Colombia's FARC rebel leader Rodrigo Londono, known as Timochenko, signs a new peace accord in Bogota, Colombia, November 2016.
 Colombia's FARC rebel leader Rodrigo Londono, known as Timochenko, signs a new peace accord in Bogota, Colombia, November 2016. 
Jaime Salderriaga / REUTERS

When Colombian voters narrowly rejected a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in a plebiscite last October, all seemed lost for Colombian President Juan Manual Santos. He had staked his legacy on the accord, painstakingly negotiated over four years in Cuba, with the goal of ending Latin America’s last guerrilla insurgency and delivering genuine peace to the country for the first time in generations. 

The wounds were hardly healed days later, when Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It only served to remind many Colombians that the official peace process has always been more popular among global elites than among the country’s citizens.

Still, undaunted, Santos quickly regrouped, met with his critics, and redeployed his negotiating team to Havana with some 500 proposed modifications to the agreement. With some of those changes incorporated after several rounds of new talks, he submitted the modified agreement to the Colombian Congress (forgoing another plebiscite), which subsequently approved the accord unanimously on November 30. On paper at least, Colombia is now officially at peace.

But for all of Santos’s tenacity and adroitness in responding to the October defeat, serious questions remain about the longer-term prospects for peace in Colombia. Burdened as the process is by the lack of political consensus, an untrustworthy partner, and a politically weak, lame-duck president, it may be that getting to this point will turn out to have been the easiest part of the entire effort.


Colombians overwhelmingly support peace for their country; what they do not support is peace at any price. Many believe that the latest agreement grants FARC leaders impunity by not demanding more justice and accountability for their long record of crimes against the Colombian people. The arrogant attitude adopted by the FARC throughout years of negotiations has aggravated this sentiment. FARC leaders have never evinced any real remorse or contrition for their crimes, acting instead as though they were legitimate combatants on the same moral plane as the government.

Colombians overwhelmingly support peace for their country; what they do not support is peace at any price.

It is on those grounds that former president Álvaro Uribe has led the campaign against the agreement. Uribe is Santos’s one-time ally turned fierce critic, and his popularity now exceeds that of Santos by some 20 points. He is joined by other high-profile figures such as former President Andres Pastrana and former Defense Minister Marta Lucía Ramírez.

Although the Santos government has tried to amend and clarify some of the provisions targeted by critics, 58 percent of Colombians responded in a recent poll that the changes did not go far enough.

People demonstrate on the street as the FARC peace accord is signed in Bogota, Colombia, November 2016.
People demonstrate on the street as the FARC peace accord is signed in Bogota, Colombia, November 2016.

The most controversial provisions in the agreement relate to transitional justice, or how FARC leaders accused of genocide and other war crimes will be held accountable. Critics were indignant that the accused can avoid jail time by confessing before a special tribunal (separate from the Colombian judicial system) and being sentenced to “restricted liberty.” Although the definition of “restricted liberty” was clarified to mean confinement to a specific geographic zone the size of a rural hamlet or urban neighborhood, the revised deal will still impose no jailtime on anyone who uses the mechanism, a prospect which would have been a deal-killer, according to Santos. But to assuage concerns of developing a “parallel” judiciary, the deal will limit the tribunals to ten years of operation and require that all cases before them be presented within the first two years. In addition, tribunal decisions can now be appealed to the country’s constitutional court.

Another sore point was the guarantee of political representation for the FARC in the Colombian Congress: a minimum of five seats in the House and five in the Senate for two legislative periods. Uribe had argued that those convicted of crimes against humanity should be barred from holding public office (as had Human Rights Watch), but those demands were not accepted. According to Santos, “The reason for all peace processes in the world is precisely so that guerrillas leave their arms and can participate in politics legally.”

The status of the FARC’s financial assets was also a point of major concern. According to the Colombian Defense Ministry, the FARC makes as much as $3.5 billion a year from its involvement in drug trafficking, illegal mining, kidnapping, and extortion. Opponents of the deal feared that the FARC would hide those funds for later use in political campaigns and bribery. The new agreement will require an “exhaustive and detailed” accounting of the FARC’s financial assets, which must be turned over to the government to pay for reparations for victims of the conflict.

A final noteworthy change is that the revised accord will not become part of the Colombian constitution, as the negotiations originally called for. The FARC had pushed for this to lock in its benefits and prevent future governments from making changes to the deal. Opposition politicians, however, successfully argued that embedding the deal in the constitution was an affront to the country’s democratic institutions.

Despite those principal revisions, however, the deal’s critics were still not mollified, nor were they pleased when the Santos government bypassed another referendum and immediately sent the revised agreement to Congress, where Santos’ coalition controls both houses. (Some 30 lawmakers allied with Uribe protested by walking out of Congress right before the vote; hence Santos secured a “unanimous” vote.)

Yet, beyond every dot and dash in the 300-page agreement lies a more fundamental problem for securing the peace. That is, the Colombian people’s profound lack of trust in the FARC as an honest interlocutor. Quite simply, they have seen this movie several times before, and it always ends the same way: with FARC duplicity.

Thanks to the FARC’s 50-year record of murder, kidnapping, extortion, and (later) drug trafficking, it is difficult to overestimate the animus the Colombian people have for the group. Genuine piece requires a deep psychological change among Colombians, from seeing the FARC as a sworn enemy to seeing it as a legitimate actor, and an equal partner in the social compact. Likewise, FARC guerillas must show that they are truly committed to peaceful reintegration and recognize the terrible suffering that their actions have put the country through. That hardly seems achievable. 

Thanks to the FARC’s 50-year record of murder, kidnapping, extortion, and (later) drug trafficking, it is difficult to overestimate the animus the Colombian people have for the group.


Even as the FARC’s estimated 7,000 foot soldiers are supposed to begin moving into 27 concentration zones around the country, where they are to relinquish their weapons to a U.N. verification force and begin the process of reintegration, there are still some 40 legal and constitutional changes that Congress is obligated to debate and vote on in order to implement the final deal. To bypass his opponents’ ability to slow the process down, Santos had appealed to Colombia’s constitutional court for “fast-track” status. The measure was granted on December 13, and will allow straight up-or-down votes on the various parts of the accord without any changes. Santos argued that expediting the process was necessary, citing concerns that delays would allow other criminal groups to enter former FARC territories before the government has a chance to implement development projects designed to wean residents off the coca-growing economy. Opponents, however, continued to argue that Santos is evading the will of the people.

Now that the accord won’t be embedded into the constitution, it also becomes more vulnerable to the vagaries of Colombian electoral politics, specifically the 2018 presidential election. The longer implementation takes, the more the peace agreement will become ensnared in presidential politics. And it is certain that the agreement will be the top issue for the Uribe-led opposition.

That any process as complex and controversial as this would be subject to fits and starts, progress and setbacks, and unplanned complication after complication is not surprising. Still, the Santos government hasn’t always appeared adequately prepared for contingencies and other problematic developments, raising questions about its capacity to manage the implementation phase. Controversies are sure to erupt over individual cases and overarching issues. The FARC can be counted on to game the situation to its advantage at every turn to increase its political power. The Colombian government will require even stronger support from the United States and the international community to ensure that the implementation goes as smoothly as possible.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader Rodrigo Londono, known as Timochenko, shake hands after signing the peace accord in Bogota, Colombia November 2016.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader Rodrigo Londono, known as Timochenko, shake hands after signing the peace accord in Bogota, Colombia November 2016. 
Jaime Salderriaga / REUTERS


As Latin America’s fourth-largest economy and largest recipient of U.S. assistance, what happens in Colombia matters to Washington. Under both Republican and Democratic administrations, the United States has provided more than $10 billion in aid to Colombia since 2000 to combat drugs and drug-related violence.

The Obama administration has supported the Santos government throughout its negotiations with the FARC, even dispatching a special envoy, Bernard Aronson, to monitor the talks and advise Colombian negotiators. When the revised deal was announced, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry remarked that “After 52 years of war, no peace agreement can satisfy everyone in every detail,” but that the United States and Colombia, “will continue to support full implementation of the final peace agreement.” The administration also had pledged some $400 million in further assistance under a new framework called Paz Colombia (Peace Colombia) to help implement the peace plan, including the demobilization of guerrillas, demining, and expansion of alternative development programs in the conflict zones.

Some Republicans in the U.S. Congress, however, are hesitant to dramatically increase aid to Colombia amid the uncertainty surrounding the deal’s implementation. They are concerned that the agreement will undermine long-standing U.S. counter-narcotics efforts in Colombia and argue that the FARC, which is a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, was unworthy of concessions.

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has not spoken about Colombia since his election, but with so much blood and treasure invested there by the United States over the past 15 years, it is unlikely he will walk away from a strategic ally. His administration—along with skeptical Republicans—should recognize the need to secure the peace so that the hard-fought gains of the past decade are not lost. There will remain profound suspicion of the FARC and likely heightened oversight of U.S. assistance to ensure that it is used creatively and purposefully on behalf of Colombian efforts to develop licit economies in areas once controlled by the FARC. The United States should also continue to provide intelligence and technical assistance monitoring FARC leaders (not to mention assisting Colombia in helping to uncover FARC assets hidden abroad if need be) to ensure they are complying with their commitments to abandon criminal activities and are not otherwise playing a double game. In short, the United States’ common cause should be with the millions of Colombians who also have deep reservations about peace with the FARC, but are willing to try one more time.

The U.S.–Colombian strategic partnership has been one of the most successful U.S. foreign policy initiatives since the end of the Cold War. A country that was bordering on failed-state status in the late-1990s is once again being hailed as a stable, vibrant democracy. But that could easily fall apart.

Maintaining the peace will mean that the Colombian government will have to accomplish things it has never achieved in its history: for example, establishing a government presence throughout its entire territory, including in regions previously controlled by the FARC. Providing the marginalized Colombians who live in these regions with government services and economic opportunities will determine the success or failure of an enduring peace. Developing infrastructure, creating markets, building schools and clinics, modernizing local governance, and providing public security will not be cheap; Colombian estimates place the cost at some $30 billion. It will also not be accomplished overnight.

Yet this is what is ultimately necessary to achieve a lasting and durable peace in Colombia. For 50 years, the FARC has made these marginalized Colombians either recruits or victims. Empowering them and providing them a stake in their country’s future will, in the end, do more to ensure domestic peace than 1,000 Nobel Peace Prizes. But first you have to reach them, and that requires a disarmed and demobilized FARC no longer in a position to spoil the effort.

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  • JOSÉ R. CÁRDENAS is a Director at Visión Américas, an international consulting firm. He has served in several senior foreign policy positions during the George W. Bush administration (2004–09), including at the Department of State, the National Security Council, and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
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