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“Give Peace a Chance”? Explaining Colombia’s (Failed) Peace Process with the FARC

The following is part of a series of thought pieces authored by members of the START Consortium. These editorial columns reflect the opinions of the author(s), and not necessarily the opinions of the START Consortium. This series is penned by scholars who have grappled with complicated and often politicized topics, and our hope is that they will foster thoughtful reflection and discussion by professionals and students alike. 

The author wishes to thank General of the Army (ret) Otto Guibovich, Representative Federico Hoyos and Professor Alfonso Aza for their valuable expertise. The author also thanks Senator Antonio Navarro Wolff for sharing important information during the author’s field research in Colombia, some of which are incorporated.

Colombia is home to Latin America’s longest ongoing internal conflict. Since 1964 an array of Marxist insurgencies have been in violent confrontation with the state. The involvement of right-wing paramilitary forces and narco-traffickers has further exacerbated the fighting, claiming over 250,000 lives and displacing millions more.[1] Nevertheless, scores of hopeful Colombians went to the polls on Sunday, October 2, 2016 to cast their votes in a national plebiscite to ratify a peace accord between the country’s largest insurgent group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia; FARC) and the government. The resultant, razor thin victory for opponents of accord (49.8% in favor and 50.2% opposed) even shocked the “no” campaign’s main proponent, former president and current senator Álvaro Uribe.[2]

How did Colombia get to this point and what comes next? International media coverage has largely glossed over the exceedingly diverse and nuanced obstacles posed by the peace process, which makes answering this question difficult. Unfortunately, partisan politics has obscured Colombian press coverage as well. This article attempts to solve these problems by leveraging evidence from the author’s recent field research in Colombia, coupled with salient insights from three regional experts who are involved in and/or closely follow the process: General of the Army (ret) Otto Guibovich served as the commanding general of the Peruvian Army from 2008 through 2010. He continues to closely follow the Colombian peace process and has published extensively on the topic. Representative Federico Hoyos is currently a representative from Antioquia in the Colombian House of Representatives. He is a member of Uribe’s political party, Democratic Center (Centro Democrático) and has made numerous statements concerning the peace process. Professor Alfonso Aza is a professor and Secretary of the Governing Board at Universidad de La Sabana in Colombia. His research focuses on public policy concerning narco-trafficking. To this end, he has closely followed the peace process and the implications of a potential FARC demobilization for other violent non-state actors (VNSAs) engaged in narco-trafficking.

This article proceeds in three sections. The first provides an overview of the peace process, including relevant background information and an explanation of the most contentious components of the deal. The subsequent section speaks to the positions of the government, FARC and political opposition following the plebiscite. While the outcome of renewed negotiations remain uncertain, all three groups now have an interest in reaching a revised accord. Therefore, the final section explores what the post-conflict environment may look like.

“Peace through Strength”

The current peace process marks the fourth time the government of Colombia has engaged in negotiations with the FARC. However, the current round of negotiations is substantially different in at least one key respect. The government, not the FARC, is negotiating from a position of strength. The previous three processes followed major increases in the FARC’s involvement with narco-trafficking. The windfall profits that ensued undergirded substantial improvements in the insurgents’ martial capacity, and consequently their ability to target the state.[3] This time, negotiations follow years of sustained Colombian military pressure against the FARC.[4] The resultant desertions and casualties reduced their force strength from an estimated 17,000-21,000 fighters at their height in 2002 to just 6,700 today.[5] Among the casualties were top insurgent leaders, who were, for the first time ever, successfully targeted by the Colombian government using U.S.-provided precision guided munitions.[6]

Given this reality, the FARC’s interest in pursuing negotiations is not surprising. What is unexpected is the magnitude of concessions made to the FARC as part of the deal. The most controversial aspect of the agreement concerns a special judicial process for former belligerents. Had the deal been ratified, a separate judiciary would have been established and those who confessed their crimes (including war crimes and narco-trafficking) and made reparations (e.g. by helping to clear land mines laid by the insurgents or repairing damage caused by the conflict) would not serve jail time. Two other sticking points were that the deal guaranteed the FARC 10 seats in the Colombian legislature for the next two elections and did not effectively ensure that the FARC’s (likely) immense financial assets be turned over to the state and used to finance the implementation of the peace process.[7] With respect to the FARC receiving guaranteed seats, Guibovich reversed Clausewitz’ oft cited quote “war is the continuation of politics by other means,” noting that “politics would be the continuation of their [the FARC’s] war through other means that begin with congressmen and delegates in the parliament.”[8]

These terms led many to conclude that President Juan Manuel Santos was pursuing any peace agreement and not necessarily the right deal for Colombia, in order to bolster his domestic political standing, which has suffered due to dismal economic growth, and to secure a Nobel Peace Prize. (While his approval rating remains low, he did manage to win a Nobel Prize.) Guibovich succinctly stated his position on the matter saying, “I want peace for Colombia but not at any price.”[9] Hoyos similarly interpreted the results of the plebiscite as demonstrating that the Colombian “people want a [negotiated] peace agreement, but a different agreement from the one they [already] reached.”[10] The plebiscite clearly shows that Guibovich and Hoyos are in the majority. However, outlying coastal areas that continue to suffer extensively from the ongoing conflict were willing to accept the high costs of the deal and cast their votes accordingly.[11]

Return to Havana

Immediately following the results of the plebiscite, both sides returned to Havana and remained committed to a peaceful solution to Colombia’s conflict. For the government’s part, Santos has staked his presidency on peace. Aza stated that “finishing his presidential mandate without a ratified accord would be a failure similar to that of President Pastrana with the famous “silla vacía” [empty chair] in Caguán.”[12] Aza is referring to an iconic photo of Pastrana sitting by himself at the negotiating table in Caguán, Colombia. Next to Pastrana is an empty white chair where FARC leader Perdo Antonio Marín (known to most by his nom de guerre, Manuel Marulanda) was supposed to sit during the third round of negotiations between the government and the FARC. To this day, Pastrana’s presidency is most commonly remembered for pursuing these failed negotiations.

The FARC face similar incentives to arrive at a new, negotiated agreement. This is the case for at least two reasons. First, the rank and file fighters expected to demobilize and reintegrate into civil society. Returning to armed conflict would constitute a major blow to morale. This would likely result in increased desertions and decreased combat effectiveness. As Aza notes, “after more than four years of negotiations in Havana, the expectation of reincorporation into civil society among their own [the FARC’s] members is high enough that it is possible that they will accept the relevant changes to the accord.”[13] Second, the FARC had already begun to demobilize, prior to the plebiscite. As they moved out of territory that was especially lucrative for narco-trafficking and other illicit activities, other VNSAs moved in. As such, if armed conflict resurges, the FARC will not only need to combat the state, but will also need to engage various VNSAs to reoccupy strategic territory it used to control.

Interestingly, the political opposition to the original accord also have incentives to ensure that a new agreement is quickly ratified. Aza noted that they are under intense international and domestic pressure. Hoyos, however, was careful to draw a clear distinction between the interests of international observers and Colombian citizens. To this end, he noted that Santos’ Nobel Peace Prize is merely a signal of the international community’s continued interest in a peaceful resolution, whereas the results of the plebiscite speak to the will of the Colombian people.[14] While the international community has tended to view the peace process as a binary choice between peace and war, the Colombian citizenry have largely adopted a more nuanced view. For them, the terms of the deal are consequential. Nevertheless, if a new, improved agreement is reached, the opposition “will be able to cast themselves as the architects of a truly just peace” ahead of the next presidential elections.[15] Doing so virtually ensures a Democratic Center victory at the polls in 2018.[16]

To this end, the opposition presented Santos with a proposal for renegotiating the agreement. The changes are relatively minor and may be acceptable to the FARC.[17] In discussing the changes Hoyos emphasized the importance of “reduced but effective sentences for those who have committed war crimes” and establishing a special tribunal for transitional justice, but doing so within the Supreme Court of Justice as opposed to in parallel to the established judicial apparatus.[18] FARC leaders that confess and make reparations would be subject to sentences of between five and eight years on work farms and not in prisons. Upon release, they would not be eligible for political office. Those who did not commit war crimes and were not involved in narco-trafficking would still receive amnesty.[19]

Envisioning the Post-conflict

The preceding section illustrates that there is reason to be cautiously optimistic that an accord will be reached. Unfortunately, the Colombian state is not prepared to fully implement it. Moreover, the FARC is not the only VNSA active in Colombia. As such, a ratified agreement does not signify peace for Colombia, though it may be a consequential step in the right direction.

Assuming the FARC demobilizes, it will vacate lucrative territory that is highly prized by other VNSAs for the cultivation of drugs, illegal mining and trafficking routes. While Colombia has one of the most professional and best equipped military forces in the region, given finite resources, the plan for implementing the peace prioritizes a bit over 100 municipalities during the first 18 months. While sensible, it also means that many more municipalities will continue to lack state presence after the FARC has completed its demobilization. Who will fill the power vacuum? Aza argues that this “will produce a surge in new actors that occupy these areas” and that it is likely that “there will be disputes between these groups.”[20] Moreover, at least one faction of the FARC, the First Front (Frente primero), has vowed to continue the fight and other insurgent fighters are already breaking off to join Colombia’s other remaining leftist insurgency, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional; ELN), or organized criminal syndicates known as Bacrim (Bandas Criminales).

Senator Antonio Navarro Wolff, the former Commandant of the 19th of April Movement (Movimiento 19 de abril; M-19), who came to political power following an earlier peace process with the government, expressed similar concerns. While he supported the original deal, he expects that homicides will increase due to infighting between VNSAs in certain locations. Moreover, some of these other groups are more depraved than the FARC. As such, he also anticipates increases in civilian casualties in contested areas. He predicted that perhaps as many as 10 percent of all FARC fighters will not demobilize. [21]

Over the longer term, the key to a sustainable peace rests not only in securing territory formerly held by the FARC, but also in extending basic goods and services to citizens living in these areas. If the government is not able to effectively incorporate these citizens and remediate the grievances that were the root of the conflict, peace is unlikely to endure. Given the absence of road networks and the immense number of small, isolated communities, this is a particularly daunting task, which the government is not prepared for.


[1] BBC, “Colombia Peace Deal: FARC to Annonce Ceasefire on Sunday,” August 28, 2016; Grupo de Memoria Histórica, Basta ya: Colombia: Memorias de guerra y dignidad (Bogota, Colombia, 2013); The Guardian, “Colombian Conflict has Killed 220,000 in 55 Years, Commission Finds,” July 25, 2013.

[2] BBC, “Colombia Referendum: Voters Reject FARC Peace Deal,” October 3, 2016.

[3] Arturo Herrera Castano and Shane L. Tarrant, “Are the Guerrillas Gone? A Historical Political Economy and Social Analysis of the Rise and Demise of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias Colombianas (FARC), 1964-2010” (Master’s thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, 2009); David L. DeAtley, “Illicit Drug Funding: The Surprising Systemic Similarities between the FARC and the Taliban” (Master’s thesis, School of Advanced Military Studies, United States Army Command and General Staff College, 2010); James Bargent, “The FARC 1964-2002: From Ragged Rebellion to Military Machine,” InSight Crime (May 26, 2014); Robert D. Ramsey III, From El Billar to Operations Fenix and Jaque: The Colombian Security Force Experience, 1998-2008 (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2009), 29.

[4] Ramsey, From El Billar, chapter 3.

[5] Ibid.; Author’s interview with Alfonso Aza, October 18, 2016; Universidad Militar Nueva Granada, Instituto de Estudios Geoestratégicos y Asuntos Políticos, “Evaluación de la política de defensa y seguridad democrática, 2002 – 2010,” September 1, 2010.

[6] Dana Priest, "Covert Action in Colombia: U.S. Intelligence, GPS Bomb Kits Help Latin American Nation Cripple Rebel Forces," The Washington Post, December 21, 2013. 

[7] Jennifer Williams, “The Stunning Collapse of Colombia’s Peace Agreement with the FARC, Explained,” Vox, October 4, 2016.

[8] Otto Guibovich, “Colombia: La Paz Esquiva,” Caretas,  October 6, 2016.

[9] Author’s interview with Otto Guibovich, October 17, 2016.

[10] Author’s interview with Federico Hoyos, October 24, 2016.

[11] BBC, “Colombia Referendum.”

[12] Author’s interview with Alfonso Aza.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Author’s interview with Federico Hoyos.

[15] Author’s interview with Alfonso Aza.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Nick Miroff, “Colombia’s Opposition Wants to Modify Peace Deal – With a Scalpel, Not a Hammer,” The Washington Post, October 13, 2016.

[18] Author’s interview with Federico Hoyos.

[19] Miroff, “Colombia’s Opposition Wants to Modify Peace Deal.”

[20] Author’s interview with Alfonso Aza.

[21] Author’s interview with Antonio Navarro Wolff, July 12, 2016.