New violence threatens Colombia's revised peace accord

The government is set to ratify a revamped peace accord with leftist FARC rebels. But attacks against activists, apparently from the remnants of right-wing militias, will complicate the deal's implementation.

Ivan Valencia/AP
Colombians celebrated last Thursday at a rally in Bogotá supporting the peace process with rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). An original accord ending the half century conflict was rejected by voters in a referendum last month.

With the ink barely dry on Colombia’s peace deal with leftist rebels, new violence has emerged that could complicate the agreement’s implementation.

In the past 10 days, five activists have been killed and a number of others attacked in separate incidents. No group has yet claimed responsibility, but authorities suspect the attacks are being carried out by criminal groups that formed in the wake of the demobilization of right-wing militias nearly a decade ago. If the government can’t rein in these groups – which control the cocaine trade alongside the rebels – then prospects for peace look dim.

“The risk of increased violence is very high,” says Kristian Herbolzheimer, an analyst at London-based peace-building consultants Conciliation Resources. “Powerful sectors remain opposed to the peace process and will try to boycott it through killings, as we have seen these past days. It is relatively easy for violent spoilers to derail the peace process through violence. This can be done by either targeting social leaders, FARC members, or civilians and putting the blame on FARC.”

The catalyst for the latest killings is the new peace deal between the government and the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), signed in Bogotá on Thursday. An original deal was narrowly defeated in a popular referendum last month.

Delegations from both sides sought to revise parts of the original agreement that proved too hard for voters to stomach. Clarifications and changes covered far-ranging issues from the drug trade, about which the rebels will now give details of their involvement, and protection of military men from charges of war crimes, to recognizing women and LGBT communities as specific targets of violence.

While the new deal was largely celebrated in Colombia and abroad, opponents are still angered by the guarantees that most guerrillas will be able to avoid jail time and be allowed to participate in politics.

The killings of activists sympathetic to the FARC cause began even before the peace deal was signed. On Friday morning, a social leader was killed in Neiva, a city southwest of Bogotá, following another killed on Wednesday in the port city Buenaventura. The weekend before, three other activists were gunned down: Erney Monroy and Didier Rosada Barreto, members of a peasant environmental organization, in San Vicente del Caguán; and Rodrigo Cabrera, a victims group leader, in Nariño, near the Ecuadorian border.

A handful of other leaders were attacked but survived.

Return to right-wing violence?

For Colombians, the attacks are a reminder of paramilitary violence that many hoped was consigned to the past. The last time the FARC attempted a foray into politics, they were met with political violence from right-wing militias. Approximately 3,000 members of the rebel-backed Patriotic Union political party were killed between 1985 and 1993, practically eradicating the movement.

Then, in a process concluded nearly a decade ago, a federation of right-wing militias called the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, supposedly demobilized. But in their place have risen criminal gangs, whose opposition to the peace deal may have more to do with profits than ideology.

“The biggest threat to national security is no longer guerrilla groups,” says German Senna Pico, a former militia commander now serving a reduced prison sentence under the 2008 demobilization deal. “The biggest problem now is the drug trade, which is controlled by AUC successor groups.”

Colombia’s right-wing militias and leftist guerrillas have long relied on the lucrative cocaine trade to fund their political ambitions. Mr. Senna argues that while he and many others took up arms to fight communism, those who remained following demobilization are motivated by money. These groups are thought to also be backed by wealthy landowners.

While the government has been pumping in resources to defeat these groups, with a joint military and police campaign dubbed Operation Agamemnon launched in early 2015, leftists across the country have continued to face persecution. This is raising doubts about the government’s ability to implement the FARC deal nationwide.

Following the recent wave of attacks, observers have called for a quick ratification and implementation of the peace deal.

The accord needs to be ratified by Congress, where President Juan Manuel Santos has strong majority support. In the five days following the deal’s endorsement by Congress, which could happen as early as this week, FARC rebels will demobilize. They will move to temporary quarters in designated zones. The rebels will remain in those rural zones for six months, handing over their weapons under the supervision of a special United Nations mission.

Opponents criticize peace deal 

Former President Álvaro Uribe, who successfully led the opposition in the referendum on the first accord, has continued to criticize the new deal. His surrogates have indicated that they will oppose it however they can, worrying some observers that mayors loyal to the hard-line ex-president will resist implementing the deal in their jurisdictions.

“A decisive contribution to peace that Alvaro Uribe could make, calling for an end to political violence, wherever it comes from,” tweeted Bogotá-based conflict analyst Jorge Restrepo.

At Thursday’s signing ceremony, in Bogota’s Colón Theater, FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño offered condolences to the families of activists and rebels recently killed. “To our adversaries, the invitation is to live in difference,” he added. “That the word be the only weapon that we Colombians allow ourselves to use.”

President Santos, appearing less triumphant than at last month’s glitzy ceremony, also celebrated an end to the conflict. “We achieved an end to the bloodshed and that there will be no more victims,” he said, like others favoring a dark suit in place of the white shirts symbolic of peace that were dress code in Cartagena, where the first deal was signed.

Colombia’s 52-year civil war has left 220,000 dead and nearly 7 million displaced, with atrocities committed by all sides.

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