A mural in Bogotá representing Colombia's victims of violence, November 2016.
John Vizcaino / Reuters

This June, the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) announced that they had reached a preliminary agreement on peace. The deal sets the conditions for a ceasefire in the FARC’s long-running insurgency and for the group’s eventual disarmament and demobilization. Even as the agreement suggests hope for peace, however, it also raises the specter of a volatile transition period and casts doubt on Colombia’s security environment if a final deal is ever implemented. Yet whether good or bad, a signed peace deal between the government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC looks increasingly probable, and is sure to radically transform the Andean nation.

The current breakthrough comes after four years of negotiations and over 50 years of fighting, and is largely a product of timing. By August this year, the Santos administration will have only two years left in office. Anything negotiators agree upon still faces a long and difficult process before becoming law. For instance, after the completion of negotiations—a difficult task in itself—Colombians will be asked to approve the agreement in a referendum. If the referendum is successful, Santos will be granted special legislative powers for a maximum of six months to implement the agreement. FARC leaders, who have obtained significant concessions such as permission to participate in legal politics and changes in state agricultural policy, have therefore chosen to speed up negotiations to ensure that these concessions become law before a new government comes to power in 2018.

The Colombian plan to secure a ceasefire and demobilize the FARC follows a similar logic to that used to put an end to other difficult domestic conflicts. According to the agreement, the FARC will concentrate its troops in a number of designated demilitarized areas, which will be guarded by government forces, where they will surrender their weapons in a series of stages over a period of 180 days. The process will be supervised by a United Nations mission composed mostly of observers from elsewhere in Latin America.

These plans for demobilization, however, leave several questions unanswered. To begin with, there is the problem of the demilitarized areas, officially known as zones of normalization. The agreement calls for the establishment of 23 village-level zones, along with eight other camps where FARC militants will gather. In practical terms, this means that a total of 31 areas will have to be logistically sustained, protected, and monitored for the duration of the demobilization process. These zones will be scattered throughout the country, often in hard-to-reach places where the central government’s authority is only loosely established. In many of these regions, the presence of lucrative illicit crops and illegal mining operations means that former guerillas and other organized criminal groups, such as drug cartels, will have incentives to continue to compete with one another—and the government—for control.

Two additional factors threaten the disarmament process. The first is that the zones of normalization will be, for the most part, located in the FARC’s traditional regions of operation. As a result, there is considerable potential for friction between the demobilized guerillas and the local civilian populations that they have victimized for decades. Such tensions could lead to outbreaks of violence, or to the displacement of peasant communities that may feel threatened or unprotected in the midst of former guerillas. The second factor is that as an organization, the FARC may be losing its cohesion. Clashes within the rebel group suggest the possibility of dissident factions rejecting the deal and choosing to remain armed. If these risks are not properly managed, there is a significant possibility of a serious derailment of the peace process.

As an organization, the FARC may be losing its cohesion.

Aside from these practical uncertainties, some of the points already agreed upon during the negotiations raise doubts about the extent to which the final agreement will lead to the dissolution (or even disarmament) of the FARC. Negotiators from both sides have prepared an extensive protocol on security guarantees for the former guerrillas following the handover of weapons. In principle, this is a logical step, given Colombia’s long history of civil violence. However, some of the privileges granted to the FARC in order to guarantee their safety could have troubling consequences. For instance, both sides have already committed to the creation of a so-called “Security and Protection Corps,” which will be composed of former guerrillas and act in coordination with Colombian police to protect former FARC members. Yet according to the agreement, virtually every former guerrilla would be entitled to a scheme of special protection, resulting in an immense demand for security that could only be met by the Security and Protection Corps itself. This could result in a situation in which a large proportion of FARC militants hand over their weapons only to immediately take them back, this time to serve as bodyguards for their leaders.

The practicalities of demobilization and reintegration, moreover, have not yet been hashed out. The government and the FARC have not established how the organization’s combat units will be dissolved, how its commanders will be separated from the ordinary guerrillas, or how former members will be incorporated into civil society. This lack of detail is worrying, because the success of the peace process depends on the ability of former guerrillas to break ties with the armed structures to which they belong and reintegrate into civilian life. In fact, in a country like Colombia, where it is always easy to acquire illegal weapons, the end of an armed insurgency is not guaranteed by the handover of easily replaceable military equipment, but by the demobilization of the insurgents and their integration into the mainstream.

It should be cause for some concern, then, that the FARC has thus far rejected the possibility of dissolving the organization entirely and allowing combatants to be individually reintegrated into civilian life. Instead, its leaders have demanded that the organization transform directly into a political party following disarmament. Rather than individual reintegration, moreover, the FARC prefers reintegration through collective agricultural projects in which rank-and-file members would continue to work under the direction of their former military commanders. Yet if granted, these concessions would leave the organizational and command structure of the FARC wholly intact. This would not only make it easy for former guerillas to continue participating in organized criminal activities such as drug trafficking, but would also give them the option of returning to violence if their leaders chose to abandon the peace process.

Despite the remaining uncertainties, the recent progress made by the Santos administration in negotiating with the FARC means that a final peace deal is closer than ever. Any agreement will have major consequences for Colombian politics and security, but two questions will be decisive in determining the deal’s ultimate implications. The first is whether the FARC will disarm and demobilize completely, or whether a significant part of it will remain armed and organizationally intact. The second is the question of the Colombian government’s ability to take effective control of the territories abandoned by the FARC. If it fails to do so, these areas will remain at the mercy of former guerillas or drug traffickers. Absent a convincing answer to both, the deal could end in disappointment.

The Colombian government and the FARC have raised the possibility of an end to a tragic and violent conflict that has threatened the country’s stability for over five decades. Only when the details of the deal are finalized will we be able to determine if Colombia is headed toward lasting peace and stability, or else setting itself up for further violence and crisis. 

  • ROMÁN D. ORTIZ is Director of Decisive Point, a security and political risk consulting firm. He has advised various Colombian security institutions, including the Ministry of Defense and the General Command of the Military Forces.
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