Colombia’s 52-Year-Old Conflict with the FARC Comes to an End

Negotiators from the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group are to make a historic announcement on the evening of Wednesday, August 24. After 54 months of exploratory and formal negotiations in Havana, Cuba, they have reached an agreement to end an armed conflict that began in 1964.

Both sides’ negotiators posed for a photo last night.

That conflict has killed over 220,000 Colombians, more than 80 percent of them non-combatants. The 7,000-member FARC, the largest leftist insurgency during that period, is responsible for roughly one-fifth to one-third of these killings. (Colombia’s security forces and pro-government paramilitary groups committed most of the rest.) The FARC carried out the majority of kidnappings, use of anti-personnel mines, attacks on population centers, and attacks on infrastructure, and a significant share of forced displacement, recruitment of minors, and sexual violence. It has supported itself financially through extortion and an ever deeper involvement in cocaine production.

Once this accord is implemented, for the first time in most Colombians’ lives, much of this activity will end, and Latin America’s third most-populous country will no longer face an armed group capable of generating violence on a national scale. Though regional challenges will persist, this peace accord is worthy of worldwide celebration.

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a research and advocacy organization that has been closely following Colombia’s peace process since its inception congratulates both sides’ negotiators for four years of hard, disciplined work, with more than 50 rounds of formal talks. We congratulate Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos for taking the audacious and politically risky step of launching the talks in 2012. We congratulate Colombia’s military for respecting civilian leaders’ decision to negotiate and for contributing constructively to the dialogues’ latter phases. We thank the “guarantor” countries, Cuba and Norway, and the “accompanying” countries, Chile and Venezuela, for their logistical support to the talks and for helping to keep the dialogues on track at their most difficult moments. We thank the special envoys sent by the governments of the United States, Germany, and the European Union, who played creative roles and contributed ideas.

The agreement to be revealed today is hundreds of pages long (it is not public yet, but earlier drafts in Spanish are here). It will include commitments on five substantive agenda points.

  • Colombia’s government has committed to making substantive investments in the rural small-landowner economy.
  • Reforms will ease the participation of political movements that have been excluded or even exterminated in the past.
  • A new approach to illicit coca cultivation will be based on governance and assistance, with forced eradication a last resort.
  • Colombia will launch a truth commission and a transitional justice arrangement that will grant alternative punishments to those who confess their involvement in war crimes.
  • Through an agreed process, guerrillas will turn over weapons to a UN mission and begin their reintegration into society.

We do not know yet how the negotiators defined some of the accord’s difficult remaining questions. It is possible that some elements, especially transitional justice, could be troubling and require revision by Colombia’s high courts.

What is happening today is just an announcement and (probably) the publication of the accords’ text. The parties will not be signing any documents yet, and it will be a while before the FARC begins turning in its weapons. Several steps remain, as WOLA described in a commentary published last week.

  • The FARC leadership will meet somewhere for its “10th Conference” to approve the accord. This is a necessary step for top leaders’ buy-in. It could also be a moment when internal dissent about the agreement manifests itself among guerrilla units. This is unlikely to be a big issue—FARC leaders have been informally discussing the accords for years, and many of them have spent time at the table in Havana—but it could be a hurdle on the way to demobilization.
  • Colombians will approve or disapprove the accord in a plebisciteto be held at least a month after President Santos sends the accord text to Congress (which could happen as soon as next week). The outcome of this vote is not certain, as the negotiations’ political opponents, like former President Álvaro Uribe, have garnered heavy news coverage. Though some pollsshow more than 60 percent of Colombians inclined to vote “Yes,” others show the two options in a virtual tie. Our guess is that, if the plebiscite is held in the afterglow of a final accord, a majority of Colombians will vote “Yes.” If Colombians should vote “No,” however, the peace accord may not go forward. President Santos and his negotiating team have said that they would not try to negotiate a new agreement.
  • Colombia’s Congress must approve a law that will amnesty guerrilla fighters accused of the political crime of “sedition” (not war crimes). The FARC have made clear that its members will not turn in weapons without a legal guarantee that they will not be arrested. Passage of an amnesty law (or a similar non-arrest guarantee) may hinge on the definition of “connected” political crimes: for instance, if guerrillas used the proceeds of drug trafficking to fund their “sedition,” can the drug trafficking be amnestied? (The answer will probably be “yes,” but some debate is likely.)
  • Once these issues are settled, we can expect a big, celebratory accord-signing ceremony, probably in Colombia. (This ceremony might occur shortly before the plebiscite.)
  • The day the final accord is formally signed is a watershed moment that the peace accords call “D-Day.” It formalizes a full, bilateral cessation of hostilities, and sets in motion a 180-day timetable for the FARC membership’s concentration in 31 gathering points around the country (23 village-sized zones and 8 encampments), at which they will gradually turn over weapons to a UN monitoring and verification mechanism. The FARC’s 7,000 members (plus an undetermined number of militia members and support personnel) will then enter into reintegration programs and convert to a political movement, while guerrillas and soldiers accused of war crimes will enter the transitional justice process.

The timetable for these steps is anyone’s guess, though sources are telling Colombian journalists that it could be completed very quickly—by early October. Deadlines and target dates have slipped before, though, so this process could take longer.

Once these steps are finished, Colombia will face serious challenges in the post-accord period. The FARC’s exit from the drug trade will not mean the end of the drug trade or the powerful, violent organized crime groups that participate in it. The 2,000-member, 52-year-old National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group remains active in some regions and has not yet begun formal peace talks. And strong doubts surround the Colombian government’s ability to fill the security vacuum and implement accords in at least 281 of the most poorly governed of the country’s 1,100 counties (the number comes from Colombia’s Peace and Reconciliation Foundation).

Despite the challenges, the benefits of a peace deal are clear and compelling. As the database managed by the Colombian think-tank CERAC has shown, even the de-escalation that has accompanied the talks has probably prevented between 1,500 and 2,000 deaths. The past 13 months have seen the least political violence in Colombia since the conflict began half a century ago.

This accord is far from perfect, and huge challenges lie ahead. But the achievement being announced today is monumental, and worthy of celebration. WOLA salutes those who made it possible, and encourages the U.S. government and Congress to be as generous and patient with Colombia’s peace effort as they were during the armed conflict’s most intense years.

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