Why continued US support is crucial for Colombia's peace process

Substantive progress is already being made in implementing the accords, but if the United States dials back its assistance, that trend could diminish, even reverse. It is in the interests of both countries not to let that happen.

Ivan Valencia/AP
Supporters of the Colombian peace process between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia rebel group hold a rally in Bogotá, Colombia, Nov. 24, 2016.

A version of this post ran on the Washington Office on Latin America site. The views expressed are the author's own.

The Trump administration’s likely secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, has declared an intention “to review the details of Colombia’s recent peace agreement, and determine the extent to which the United States should continue to support it.” There are many reasons to hope that once he reviews those details, Mr. Tillerson will conclude that the 2016 agreement, which ends 52 years of fighting between Colombia’s government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group, deserves strong support.

1) Plummeting levels of violence. The 2016 government-FARC accord, and accompanying United Nations-monitored ceasefire, have brought Colombia’s violence to the lowest levels in decades. The gains are not irreversible: They depend on strong accord implementation. In 2016, only 216 members of the Colombian security forces, guerrilla groups, or paramilitary groups died in situations that could be defined as combat – a 46 percent drop from 2015, and a 93 percent drop from a decade earlier. Even before an August 29 bilateral ceasefire shut down FARC-government violence almost completely, CERAC, the Colombian think-tank that most methodically tracks violence statistics, reported that Colombia’s conflict was in its least intense phase since it began 52 years ago. Overall, Colombia reported 12,262 homicides in 2016, a 25 percent drop from 2012, the year the FARC peace talks started.

Before 2012, intensified security operations had brought important drops in combat and violence. But battlefield progress slowed notably after about mid-2008. This made clear that a military victory over the FARC would take many more bloody years, while a peace accord might bring the conflict to a much more rapid end – as it did last year. After a several-year plateau, violence measures did not drop further until the FARC negotiations reached an advanced phase.

2) Demobilization momentum. Right now, the FARC guerrillas’ membership is gathering to demobilize and disarm. The United States must help Colombia to minimize dissidences and rearmament. As many as 14,000 FARC members and militias have arrived, or are on their way, to the village-sized sites where they will spend six months demobilizing, turning in their weapons to a UN mission, and entering either civilian life or trial for war crimes. Arrivals at the 26 zones should be complete by the end of January. While this process is behind schedule, the delays owe to logistical difficulties, not bad faith.

These security gains are remarkable, but they are fragile. FARC dissidences are emerging in several parts of the country – a normal phenomenon at this phase in post-conflict processes, but a worrying development. Organized crime groups and the smaller National Liberation Army guerrillas are poised to fill territorial power vacuums that the FARC leave behind, if Colombia’s state proves unable to fill them first. To keep these challenges under control, Colombia will need generous, determined, and active US support for increasing state presence and reintegrating ex-combatants, not criticism or opposition.

3) Sweeping away the mines. This is a historic opportunity to de-mine the world’s second most mine-affected country. Anti-personnel mines have killed or injured more than 11,000 Colombians since 1990. The overwhelming majority have been planted by guerrillas, and the threat of violence has impeded their removal. With the peace accord in place, Colombia has big plans to accelerate de-mining: With a 10,000-person force and international (including US) support, it has set a goal of being mine-free by 2021. But for this to happen, mine-clearers need to do their work without fear of attack, and they need ex-guerrillas to tell them where the mines are. Both require the conflict to be definitively over, and the peace accord can guarantee that.

4) Reparations. It opens the way for reparations of millions of conflict victims, offering hope of breaking a generations-old cycle of violence. The Colombian government’s National Unit for Victims, which began work in late 2011, has approved the provision of reparations to over 297,000 people who suffered a lost relative, forced displacement, torture, sexual violence or another tragedy as a result of the conflict. As impressive as this sounds, over 6.3 million Colombians are in fact registered with the Unit, and determined to be “subject to assistance and reparations.” (The total number of registered victims exceeds 8.3 million, or one-sixth of the entire population.)

The signing of a peace accord offers hope that the reparations process might accelerate for this enormous population. It also holds out hope that FARC members – who carried out a minority of homicides and displacements but a majority of kidnappings, landmine use, and child recruitment – will, in compliance with their accord commitments, participate in reparations and tell victims the truth about what happened to them and their loved ones. The victims’ assistance process must go forward, and the US government should support it.

5) The return of government. It holds the hope of making vast regions governable and governed, which in turn would bring permanent reductions in cocaine production and other organized crime activity. Roughly one-fifth of Colombia’s counties (municipalities), comprising a smaller share of population but a larger share of land area, were zones of heavy FARC influence. They share in common a remarkable lack of government presence: One can travel for hours without seeing evidence of the Colombian state, which makes them attractive zones for narcotraffickers and other organized criminals.

Removing the FARC from the scene will make it far easier for Colombia to fill that vacuum and bring the benefits of citizenship to the people who live in these areas. The United States would benefit, too, because cocaine is not produced in territories that have a real state presence. (If it were otherwise, the plains surrounding Bogotá, the capital, would be ideal for cultivating coca, the plant used to make cocaine. But there is virtually none within 100 miles of the city.)

The foreign policy and national security benefits of continued US support for Colombia’s peace accord, and its implementation, are strong, compelling, and obvious. This should be a “no-brainer” for the new administration. Nonetheless, some serious challenges face post-conflict Colombia and will require continued US accompaniment.

Challenges ahead

For one thing, Colombia must fill its big rural governance vacuum, but it has been slow out of the gate in the months since the peace accord was finalized. Big plans have been made, but accord implementation has barely begun. While vast territories are experiencing a moment of tranquility unlike anything known for decades, they aren’t seeing a palpable increase in government presence. The results are manifesting in alarming ways:

Coca cultivation is increasing dramatically. The peace accord foresees an ambitious program of curtailing coca through voluntary agreements with communities, but this program has not begun, while Colombia has reduced both eradication and development assistance. The result is a troubling jump in coca growing. 

Social leaders are in greater danger. Although the peace accord has brought important drops in violence nationwide, local-level participants in peasant organizations and peaceful left-of-center political movements are being targeted by a wave of threats and killings around the country. These are happening mostly in poorly governed rural zones. These aggressions, most of them likely the work of organized crime-linked landowners and local political bosses, threaten the credibility of the peace accords, which were supposed to make political participation safe for all.

Organized crime is poised to fill the vacuum in many areas. If Colombia’s government is unwilling or unable to provide security and basic services in historically conflict-prone areas, other groups will quickly replace the FARC, taking over control of the coca fields, the illicit gold mines, and other violent criminal activity. Colombia will need help avoiding this outcome.

The Bogotá government has to work faster, and with more resources, to fend off these threats and seize this opportunity.

Other near-term challenges go beyond state presence. Because it was impossible to convince guerrilla leaders to turn in weapons and go immediately to jail, the peace accords’ transitional justice provisions foresee punishments that don’t match the severity of war crimes. They do require former guerrillas and soldiers to provide full truth about their deeds, and reparations to their victims, in order to get (in the guerrillas’ case) five to eight years of confinement to a village-sized zone. This is similar to what the government of ex-president Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) tried to implement for about 4,000 pro-government paramilitary members accused of war crimes, though these individuals served five to eight years in prisons, not village-sized zones.

Colombia’s Congress is currently debating and passing the laws necessary to implement this new transitional justice system, and the International Criminal Court is monitoring the process closely. Its prosecutor says that the peace accord “is deserving of respect and total support as long as it offers an unequaled opportunity to implant a sustainable peace in Colombia,” but has expressed strong concern about language in the accord concerning command responsibility for crimes, which was softened at the last moment at the behest of retired Colombian military officers.

Another near-term challenge is the accord’s price tag. Colombia’s post-conflict phase offers a historic opportunity to get government into vast areas that don’t have any, to establish rule of law, and to help rural dwellers develop a legal, viable way to make a living. These are all things that Colombia’s government should be doing anyway, but they are very expensive, compounded by the fact that Colombian revenues are depressed by low commodity prices, a flat economy, and a weak currency.

The United States' critical role

US assistance, then, has become more important than ever, and will directly influence US interests. Last year President Barack Obama proposed, and both Republican-majority houses of Congress approved, at least $450 million for 2017 – but the 2017 foreign aid bill has not yet passed. When it does, this amount must be sustained or exceeded. Cutting it would do real harm to Colombia’s effort to implement the accords in a way that can bring permanent reductions in illegality and illicit drug production. A cut would also lead future Colombians to remember the United States for contributing over $600 million per year in times of war, then slashing assistance the very moment a peace accord was signed.

Another issue is the approximately 60 outstanding US extradition requests for FARC members, most wanted to face charges of narcotrafficking, a few for kidnapping or killing US citizens in Colombia. If they have abandoned illegal behavior and are contributing to peace, FARC leaders wanted by US courts are not likely to be extradited. This is because, other than by forcing the FARC to surrender through years more fighting, there is no way to convince guerrilla leaders to turn in their weapons only to board a plane to a US prison.

Nonetheless, the moment an ex-FARC leader demonstrably violates the terms of the peace accord – by continuing to traffic drugs, by failing to declare all assets, by failing to provide reparations to victims – the situation changes. If he or she is wanted by US justice, a former guerrilla who violates the accord’s terms could be subject to extradition. However, if an ex-guerrilla is respecting accord commitments, has abandoned criminality, and is working in good faith to reconcile with and restore victims, it would be counterproductive for the US government to press Colombia to extradite that individual.

Colombia’s peace implementation process faces some looming complications and difficulties. But these are not reasons to withdraw or to lessen US support for the peace accords’ implementation. Instead, they are reasons to keep engaging, and to redouble and increase the US commitment to helping cement security and governance gains in Colombia. Even if implementing it will be difficult, the 2016 peace accord is the best available option for guaranteeing stability, strong democratic governance, and reduced drug production in Colombia. It deserves full US backing.

Adam Isacson joined the Washington Office on Latin America in 2010 after 14 years working on Latin American and Caribbean security issues with the Center for International Policy. At WOLA, his defense oversight program monitors security trends and US military cooperation with the Western Hemisphere.

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