At the very least, the October 2 “No” vote in the plebiscite on Colombia’s peace accord opens the process between the government and the region’s oldest insurgency to a series of modifications. At most, it could result in a complete collapse of negotiations and a return to full-scale war.

The fallout of the political bombshell detonated by Colombia’s narrow rejection of the peace agreement negotiated by President Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) is still unfolding.

The FARC leadership was clearly shocked by the result, but the guerrilla commander-in-chief, Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri, alias “Timochenko,” sought to calm the nerves of those fearing an immediate return to fighting, insisting that “peace will triumph,” and adding that the “the FARC maintain their desire for peace and reiterate their disposition to use just words as arms to build the future.”

President Juan Manuel Santos also stated that the bilateral ceasefire between the guerrillas and the armed forces remained in place. And he spoke about maintaining “stability” as both sides feel their way through terrain that neither expected to confront.

The Colombian government’s chief negotiator at the peace table, Humberto De la Calle, presented his resignation on October 3, saying that he accepted responsibility for his part in the outcome of the vote. However, he also said that “peace has not been defeated,” and promised to continue working toward peace “without pause.”

The “No” vote, which won by a razor-thin margin, does not end the talks, but it is binding on the president. It means that he cannot present the agreement — which was signed to great fanfare in front of world leaders in Cartagena on September 26 — to Colombia’s Congress and its Constitutional Court for ratification. And it means a new agreement has to be negotiated.

The leader of the “No” movement — the former president and now Senator Álvaro Uribe of the Democratic Center (Centro Democrático – CD) party — has had two main criticisms of the peace deal.  

The first is that the rebels face no prison time for their crimes; Uribe is especially critical of those guilty of crimes against humanity. In the deal, the guerrillas who fulfill the terms of the agreement will be sentenced to a maximum of eight years of “restricted liberty.”

The second is that the FARC leaders have the right to participate in the legal political arena. Under the agreement, the FARC are guaranteed ten places in Congress for two four-year terms.

Speaking after the results of the plebiscite were announced, Uribe said: “We ask that there is no violence, that the FARC are protected, and that they cease all crime, including drug trafficking and extortion.”

He also stated that an agreement with the FARC could not entail “impunity.”

InSight Crime Analysis

When I went to Havana in 2014 to speak to FARC negotiators, I was told the rebels had three issues that were non-negotiable: they would serve no time in prison; they wanted all possible guarantees that they could continue their political struggle in the legal sphere and Congress; and they would not hand over their weapons until implementation was complete.  

President Santos and his team gave them the first two, and the FARC ceded on the issue of arms, agreeing to hand their weapons into the United Nations.  

With the “No” vote at the plebiscite, these issues — and more — will have to be renegotiated.

It will not be easy. To begin with, the leadership of the FARC faces some difficult choices. If the “No” vote has its way, the FARC command will either have to go to prison, go back to war, or watch their 52-year insurgency break up.

The mid-level command, as well as the rank and file, are also at a crossroads. At the FARC’s 10th Conference in El Diamante, Meta in late September, which InSight Crime attended, the rebels presented a united front as they approved the peace deal signed with the government. Yet speaking to individual guerrillas and some key leaders, it was clear that not all the rebels were happy with the agreement, and few believed that the government would fulfill its side of the bargain.

José Benito Cabrera Cuevas, alias “Fabián Ramírez,” one of the negotiators during the failed peace process from 1999-2002, told us that there were profound worries among communities in FARC areas.

“People have said to us, with great concern, ‘If you leave or deliver your weapons, who is going to defend us and ensure that the government fulfills its promises?’”

If there were already concerns over the agreement, which has now been rejected, many FARC elements may decide that continuing the armed struggle is better than making more concessions.

Already the FARC’s First Front leadership in Guaviare has pronounced itself dissident and against the peace agreement. It eventually split into pieces with some elements turning themselves over to the peace process and others reorganizing, preparing themselves for the next phase of battle, or criminal activities, or both.

Other rebel units may now be tempted to adopt the same position if further concessions are demanded, particularly if they have to go to prison.

There are also practical concerns. For instance, the vote destroys an important timeline in which ex-guerrillas were scheduled to start receiving the benefits of leaving their war behind.

At the same time, Uribe and his cohorts are insisting that the FARC halt criminal activity, including their main means of revenue raising, which, given the inevitable delays in implementing the post-accord programs, the guerrillas most assuredly will not. While Timochenko called for a halt to extortion in July, InSight Crime has found that this order has been disobeyed in many places.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of the FARC Peace Process

With the “No” vote, the FARC leadership have little room for maneuver. Unless they can secure a favorable deal in a short time, more radical elements of the guerrilla army will return to, or simply continue, the drug trafficking and extortion that has funded the movement for five decades, and perhaps return to fighting.

The results of the plebiscite may also claim another casualty: the peace process with the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberacíon Nacional – ELN), which is in its initial stages. The ELN has refused to go along with the FARC agreement as it felt the results did not change the political system.  

This criticism is true, and dialogue with the ELN is frozen after the government demanded that the country’s second rebel group cease its practice of kidnapping as a precondition for opening formal talks. The FARC agreed to this precondition. The ELN, so far, has not.

In a letter published on August 29 in the ELN’s “Insurrection” newsletter, the ELN commander-in-chief, Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista, alias “Gabino,” wrote to the FARC that the government had no “real will to find peace and, indeed, we have seen the intention to disarm the guerrillas while giving nothing in return.”

Elements of the FARC unhappy with the “No” vote and seeing few option may now decide to affiliate themselves with the ELN, if Timochenko does not show strong leadership.  

Others may give into the temptation of big money and go into business for themselves, or accept huge sums of money being offered by other criminal actors to join them.  

This may already be happening. InSight Crime has received information that the Urabeños, one of what are called BACRIM (for the Spanish, “bandas criminales”), is offering money to any FARC member prepared to join them in the stronghold near the border with Panama.

The plebiscite was supposed to set into motion a series of positive incentives for a controlled demobilization process and the beginning of a peaceful settlement. Instead, it may have unleashed mayhem, chaos and more war.

Jeremy McDermott is co-founder and co-director of InSight Crime. McDermott has more than two decades of experience reporting from around Latin America. He is a former British Army officer, who saw active...