Controversy surrounding the extension and modifications of a crucial law in Colombia shows the continued risks facing the successful implementation of the government’s peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas. This could also jeopardize the already uncertain future of peace talks with the ELN, which is ramping up its criminal activities and forging alliances with dissident FARC members.

Lawmakers in Colombia on December 12 approved the extension and some modifications to the country’s Public Order Law that established Strategic Zones of Comprehensive Intervention (Zonas Estratégicas de Intervención Integral — ZEII) in areas affected by violence, a Peace Cabinet that will coordinate the security strategies used in these regions, as well as a coordination center that will “pursue and dismantle” illicit goods and activities, among other things, according to an Interior Ministry press release.

However, officials voted down a controversial article that would have allowed the administration of President Iván Duque to reactivate arrest warrants against former fighters from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) who demobilized and are complying with the historic 2016 peace agreement.

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Interior Minister Nancy Patricia Gutiérrez defended the new modifications. “I appreciate the … bill that has two purposes: to guarantee security and peace. Be sure that it will be used … for the benefit of the country,” she said.

The adjustments come just after Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri, alias “Timochenko” — the leader of the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force (Fuerza Alternativa Revolucionaria del Común – FARC) political party — penned a December 11 letter to Hernán Darío Velásquez, alias “El Paisa” — a former FARC guerrilla commander — offering him security and urging him to present himself before the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz – JEP), a system set up after the peace agreement to administer transitional justice.

Prior to Timochenko’s plea, the JEP in October 2018 opened an inquiry into El Paisa’s possible non-compliance with the peace agreement in relation to the first proceedings involving kidnappings carried out by the FARC during the armed conflict.

The extension of the modified law had priority in Congress because the current law expires December 17.

InSight Crime Analysis

The modifications to Colombia’s Public Order Law will likely further degrade the morale and trust that former FARC fighters have in the government and its implementation of the peace deal, which members of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) — Colombia’s last remaining guerrilla group — will likely take as a signal of what could come of their already shaky peace discussions with the government.

For more than 13,000 demobilized former FARC fighters, the potential reactivation of arrest warrants against those complying with the agreement, despite this idea being voted down, sent a strong message that compounded the distrust and legal insecurity they already feel.

The former rebels have good reason to be worried. In April 2018, Colombian authorities arrested one of the FARC’s foremost figures, Seuxis Paucis Hernández Solarte, alias “Jesús Santrich,” on US drug charges. Santrich was at the center of the peace talks with the government in Havana, Cuba, and his arrest sparked uproar throughout the ranks of the FARC.

This growing discontent, coupled with the lack of government protection for former FARC combatants, could fuel even more dissidence from the peace process. InSight Crime estimates that between 2,000 and 2,500 former fighters have now abandoned the process altogether, representing some 15 to 20 percent of the total number of FARC ex-combatants.

(Map of Colombia’s Ex-FARC Mafia)

What’s more, the changes raise further questions about the Colombian government’s ability to comply with the agreement. Among other things, the government has already failed to successfully implement a coca crop substitution program or secure funding to reincorporate demobilized fighters, who are stuck in limbo, back into society, all of which were original terms of the agreement.

Among the most skeptical of the government’s commitment is the 1st Front Dissidence that formed in July 2016 after distancing itself from the peace process, as well as important former FARC commanders like El Paisa. Some 400 fighters make up the 1st Front Dissidence, which controls key drug trafficking routes in Guaviare, Vaupés, Meta and Vichada departments that reach the borders of Brazil and Venezuela.

The modifications also question the continuity of another central pillar of the deal: territorial peace. These strategic zones of intervention, according to officials in the press release, must be implemented alongside the Territory-Focused Development Programs (Programas de Desarrollo con Enfoque Territorial – PDET) originally agreed upon as part of the peace deal in areas where the two projects coincide, and will not use resources assigned for the PDETs.

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However, the source of funding for the PDETs and the exact implementation of these specialized intervention zones remains unclear. If implemented in areas where coca eradication programs will also be carried out, this could further exacerbate tensions between community members and such programs.

There appears to be two competing courses of action: one based on the fight against organized crime and one based on constructing peace from the local level up. This dichotomy further complicates the future of peace. Continued hiccups involving the implementation of the FARC’s peace agreement could all but seal the end of the already fragile peace talks with the ELN.

Indeed, government officials in Ecuador refused to continue hosting the Colombian government’s peace talks with the guerrillas earlier this year over concerns regarding the FARC peace deal. The negotiations have continued to waver, and the ELN is expanding aggressively into Venezuela while potentially forging new alliances with FARC dissidents to further their criminal activities.

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