A year after the signing of the FARC peace agreement, the Colombian government's efforts to end the conflict with the guerrilla group have been largely successful. But the accords have not undermined Colombia’s criminal underworld as much as hoped, due largely to shortcomings in the implementation of certain measures.
“Let there be no doubt: we will continue implementing the accords,” President Manuel Santos said on November 24, according to a presidential press release.
A year earlier, Santos and the commander-in-chief of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), Rodrigo Londoño Echeverry, alias “Timochenko,” shook hands over the signing of the peace accords’ final version, putting an end to more than five decades of conflict.
On the eve of the one year anniversary, on November 23, Santos had begun commemorating the historic agreement. Despite admitting that certain errors were made during the course of the accords’ implementation, Santos depicted a reassuring picture of the situation, arguing that the agreement was “irreversible,” no matter who wins Colombia’s 2018 presidential election.
An Overall Positive Balance
Given the challenges inherent to ending a 52-year long conflict and the history of bloody massacres on both sides, that peace has held through the first year is a victory in itself.
But the issue of dissidence remains. On November 23, Santos raised figures from a recent report released by the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation (Fundación Paz y Reconciliación), which estimates that only 700 guerrilla fighters have refused to demobilize. Santos underlined that this figure indicated a dissidence rate of 7 percent, which was considerably lower than the average of around 15 percent for any peace process, reported El Espectador.
Based on extensive field research throughout Colombia and during the course of the past year, InSight Crime believes that the dissidence rate is closer to 15 percent. Not only is this figure in line with the general world average, it is also lower than previous Colombian peace processes with the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL) guerrilla group and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC) paramilitary force.
Moreover, while the latent risk of mass desertion remains, the successful transition of the FARC from a guerrilla group to a political party - albeit at an early stage - provides the former rebels with a voice on Colombia’s political scene. Not only does this undercut one of the main motives for former FARC fighters to abandon the peace process and take up arms; it also sets a positive precedent in the context of the government’s difficult peace negotiations with the country’s largest remaining guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army ( Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN).
The overall positive balance of the peace process can also be gauged by decreasing violence. Although pockets of conflict remain in several rural areas, 2017 saw a continuing decrease in the number of soldiers killed or wounded, following an impressive drop in 2016. And on November 23, Vice President Óscar Naranjo announced Colombia’s lowest homicide rate in more than four decades, a result of many other factors as well but certainly a sign of Colombia’s generally positive security trend.
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Ironically, violence in one of Colombia’s major remaining conflict zones, the Urabá coastal Caribbean sub region, is actually a positive sign for the implementation of part of the peace accords. The agreement explicitly stipulates that the government will take action against armed groups that are descendants of Colombia’s demobilized paramilitary groups, which includes the powerful Urabeños.
In its campaign against the criminal group, Colombia’s government has deployed significant firepower against the Urabeños in their traditional stronghold. It has also increased pressure on the criminal organization throughout the country, with visible results.
Even as he praised the country’s peace efforts on the eve of the accords’ anniversary, Santos also announced the death of an Urabeños leader during a security operation that same day. Following a twenty minute-long shootout with Colombia’s Jungle police commandos, Luis Orlando Padierna, alias “Inglaterra,” was shot dead in a luxurious rural villa in the Norte de Santander department, detailed El Tiempo.
Less than two weeks ago, the same elite police commando unit had seized more than 12 metric tons of cocaine from the Urabeños, while the group’s second-in-command was killed by security forces in Urabá at the very end of August.
Globally Unhindered Criminal Dynamics
Unfortunately, the signing of the agreement with what was at the time Colombia’s main actor in the cocaine trade has not yet yielded positive results for the country’s criminal landscape.
The Urabeños might be under increased pressure, but the FARC stepping down has allowed the group to take control of the lion’s share of Colombia’s cocaine industry. And the drug trafficking organization is far from the only group to have exploited the FARC demobilization as an opportunity to expand. The ELN, in parallel to carrying out its own peace negotiations with the government, has succeeded in recuperating abandoned FARC territories and other lucrative criminal economies. Certain FARC dissident groups, and particularly the 1st Front, also appear to have expanded.
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These criminal expansion dynamics can be traced not only to the FARC demobilization, but also to Colombia’s record-breaking cocaine production. And at the heart of the issue stands the country’s coca production, which measures from the peace agreement should have significantly decreased.
Under strong pressure from the United States to emphasize a traditional, hardline and repressive coca eradication policy, the Colombian government has stumbled forward in the implementation of voluntary crop substitution programs stipulated by the peace accords. The track record for the country’s difficult drug policy - which combines forced eradication with voluntary substitution - is not all negative. But government shortcomings toward coca farmers are undeniable and have spurred a spate of protests this year. These culminated in a bloody massacre of coca farmers at the hand of security forces in the Tumaco municipality, one of Colombia’s major coca producing areas that also illustrates how the state has largely failed to reinvest areas long under rebel control.
The government’s most worrying failure with regard to the peace accords arguably lies in the backlog of laws that have not yet been voted on by Congress, but that are necessary to implement the accords. These include bills to create the Special Peace Jurisdiction (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz), a tailored judicial framework for former guerrilla fighters that is an essential pillar for peace. As InSight Crime previously explained, very little time may be left for the current administration to push through these crucial laws, and their absence may well jeopardize the peace accords’ two-year anniversary.