to grant.

Final Thoughts

The issues discussed here are some of the most problematic Colombia faces regarding the post-conflict era. Certainly, there are others, such as the fate of land controlled by the FARC and if it will be returned to its previous owners, and financial retributions to the victims of the conflict.

However, the author chose the aforementioned three issues because they provide a good overview of the challenges to peace that Colombia faces. Full demobilization is a utopia, and it was to be expected that some insurgents would continue their activities. The challenge now is to bring them to justice while preventing more demobilized fighters from taking up arms again. Additionally, we have discussed the morality of making peace with an insurgent movement. This is a controversial initiative, but if there is a reason to believe the insurgents will respect the deal, isn’t it necessary in order to save lives?

W. Alejandro Sanchez is a researcher who focuses on geopolitical, military, and cybersecurity issues in the Western Hemisphere. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez

The views presented in this essay are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.

Photo Credit: Captured member of FARC, alias “Mayerly”, who participated in an attack where two officers died in October 2011. By Policía Nacional de los colombianos, via Flickr.

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