Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos with FARC’s top leader Rodrigo Londoño Credit: UN Mission in Colombia

Peace is Breaking Out in Colombia

Colombia marked a major milestone this week in ending its 52 year-long conflict with FARC when the UN certified disarmament of the rebel group as complete. This is a step — and a very consequential one — toward an enduring peace for the country.

Still, despite this accomplishment, the road to a lasting peace is still quite long–with some big obstacles in the way.

Recent legal challenges to the peace process and ongoing paramilitary violence highlights the difficulties in finding peace after decades of conflict and the hard work it takes by everyone involved.

On its own, the Colombian peace process is a mammoth undertaking, achieved after four years of negotiations. After announcing a deal last August, the peace process hit a stumbling block early on when a slim majority of Colombians voted against it in an October referendum. Further negotiations resulted in a slightly modified agreement, which the government sent to Congress for ratification rather than hold a second referendum. With ratification in late November, the 52 year conflict between the government and FARC formally ended.

But accepting a peace agreement and implementing it are two different things. Despite an indefinite ceasefire, disarming, demobilizing and reintegrating thousands of fighters, many of whom know nothing but war, into the society they fought against is a significant task. That is why news from the UN that it successfully collected weapons from all of FARC’s 7,000 fighters is such a big deal. Even though the fighters will stay in demobilization camps until July, by giving up their weapons FARC is turning a corner that would be extremely difficult to walk back from.

Guns turned over to the UN. Credit: UN Mission in Colombia

At a ceremony marking the disarmament, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos said, “The laying down of arms is a symbol of the new country that we can be.” FARC’s top leader Rodrigo Londoño – better known by his nom de guerre Timochenko – echoed this sentiment in his own speech. “Farewell to arms, farewell to war, welcome to peace,” he said to a cheering crowd of demobilized fighters. “Today doesn’t end the existence of the FARC; it ends our armed struggle.”

Yet beyond this week’s well deserved celebrations, there is still a lot of work to do. As part of reintegrating members of FARC into Colombian society, one key element of the peace agreement is the establishment of special courts to try former FARC fighters. Those not accused of war crimes can be eligible for amnesty while others can receive reduced sentences for their crimes under certain circumstances. But the government has yet to actually establish any of these courts or judicial mechanisms. With an estimated 3,400 FARC fighters in jail, the delay is a sore point for FARC while critics of the peace agreement – including former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe – believe that FARC fighters are being treated too leniently given the extent of their crimes.

The perception that many FARC fighters are getting off too easy for their crimes is one of the reasons analysts believe the October referendum on the peace deal failed; by going around the public and seeking ratification through Congress, the government avoided having to substantially address or change this element of the peace agreement.

That decision may come back to haunt President Santos. In May, the Colombian Constitutional Court ruled against the government on the “fast track” provisions included in the peace agreement that allows for special legislative authority to implement parts of the deal. The fear is this will allow Congress to see the negotiated provisions of the peace agreement as mere “suggestions” and unwind key parts of the agreement that took years of negotiation to agree on. Following the court’s ruling, many groups throughout the political spectrum raised alarm bells on what it could mean for the peace process. So far the process has endured, but is still at risk for political sabotage in coming months, a stated goal of some of the peace agreement’s fiercest critics.

And amid all this political wrangling there is still violence to deal with.

As the largest rebel group in the country, reaching an agreement with FARC was a necessary step towards peace but FARC is not the only militant group still in Colombia.

Although less than half the size of FARC, the National Liberation Army (ELN) shares a common history dating back to 1964. Unlike FARC, the ELN resisted several attempts by the Santos government for peace talks. After several delays, formal talks did start in February but the challenges are daunting. A few weeks after the talks started, ELN bombed a bull ring outside of Bogota that killed 1 and injured 25 more. Just this month, ELN claimed responsibility for a bombing at an upscale shopping mall that killed 3 and a bombing that stopped the flow of oil in Colombia’s second largest pipeline. With no indication that they are willing to give up violence, peace with the country’s last major leftist guerilla group appears out of reach for now.

On the other side of the political spectrum is the issue of right-wing paramilitary groups. Also a long standing part of the Colombian conflict, the main paramilitary group the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) only partially demobilized under former President Uribe, leading to the creation of “succession” paramilitary groups that are filling the vacuum of control now left vacant by FARC. In some areas, the amount of violence experienced has actually increased as FARC demobilized. The largest of these succession groups, the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC), recently declared human rights defenders as legitimate military targets and local news organizations have tracked as at least 37 civil society leaders killed in 2017 alone.

Efforts to combat the paramilitary groups is complicated by the historical ties many Colombian politicians have with the groups. There is the concern that politicians opposed to the peace agreement with FARC can use these paramilitary groups to further block implementation and sabotage the peace process, returning the country into full scale war. There is also some speculation that because of the close ties between mainstream politicians and the paramilitary groups, peace with them is not particularly wanted as very real and proverbial skeletons could come out of the closet in negotiations or a subsequent truth commission. Those ongoing entanglements need to be unwound before any real progress can be made.

All of this highlights how far Colombia has to go in ending decades of civil war. The disarmament of FARC is a huge accomplishment, and not one that should be underestimated. But Colombia’s problems were always more than just FARC and now the country needs to address the other outstanding issues it faces after five decades of war. Peace is not easy, but the progress Colombia has made so far is a good sign that eventually it will come to the whole country.