The U.S. government this week removed Colombia’s demobilized guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), from the State Department’s list of terrorist groups. At the same time, it added two active splinter groups to the terrorist list. This move comes five years after a historic, but controversial, peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC.
The peace agreement outlined plans to transform the FARC from an armed group into a peaceful political party, created transitional justice institutions to address wartime atrocities and established programs for rural development. Five years later, Colombia has achieved several milestones in the FARC’s reintegration into civil life — and there’s less violence.
But Colombia’s peace agreement still polarizes politicians and the public, and implementation is slow. Both ex-combatants and noncombatants in many parts of the country are facing insecurity.
What’s gone well in the peace process?
By a number of metrics, Colombia is safer today than before the negotiations began. Intentional homicides, battle-related deaths and conflict-related displacement have all declined since the peak of the conflict in the early 2000s. The country has also taken important steps toward documenting and punishing past violence. More than 13,000 individuals have gone before the special court established in the peace agreement, and the court has issued indictments against both FARC leaders and military officials.
Most former FARC fighters have also turned in their weapons, marking progress in those individuals’ reincorporation into civilian life. The vast majority have not returned to fighting. Nine leaders of the former armed group hold seats in Colombia’s legislature, providing an avenue for the group to peacefully advocate for change.
What has worked less well?
Despite these successes, Colombia’s peace process remains fragile. From its inception, the agreement with the FARC was a central source of political polarization. The peace proposal failed to win a simple majority in a 2016 public referendum before congressional ratification, for instance.
Our research suggests that some of the terms of the agreement — particularly provisions regarding immunity from jail time for FARC members — ran counter to many Colombians’ deeply held values concerning the desirability of punishment. This also gave ammunition to politicians and political groups seeking to mobilize opposition to the peace process. With surveys suggesting fewer than half of Colombians support the peace agreement today, that polarization hasn’t gone away.
An important legacy of this polarization is that Colombia’s current president campaigned and won on a platform that was critical of the peace process. Iván Duque’s administration has been slow to implement the agreement, instituted budget cuts for key public institutions and attempted to modify elements of the agreement.
The slow rollout of assistance for alternative crops to coca — the base of Colombia’s cocaine trade — has contributed to the increase in coca production since 2016. Similarly, key rural reform components of the accord are proceeding much more slowly than anticipated. At the current pace, the Office of the Comptroller General estimates that full implementation of the peace accord would take 26 years, longer than the 15 years originally planned.
Widespread animosity toward the agreement has made it difficult for ex-combatants to reincorporate into society. For example, ex-combatants face employment discrimination and stigmatization. The economic benefits and land provided to ex-combatants as part of the demobilization process are often insufficient, too, for reintegration, and many ex-combatants face economic hardship. Past research in other countries suggests that economic insecurity could lead more ex-combatants to rearm or turn to criminal activities.
Insecurity is on the rise
In the countryside, where government presence and investment are often absent, other armed groups have moved in to fill the void left by the FARC. Criminal gangs descended from paramilitary groups are active in approximately a quarter of Colombia’s municipalities, and there are more than 7,500 active leftist guerrillas in groups including the National Liberation Army (ELN) and FARC dissident factions. Rising violence has left at least 313 civilians dead in 88 massacres so far in 2021. And large numbers of Colombians in 2020 faced mass displacement from this violence — more than double the number in 2016.
Those who left the FARC and demobilized are particularly vulnerable to this violence. More than 2 percent of demobilized FARC members have been killed, according to estimates produced by a scholar at the University of Antioquia. It’s difficult to identify the perpetrators of violence against ex-combatants and other vulnerable Colombians, although a number of outside organizations report that government forces, guerrilla groups and paramilitary organizations have all perpetrated some of the assassinations.
These events parallel a previous period in the 1980s, when members of the FARC entered electoral politics but government forces subsequently hunted down the political party’s membership. A big question now is whether the continued insecurity of former fighters could push many back to violence.
What comes next?
The outlook for peace in Colombia is gloomy — and elections are scheduled for March 2022. The negative attitudes of many Colombians toward former guerrillas and the peace agreement suggest that voters may not punish the far-right government for ongoing violence or slow implementation of the peace agreement. Indeed, our research indicates that voters, in many cases, are willing to support candidates directly tied to wartime civilian victimization. Depending on who voters elect next year, Colombia’s fragile peace could become even more precarious, boosting the likelihood that former FARC combatants might see remobilization as an attractive option.
Could greater international support help rescue Colombia’s historic, and increasingly fragile, peace agreement? A next step, groups like the Washington Office on Latin America argue, would be to direct U.S. aid to projects that involve demobilized fighters. More broadly, greater U.S. support for rural development in Colombia could help address the deep-rooted causes of Colombian instability. In 2020, the United States supplied more money to Colombia for security and narcotics control than for economic support or development.
Additionally, continued statements of support for the peace agreement from the United Nations, the U.S. government and other governments might also discourage those who seek to undermine the agreement or promote further violence.
Gabriella Levy is a PhD candidate at Duke University Department of Political Science. Follow her at @levy_gabriella.
Juan Fernando Tellez is an assistant professor at the University of California Davis Department of Political Science.
Mateo Villamizar-Chaparro is a PhD candidate at Duke University Department of Political Science. Follow him at @sanmavicha.