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.

Explaining Colombia’s Peace Plebiscite

Updated August 26, 2016

Note: this post reflects our current understanding of the plebiscite situation, which is very complex and hinges on details of Colombian law. We may revise the text; if we do, we will indicate all revisions clearly. Any revisions suggested in the comments will receive serious consideration.

Throughout the nearly four years of Colombia’s negotiations with the FARC guerrillas, President Juan Manuel Santos has promised to submit a final peace accord to a vote, so that it could enjoy the legitimacy of a public mandate. This idea is commendable, but risky: polls have usually shown a solid but not overwhelming majority of Colombians supporting the peace talks, and strongly opposing key elements like alternative punishments for human rights abusers, or allowing former guerrillas to participate in politics. The possibility that a “No” vote could undo the entire peace effort is too great to be dismissed.

Santos’s proposal for a plebiscite to approve the eventual accord became law last December. The FARC accepted the idea in principle in May. It received a formal green light on July 18, when Colombia’s Constitutional Court completed its review of the law [PDF], making modest changes.

What happens next—and what might happen next—is confusing. Here, in question-and-answer form, is our understanding of how the plebiscite is likely to move forward, based on a close reading of official documents and media coverage, and conversations with Colombian experts.

When might the plebiscite happen?

It must take place at least one month, and no more than four months, from the date that President Santos notifies Congress of his intention to convene it.

But here the timetable gets cloudy. Several things must happen in a closely orchestrated way. In order to do that, though, the plebiscite’s implementers will have to cut through some circular logic, in which B can’t happen until A is completed, yet A depends on B being completed.

On the evening of August 24, after government and FARC negotiators announced agreement on a final peace accord, President Santos announced that the plebiscite would take place on Sunday, October 2.

The timetable could look something like this (Note that, as indicated in the graphic, the positions of the amnesty law, the final signing, and the plebiscite have changed):

  • Negotiators in Havana finalize the peace accord. This requires agreement on how ex-combatants will be reintegrated into society, and on several points of disagreement that the draft accords inked since 2013 had postponed for later. (One such point—how judges will be selected for the tribunal that will decide war-crimes cases—was resolved by an agreement announced on August 12.) Nailing down all of these questions could take several more weeks, in the most optimistic of scenarios. After a week and a half of marathon sessions in Havana, government and guerrilla negotiators reached a final peace accord faster than expected. The parties announced the agreement on August 24. Once the accord is finalized, Colombia’s government must now undergo a huge effort to ensure that citizens know what it says.
  • The FARC leadership meets somewhere to hold its “10th Conference,” where they will discuss and make a final decision about the accord. This is necessary to guarantee mid-level commanders’ buy-in.
  • The government and FARC sign a final peace accord. This would happen at a celebratory ceremony, probably in Colombia, with many invited international delegations present. Much credible speculation surrounds Friday, September 23 as the target date.
  • FARC members begin to concentrate into 23 zones and 8 encampments around the country, where they will begin a six-month, UN-verified process of disarmament and demobilization. The June 23 accord [PDF] for a cessation of hostilities and disarmament calls for the FARC to begin concentrating its members within five days of the final peace accord’s signature.
  • On October 2, Colombians vote in the plebiscite to approve or disapprove the peace accord. If Colombians vote “No,” this timeline stops. Meanwhile, in its July 18 ruling, Colombia’s Constitutional Court decreed that the amnesty law (the next step on this list) cannot be enacted unless citizens have first approved the peace accords plebiscite.
  • Colombia’s Congress passes a law that, as agreed in the December 15 accord [PDF] on Victims, would amnesty the political crime of “rebellion” (sedition). Without this law, FARC members will not begin to demobilize for fear of arrest. “If there is no amnesty law, there will be no final accord,” FARC negotiator Carlos Antonio Lozada said in early August. The FARC have backed off of this position. The final accord suspends arrest warrants for FARC members until the amnesty law is passed. It also—in 29 of its 297 pages—lays out the text of the amnesty law that will be sent to Congress immediately after the plebiscite is approved. This will not be easy either necessarily be an easy step, as Colombia’s Congress must decide to what extent guerrilla fundraising activities—so-called “connected crimes” like extortion and narcotrafficking—count as “rebellion” if their purpose was to raise money for the FARC’s war effort. It is also unclear whether, at this point, Colombia would have to release thousands of FARC members serving prison sentences for “rebellion.”

These items may not necessarily occur in this order.

For one thing, the The Colombian government would prefer to hold the plebiscite after the final accord signing, so that voters are motivated to choose “Yes” during the honeymoon phase following a national celebration of peace. But the signing triggers the FARC’s concentration into zones within five days, and the FARC understandably resists leaving its members concentrated and vulnerable if Colombians end up voting “No” and nullifying the peace accords. It is still unclear how this complication might be resolved, though with only 7-10 days between signing and plebiscite, it may turn out to be a minor issue.

Summary of the FARC-Government Ceasefire and Disarmament Accord

(This summary was updated and corrected on June 24 to reflect new information.)

The accord agreed today, for “A Bilateral and Definitive Ceasefire, Cessation of Hostilities, and Laying Aside of Weapons,” closes the fifth of five substantive items on the FARC-government negotiating agenda. It sets out a roadmap for disarming and demobilizing the FARC after a final peace accord is signed. It foresees a swift process: a full turnover of guerrilla weapons within six months.

This is a tremendous milestone. What remains between now and a final, conflict-ending peace accord are details. Some of these will be thorny, and may require weeks or even a few months to unravel. But the hardest parts of the FARC peace process are now in the past.

Here is a quick English summary of the remarkable agreement announced today.

Timetable

  • The bilateral ceasefire and “leaving aside” of weapons will begin at the date and hour of the signing of a final accord. This date may be weeks or months from now, as the draft accords reached since 2013 have at least a few dozen points on which the parties could not reach final agreement.
  • The day after a final peace accord, Colombia’s security forces will redeploy in a way that facilitates the FARC membership’s movement to the 23 “Temporary Hamlet Zones for Normalization” described below. The government and FARC will provide these zones’ geographic coordinates to the UN monitoring mission (which is also described below).
  • Five days after a final peace accord, the FARC’s units will begin to move to these zones, following routes agreed upon between the government and FARC. The monitoring and verification mission will oversee this process, including the movement of the guerrillas’ individual weapons.
  • Once the FARC turns in a list of the combatants present in each Temporary Hamlet Zone, the government will suspend all outstanding arrest warrants for them. Those who can be amnestied—who do not face allegations of serious human rights crimes—may begin their “process of reincorporation into civilian life.”
  • Between seven and thirty days after a final peace accord, the FARC’s weapons stockpiles, as well as guerrilla militias’ arms and all explosives, must be moved to the Temporary Hamlet Zones under the supervision of the verification and monitoring mission.
  • Within 180 days, as discussed below, the UN mission should have control over all of the FARC’s weapons.

Concentration of Guerrilla Fighters

  • The parties will establish 23 “Temporary Hamlet Zones for Normalization” (Zonas Veredales Transitorias de Normalización), with 8 encampments inside each and an additional 8 encampments elsewhere in the country. These zones’ location has not been made public, if it is even decided yet. These zones and encampments will be located in municipalities listed in a June 24 Defense Ministry communiqué and mapped out below.

  • Each Temporary Hamlet Zone will be as large as a hamlet or vereda, an administrative division that is usually quite small (most of Colombia’s 1,100 counties have a few dozen veredas). Each must be accessible by road or river. Each may be expanded or reduced by mutual accord if necessary.
  • Each zone will be surrounded by a 1-kilometer buffer zone, in which neither the security forces nor the FARC may be present (except for those participating in the verification and monitoring mission). Military aircraft may not fly below 5,000 feet above the zones.
  • The FARC will be responsible for its combatants within each zone. Any FARC members who leave the zone must do so unarmed and out of uniform.
  • The FARC cannot use the zones “for demonstrations of political character.”
  • Any unarmed civilian government authorities within these zones will be able to continue performing their duties without interference. They may enter any part of the zones, except for the encampments within them, where the FARC will be lodged. No civilians may enter the encampments at any moment.
  • If the police or other armed government authorities need to enter a Temporary Hamlet Zone for some reason, they must arrange it beforehand with the verification and monitoring mechanism.
  • The FARC may provide education and other orientation to its fighters within these zones, while the government may perform other services (like health care or issuing ID cards) necessary for their reintegration into civilian life.
  • During the period in which the FARC are concentrated in these zones, 60 guerrillas will have permission to travel anywhere in the country to carry out tasks related to the peace accord. For each Temporary Hamlet Zone, 10 guerrillas will be able to travel anywhere in that department (province) to carry out such tasks. While traveling, these guerrilla representatives will have protection. Before they do so, they much store their weapons in containers overseen by the verification mission.

Monitoring and Verification

  • Members of the government, the FARC, and a UN mission approved by a January Security Council resolution will make up a tripartite monitoring and verification mechanism. This mechanism will be divided into eight regions and a larger number of local units—including one for each Temporary Hamlet Zone. The mechanism will have unlimited access to each of these zones.
  • The international component will be a UN mission made up of unarmed political observers. It will mainly be made up of members of Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) countries. This international component will preside over all of the tripartite mechanism’s units, and will settle disagreements, issue recommendations, and publish reports.
  • This mechanism will verify that the parties are following the rules of the ceasefire. It will investigate incidents or violations, and will present recommendations to the government and FARC for how to prevent or correct them.

“Leaving Aside” (Dejación) of Weapons

  • The UN mission will receive the totality of the FARC’s armaments, which will be used to build three monuments.
  • “Leaving aside” weapons will consist of eight steps:
    • registration of the quantity and types of weapons brought into the Temporary Hamlet Zones;
    • identification of each individual’s weapons (the accord makes a distinction between the weapon each fighter carries, and additional weapons in guerrilla stockpiles);
    • monitoring and verification of weapons being carried by guerrillas in the encampments within the zones;
    • turnover of weapons to the UN mission;
    • storage or warehousing (almacenamiento) of the collected weapons, in containers within the zones that only the UN mission may access;
    • removal of the weapons from the zones; and
    • creation of three monuments built from the destroyed weapons: one at UN headquarters, one in Cuba, and one in Colombia.
  • 60 days after the signing of a final accord, the FARC must move its stockpiles (non-individual weapons), grenades and munitions to containers supervised by the UN mission.
  • By 90 days after the signing of a final accord, the FARC must turn over to the UN mission 30 percent of its individually carried weapons. Another 30 percent of individuals’ weapons must be turned over by 120 days after the signing of a final accord. The remaining 40 percent must be turned over by 150 days after the signing of a final accord. By 180 days after the signing of a final accord, the UN mission should have all guerrilla weapons.
  • The FARC must contribute to efforts to remove mines, improvised explosive devices, unexploded ordnance and other explosives.

Security Guarantees for Demobilized Guerrillas

  • The government will encourage political parties and other sectors throughout the country to sign a “National Political Pact” committing all to abandoning the combination of arms and politics and the promotion of violent organizations like paramilitary groups.
  • A National Security Guarantees Commission, presided by the President, will develop and oversee policies to dismantle such violent organizations.
  • A Special Investigative Unit in the Prosecutor-General’s Office will concentrate on the dismantling of organized crime and paramilitary groups and support networks.
  • A “mixed protection corps” to guarantee the security of demobilized FARC members will be created within the Interior Ministry’s National Protection Unit.
  • An Integral Security and Protection Program will be established to protect organizations, groups, and communities in historically conflictive territories.

Ratification of Peace Accords

  • A brief paragraph in the June 23 communique commits both sides support what Colombia’s Constitutional Court decides should be the proper procedure for a public vote to approve the contents of the peace accords. (The Court is currently deciding on a plebiscite in which voters would vote “yes” or “no.”)

English Translation of the ELN Peace Talks Agenda

On March 30, after more than two years of exploratory conversations, Colombia’s government and second-largest insurgent group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), reached agreement on an agenda for formal negotiations. This “public table of conversations” will take place in Ecuador, Venezuela, Chile, Brazil, and Cuba. Here is the negotiating agenda. This document’s Spanish original is here, in PDF format. This is a rush translation; feel free to suggest edits in the comments.

Accord for Dialogues for the Peace of Colombia Between the National Government and the National Liberation Army

The government of the Republic of Colombia (National Government) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), henceforward “the Delegations,” as a result of exploratory and confidential dialogues, and given their manifest disposition for peace, have agreed to install a public table of conversations to take on the points that have been established on the agenda, with the goal of signing a Final Accord to end the armed conflict and agree on transformations seeking a Colombia in peace with fairness.

The exploratory dialogues took place between January 2014 and March 2016 in the Republic of Ecuador, the Federative Republic of Brazil, and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, whose governments acted as guarantors along with the Government of Norway; during this phase the governments of the Republic of Cuba and the Republic of Chile officiated as accompaniers. The National Government and the ELN express special recognition and gratitude toward all of them. The international community’s continued accompaniment is essential.

Recognizing that peace is a supreme good in every democracy, and with the objective of putting an end to the armed conflict, eradicating violence from politics; placing the treatment of victims’ situation at the center; and advancing toward national reconciliation through society’s active participation in the building of a stable of long-lasting peace, the Delegations have agreed:

  1. To install a public conversations table in Ecuador.
  2. The table’s sessions will take place in Ecuador, Venezuela, Chile, Brazil, and Cuba. These countries, together with Norway, are the guarantors.
  3. To carry out direct and uninterrupted conversations between the Government and ELN Delegations.
  4. To execute the agenda with the greatest speed and rigor.
  5. To develop the following agenda:

I. Agenda

1. Participation of Society in the Building of Peace

The participation of society will be:

a. That they make peace viable through initiatives and proposals in the course and context of this process.

b. On the themes of the agenda.

c. A dynamic and active exercise, inclusive and pluralistic, that permits the building of a common vision of peace that encourages transformations for the country and its regions.

2. Democracy for Peace

Democracy for peace is the purpose of this point of the accord:

a. To carry out a debate that permits examination of society’s participation in, and decisions about, the problems that affect its reality, and that can be channeled into constructive elements for society.

b. Treatment of conflicts with an eye toward building peace.

c. Review of the normative framework and guarantees for public demonstrations. Treatment of the legal situation of those accused and convicted for actions taken in the development of social mobilizations.

d. Participation of society in the construction of citizenship.

3. Transformations for Peace

The purpose of this point is to agree on transformations for peace, taking into account:

a. The transformative proposals elaborated by society, upheld by the results of point 2 of this agenda (“Democracy for Peace”).

b. Transformative programs to overcome poverty, social exclusion, corruption and environmental degradation, while seeking equity.

c. Alternative integral plans with a territorial focus, which constitute economic and productive options that benefit communities.

4. Victims

In the construction of a stable and lasting peace, the recognition of victims and their rights is essential, as is the treatment and resolution of their situation based on truth, justice, reparations, and commitments of non-repetition and not forgetting. These elements, taken together, are the basis of forgiveness and lead toward a reconciliation process.

Why Colombia’s Negotiators Couldn’t Manage a Cease-Fire by March 23

(2,686 words / 11.5 minute read time)

It sounded over-ambitious when Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced last September 23, during a historic handshake meeting in Havana with the FARC guerrilla leadership, that both sides’ negotiators would sign a final peace accord in just six months—that is, by today, March 23, 2016.

The slow-moving FARC-government negotiations still had a lot of ground to cover. It then took nearly three more months just to finish the talks’ “Victims” agenda item, of which the September 23 agreement, on transitional justice, was only a part. During that period, several FARC spokespeople warned that the March 23 deadline would not be met.

A more realistic hope was that the negotiators could agree by March 23 on something more modest than a final accord, but still tremendously important: a bilateral ceasefire. This would be a genuine, full cessation of all hostilities—all forms of violence, from extortion to recruitment of new fighters—with UN verification, as laid out in a January Security Council resolution).

The “ceasefire by March 23” scenario had seemed likely. When WOLA staff visited Bogotá during the first week of March, a strong majority of experts and officials we interviewed saw the sides as “almost there” on the details. “Something will be signed on March 23,” Colombia’s foreign minister said earlier this month. President Santos warned on February 19 that if a ceasefire and precise timeline for laying down arms weren’t ready by March 23, he would see it as evidence that “the FARC aren’t prepared for peace.”

A ceasefire by this week would have been important enough for President Obama to alter his Cuba visit schedule to appear in the photo frame, along with Santos, Raúl Castro, and FARC leader “Timochenko,” at a triumphant signing ceremony. Such a photo could have had huge symbolic value for U.S.-Latin American relations, a break with a history punctuated by gunboat diplomacy, cold war proxy conflicts, and the war on drugs.

But there was no ceasefire accord, despite last-ditch efforts by President Santos’s older brother to break an impasse. So there was no photo opportunity by the time President Obama boarded Air Force One bound for Argentina on March 22. Instead, on March 21 the negotiators got the “participation award” of separate meetings (and photos) with Secretary of State John Kerry.

Secretary of State Kerry meets with FARC negotiators.

So, what happened?

In order to protect guerrillas during a ceasefire, and to guarantee both sides’ compliance, it is necessary to gather FARC fighters in specific zones around the country. Colombia’s security forces would be absent from these zones (though they would guard the perimeter), and the government would suspend outstanding arrest warrants for all guerrillas assembled there.

Agreement on these “concentration zones” remains elusive. They are the main point standing in the way of a ceasefire. In fact, the parties may be more distant on the concentration zones issue today than they were two months ago.

On January 23, the negotiators’ “End of Conflict Subcommittee”—an expert group made up of five senior active-duty military officers and five of the FARC’s most battle-hardened commanders—submitted a confidential consensus document recommending how these zones would operate. Things appeared to be on the right track.