President Juan Manuel Santos’ recent victory in Colombia’s 2014 presidential election has guaranteed the continuation of the ongoing peace process between his government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Despite cautious optimism, however, a number of obstacles could still hinder Colombia’s ability to bring an end to its armed conflict against left-wing guerrilla groups. Central among these are the requirements to negotiate the effective disarmament and demobilization of the FARC and to design a reintegration package that is both attractive to ex-combatants and acceptable to wider Colombian society. Otherwise, many of the underlying tensions that have fuelled decades of violence risk being left unresolved, increasing the likelihood of war recurrence within a post-conflict setting.
For the last half-century, Colombia has been consumed by a bloody civil war involving a myriad of armed groups. The costs of this conflict have been colossal, with the death toll totaling more than 220,000. Consecutive Colombian presidents have sought to employ the various levers of Colombian national power to defeat rebel groups. But FARC, Colombia’s largest and most widely recognized left-wing insurgency, has nevertheless proved to be especially resilient. Formed in the mid-1960s and consisting of approximately 20,000 fighter during its height in the late 1990s, FARC gained global notoriety through its heavy involvement in Colombia’s illegal drug trade. Using the profits gleaned from this lucrative industry and other criminal pursuits, the group has been able to fund a highly effective guerrilla campaign against the state.
Under the presidency of the former president Álvaro Uribe Vélez (2002-2010), however, the Colombian state undertook a major program of security sector reform, involving the professionalization of Colombia’s armed forces and the development of a highly proficient police intelligence capability. Following these reforms, the guerrilla group was significantly weakened. Now consisting of an estimated 8,000 fighters, FARC has been forced out of major urban centers and into the country’s remote rural peripheries to the detriment of the group’s command and control capabilities.
In recent years, a growing number of FARC members have chosen to demobilize and reintegrate into Colombian society. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that there are currently 56,171 demobilized ex-combatants in Colombia. Of these, 28,418 are actively participating in the government’s reintegration process, administered by the Colombian Agency for Reintegration. According to IOM, which has been actively supporting Colombia’s disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) process since 2006, a total of 2,489 demobilized Colombians (2,020 men and 469 women) became fully reintegrated in 2013, almost three times the number from 2012. Of these recent graduates, 19 per cent were from the FARC, while others included former members of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, a demobilized paramilitary group, and Colombia’s second largest left-wing insurgency group, the National Liberation Army (ELN).
Given the government’s steady trajectory of success in combating guerrilla groups, it did not come as a surprise when, in August 2012, President Santos revealed that FARC had been participating in exploratory peace negotiations with his government. A formal dialogue between the two parties began in Oslo, Norway, in October that year, before moving to Havana, Cuba, where they are still underway. To date, preliminary agreements have been reached on the first three of six agenda items that are up for discussion, namely rural development, political participation, and the illegal drugs trade – with agreements on victim’s rights and reparations, demobilization, and the physical implementation of an overall peace agreement still to follow.
Despite initial enthusiasm, support for peace negotiations among the Colombian electorate has fallen, owing in part to slow progress in Havana. Consequently, the country’s recently concluded 2014 presidential election better reflected a referendum on the question of whether to continue exploring a political settlement to the conflict or revert to a purely military solution. The latter was favored by presidential candidate Oscar Ivan Zuluaga. Despite being endorsed by former president Uribe, who remains an active and highly influential player, Zuluaga nevertheless lost when the decision went to a second round of voting on June 15, achieving only 45 percent of the final vote compared to Santos’ nearly 51 percent.
Juan Manuel Santos, who will enter into his second term in office later this year, heralded the results as a clear indication that Colombian voters have given him a “mandate for peace.” If a peace agreement is signed, then the number of FARC entering into the current reintegration framework is set to rise considerably; a new DDR process geared towards the collective demobilization of the group will likely ensue.
Yet, even as negotiations with FARC continue, the peace process remains a highly dynamic and uncertain process. Moreover, while the signing of a peace agreement could result in a number of high profile FARC demobilizations, there are fears that a large number of the group’s rank and file could reject peace. Potential break-away groups are likely to comprise FARC members who are driven more by financial self-interests, fear of returning to civilian life, or a sense of responsibility in providing support and protection services to communities within their current spheres of influence. Significant pressure is also likely to be exerted upon FARC by external forces, including partner criminal organizations, keen to perpetuate the status quo for their own gain.
The emergence of FARC-splinter groups would inevitably fuel new cycles of violence and insecurity in Colombia – undermining efforts to create the necessary conditions for post-conflict recovery and development. Incentivizing buy-in to the DDR process following a final FARC peace agreement should therefore be at the top of Colombia’s post-election political agenda. In pursuing this objective, the Colombian government needs to employ a broad spectrum of policies. These should include overseeing the continuation of current territorial consolidation programs and placing a greater emphasis on disrupting those who could exert pressure on the FARC to maintain their end of existing business arrangements.
Further efforts to increase the cost-benefit ratio of continued involvement in the armed conflict, could also include opening a window of opportunity for those who demobilize to benefit from a one-time-only offer of significantly reduced charges and increased concessions. At the very least, such measures would make the prospect of demobilizing appear more attractive.
In doing so, however, the government will need ensure that DDR does not give the impression of creating a privileged group by granting ex-combatants access to opportunities not openly available to wider society. This could cause resentment among receiving communities and fuel further social polarization. Efforts in this regard should therefore include working with communities to break down prejudices and preconceptions about ex-guerrillas, so as to avoid demobilized members of the FARC from being ostracized – something which could again provoke a return to war.
Unfortunately for President Santos, there are no quick-fix solutions to the challenge of making peace appear more attractive to combatants who feel they have more to lose than to gain from an end of the conflict. For FARC members who control localized narcotics empires or receive significant earnings from the criminal mining sector, the prospect of laying down their weapons and pursuing legitimate employment will likely be less appealing than continued involvement in highly lucrative and very familiar illicit enterprises. With discussions in Havana set to progress onto the issues of disarmament and demobilization, and given recent announcements that the government has begun exploratory peace talks with the ELN, the stakes are now higher than ever. Ensuring the design of an appropriate DDR program in Colombia is therefore essential and should therefore be viewed as a prerequisite, if the country’s much longed-for peace is ever to come to fruition.
Matt Ince is an Associate Fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).