Colombia’s Problematic Peace Accord: Time to Swallow Some Frogs


There’s a saying Colombians use when talking about having to do something distasteful but necessary: “Sometimes, you have to swallow some frogs.” Today, as a spike in violence, crime, and drug production strains the country’s landmark peace accord, Colombians need to put some frogs on the menu. Specifically, the government needs to rethink its “go-it-alone” approach to security in former FARC rebel strongholds. Though significant segments of the population and even international transitional justice advocates may recoil at the thought, Colombia needs to find ways to tap ex-FARC rebels’ limitless store of local knowledge and — in many cases — zeal for reintegration to immediately bolster security and stability, and keep the promise of peace from evaporating.

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When the Colombian government signed a peace deal in November 2016 with the FARC rebels, many Colombians and observers around the world breathed a sigh of relief. With twin swoops of the pen, President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC chief Rodrigo Londoño (alias “Timochenko”) had officially ended the longest-running violent conflict in the Western Hemisphere.

Fast forward to summer 2018.

The overwhelming majority of FARC rebel fighters held up their end of the deal (though a small contingent of “dissidents” chose to go AWOL), marching out of the mountains and jungles where they had sheltered and turning over their arms. But former FARC strongholds are not basking in the glow of their newfound peace. Instead, regions such as Chocó, Cauca, and Norte de Santander have found themselves caught in the crossfire of a bitter struggle between groups intent on controlling the territory and its resources. Most notable among those resources is the coca that grows so well in the fertile soil and that long ago made Colombia synonymous with narcotrafficking. As negotiations brought the prospect of peace closer, cocaine production began to rise, setting new records in 2017.

The $20 billion annual drug market is now in the hands of a “new generation” of drug traffickers: organized crime groups (sometimes called BACRIM) and re-branded versions of the paramilitary death squads of yesteryear. Their ranks are likely to be swelled by an influx of people from Venezuela whose desperation makes them prime recruits for organized crime. As those groups fight for dominance, large numbers of people are fleeing their homes and the murder rate is climbing. The United Nations Security Council reported 121 human rights defenders and community organizers murdered in 2017, many of whom had worked on coca eradication or sought to defend local communities’ access to land and resources.

How did the promise of a brighter, peaceful, and prosperous future for formerly FARC-controlled parts of Colombia evaporate so quickly? The simple answer is that many of those areas are now controlled by predatory organized crime groups—or by no one. Whether you saw the FARC as murderers, thugs, drug traffickers, or all of the above, the reality is that their presence constituted the only form of governance in most of the rural territories they held. Yes, the FARC did abuse civilians. But its modus operandi was to collect a protection fee and then leave homes and businesses alone while also keeping the peace, albeit in a sometimes arbitrary and summary fashion.

The FARC’s readiness and ability to provide security and some form of governance was forgotten, ignored, or dismissed by Colombian government negotiators, who insisted that peace would mean a complete and immediate exodus of FARC fighters from the mountains and jungles. With more creative negotiating, the guerrillas could conceivably have been allowed to participate (alongside Colombian officials) in the governance of the territory and to be part (alongside members of Colombia’s military) of a hybrid security force while the government gradually scaled up its presence. Instead, their rapid demobilization left ­many rural areas bereft of any meaningful governance structure. Months after the FARC drawdown began, then-President Juan Manuel Santos belatedly deployed thousands of police and military to try to quell the violence, but by then BACRIM and other armed groups had already established a foothold.

Colombia is by no means the first country that has tried to hasten its transition out of conflict by closing off certain public sector roles to ex-combatants. Many Americans and even more Iraqis remember how, in 2003, Iraq’s transitional government moved swiftly to ban members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party from government posts, colleges, and public schools, only to realize there was nobody with the necessary expertise left to keep society functioning. The result was not only chaos in terms of public services but also — thanks to a purge of Ba’athists from the police and military — a security vacuum soon filled by insurgents.

The practice of purging, prosecuting, or otherwise sidelining those associated with the last regime is so common that scholars have devised a term to explain why it has such widespread appeal: the “logic of appropriateness.” For those who have been tortured, terrorized, or otherwise abused, pushing former officials and fighters — especially those suspected of rights abuses — to the margins of public life feels like the appropriate thing to do — the right thing to do. As such, it has held sway everywhere from Uganda to the former Yugoslavia. This “logic” resonates with transitional justice principles such as ending impunity, uncovering the truth about abuses, and delivering accountability. In many instances, however, those principles become reduced to slogans that neglect nuance, complexity, and context: a “duty to prosecute,” victims have a “right to justice,” and “no peace without justice.”

Colombia was always likely to go down the “logic of appropriateness” path because of prevailing attitudes toward the FARC. Most Colombians despise the group and blame its fighters for many of the country’s woes, as evidenced by FARC candidates’ woeful showing in Colombia’s recent congressional elections. “The FARC is despised by the Colombian people who have a large need for vengeful justice, as the surveys consistently demonstrate,” said analyst Jorge Restrepo. A majority — albeit a very slim one — of voters in fact voted against the first version of the peace deal when it was put to a referendum in October 2016, angry that many FARC members would escape punishment and be accepted back into society. The agreement rejected by voters exempted all but the most egregious offenders (those who had committed crimes against humanity) from jail time provided they observe the peace process and cooperate with a truth commission. The government and the FARC quickly negotiated a revised deal, one whose fate the government was careful not to entrust to a second referendum; the renegotiated deal went straight to Congress in November 2016, which dutifully ratified it.

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Colombia’s embrace of the logic of appropriateness has also been encouraged by the global popularity of “transitional justice,” which has become a booming industry in recent decades. Transitional justice offers a panoply of remedies that allow conflict-ridden countries and societies to address the past so that (per the concept’s logic) they are not doomed to repeat it. For example, transitional justice encompasses mechanisms to establish the truth of events, acknowledge the suffering of victims, provide compensation for wrongs suffered, hold rights abusers accountable, prevent future abuses, and promote social healing and the mending of the social fabric. The best-known mechanisms are war crime tribunals, as seen in the Balkans and West Africa, and the truth and reconciliation commissions made famous through South Africa’s attempts to address the legacy of apartheid. Other instruments of transitional justice include erecting memorials, paying reparations, and providing trauma-healing programs.

Yet transitional justice has achieved very few clear-cut successes. In post-genocide Rwanda, for instance, transitional justice efforts initially stumbled when faced with the challenge of prosecuting tens of thousands of people accused of slaughtering their neighbors or stealing property. The accused were left to languish in jails in inhumane conditions waiting for an overwhelmed judiciary to hear their cases. Subsequently, however, the Rwandan government introduced traditional gacaca courts that dealt with cases locally and relatively swiftly in a process that produced more than a few arbitrary decisions but does seem to have helped Tutsis and Hutus look beyond their terrible past.

In Nepal, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2006 that ended ten years of conflict between the government and Maoist rebels promised full accountability through a truth commission, prosecution of violators, and reparations for victims. During the 10 years that followed, however, the government made almost no progress toward those goals, forfeiting many victims’ trust in the process. This lack of progress, it should be noted, was no accident: Politicians on both sides were reluctant to see themselves or the military hauled before courts to answer for their actions during the civil war.

It’s also worth noting that many states have done little or nothing to punish rights abusers, yet suffered few ill effects as a consequence. Spain is a perfect example. The brutal Spanish Civil War lasted three years, and was followed by three decades of dictatorship. Then, seemingly uninhibited by its grisly past, Spain leapt into the modern age as another prosperous and peaceful European state.

What are we to make of these contrasting approaches to dealing with the sins of the past? Can there truly be no peace without justice, as human rights activists insist? Or, if the goal is to stop violence and create enough peace for a society to move forward, can societies accept a more limited form of formal accountability, one that is both pragmatic and tailored to the particular context?

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On the one hand, there is a growing consensus in political circles that countries (usually with international backing) should do everything possible to sanction crimes against humanity, genocide, and war crimes, including prosecuting perpetrators. But architects of peace open up a whole new world of possibilities when they exchange the “logic of appropriateness” for what might be called the “logic of consequences” — determining what sort of negotiated settlement would do society the most good. Might it be possible, for example, for the state to take a page from citizen peacebuilders and extend an olive branch to those who did not plan or direct major human rights violations? Just as many Colombians in contested regions have learned to do, the state might work with onetime foes, even if some sections of society consider the partnership unsavory.

This is a counterintuitive move, but not a wholly novel one. In fact, we don’t need to leave South America for an example. Raul Alfonsín ascended to Argentina’s presidency in 1983 intending to strongly sanction the military leaders for gross violations of human rights committed under the junta that ran the country from 1976 until 1983. Not long after ordering the investigation of the military regime, he began receiving pushback. On April 15, 1987, Lt. Col. Aldo Rico seized control of the Campo de Mayo Infantry Schools, claiming that the military was being impugned for fighting a “just war” against Marxist subversion; he was soon joined by about two hundred officers. Alfonsín faced an unenviable decision: Stand firm in his conviction that the correct course was to punish hundreds or thousands of rights violators in the army or strike a deal to ensure the survival of Argentina’s fledgling democracy?

He chose the latter option. After helicoptering into the Infantry Schools to urge calm, Alfonsín promised military courts jurisdiction over “Dirty War” offenses and nudged the judiciary to limit prosecutions. Many Argentinians were dismayed when circumscribed trials produced just five convictions of military brass. But Alfonsín’s calculated concessions secured the military’s buy-in to the process, which paid both short- and long-term dividends: Rico gave himself up, quelling the “Easter Rising” that could easily have triggered civil war. Since then, the Argentine military has not once challenged civilian control.

The historical comparison is not perfect: The war-weary FARC force did not represent the threat to Colombian democracy that Argentina’s backed-into-a-corner military did — in part because, despite years of torture and disappearances, the Argentine army still enjoyed some popular support. However, both the FARC and Argentine military bear responsibility for mass murder, among other crimes; on the facts alone, members of both groups should serve lengthy prison terms (as should members of the Colombian military, which committed widespread extrajudicial killings). As was the case with Argentina, without the buy-in of the FARC, the prospect of building an enduring peace in Colombia will always be in doubt.

It’s time to swallow some frogs. Colombia urgently needs to apply Alfonsín’s flexibility and clear-eyed pragmatism and rethink its relationship with the ex-FARC. It’s too late to set up a transitional force and to invite ex-FARC commanders to participate in governance of rural territories while the government scales up its presence. But it’s not too late to reimagine the guerrilla group as an indispensable partner rather than an adversary. If reintegrating former rebels into the security forces is a bridge too far, the state should consider tapping their expertise as military consultants. Who better to help the state reinstate stability in these regions than the group that did just that for years? If the FARC can trust the Colombian government to help protect them (it’s a big “if,” given that 44 ex-FARC have been slain, along with 18 family members, since the peace deal by criminal actors who want to take over their former strongholds), the government should entertain extending some trust in return.

Former FARC members can play other roles, too, drawing on their immense local knowledge. Some of them have voiced a desire to become community organizers or tour guides. Others who served the FARC as medics could be trained to support rural health programs as nurses or to help the government provide disaster relief. Employment opportunities of this sort were meant to be part of the peace process, but have yet to materialize.

What of the United States, Colombia’s longtime ally in all things security? Despite overzealous and/or self-serving moments (see the “Plan Colombia,” a massive U.S. investment in Colombia’s security that started in 2000 and totaled over $10 billion over 15 years), America’s massive investments in security and (through USAID) development gives the US government a say in policy decisions. But the United States, too, needs to be mindful of the dangers of an overly rigid commitment to retributive justice. In April 2018, Colombian authorities detained Jesus Santrich, a high-ranking FARC leader, on drug charges after the United States called for his extradition. It’s unclear whether those ordering his arrest understood their decision would send a shiver through demobilized FARC ranks, feeding their fears that the peace deal was little more than a subterfuge to round them up and strip them of their weapons. Santrich’s arrest prompted infamous guerrilla commander Hernan Dario Velasquez “El Paisa” to abandon a reintegration camp, where he had worked to ensure FARC compliance with the deal. There are now concerns that El Paisa could assume command of 1,200 FARC fighters who never disarmed and who have continued to traffic drugs. The U.S. government needs to contemplate whether the arrest of unsavory characters such as Santrich justifies jeopardizing a peace years in the making and in which it has invested so heavily.

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No one would argue that Colombia’s peace process has gone smoothly — but that’s not unusual. For all the hand-wringing and talk of the peace deal’s collapse, all is not lost. Notably, the process improved on past attempts to negotiate peace in a number of ways, including by giving victims (five delegations totaling 60 people) and women (three delegations totaling 18 people) a seat at the table. Meanwhile, FARC leadership has remained firm in its commitment to the deal signed all those months ago: Timochenko recently addressed his former comrades, urging them to stay the course. Although Colombia’s new president, Iván Duque, has long opposed immunity for FARC fighters, he’s also a pragmatist. The declining security situation in former FARC areas demands a dramatic response from the new president. Duque may find that the public will start to support his efforts to make allies rather than targets of former FARC rebels, as Colombians gradually accept that the peace agreement is here to stay and turn their attention to more pressing concerns.


Colette Rausch is Senior Advisor at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). She has directed or participated in missions and projects in numerous countries embroiled in or emerging from conflict, and worked for the U.S. Department of Justice and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe before joining USIP in 2001. Her latest book is Fighting Serious Crimes: Strategies and Tactics for Conflict-Affected States.

Thomas Stevenson is the founder of Strata Conflict Consulting and a co-author of Fighting Serious Crimes. From 2015-2018 he lived in Bogotá, Colombia, where he supported the country’s ongoing peace process through work on multiple United States Agency for International Development projects and as professor of negotiation at the postgraduate academy for the Colombian police.

Image: U.S. State Department