The hands of Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC rebel leader Rodrigo Londono, September 23, 2015.
Alexandre Meneghini / Reuters

Last month, Rodrigo Londoño, the leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), ordered an end to the practice of collecting “revolutionary taxes.” For decades, FARC insurgents forced Colombian civilians and businesses in areas under their control to pay tolls, amassing at least $150 million per year from this practice at the height of the group’s power in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Londoño’s call to end the lucrative practice sends a hopeful signal that after more than 52 years of armed conflict, the FARC’s leadership finally believes peace is possible.

In part, the FARC may simply believe that the current deal, hashed out over four years with the administration of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, is the best it can get. Support from the group’s traditional peasant base has waned recently, as military pressure from the U.S.-backed government has pushed the FARC to the geographic periphery of the country. The group has faced difficulties in recruiting new members; its numbers have dwindled from a high of more than 20,000 fighters in 2002 to roughly 7,000 in 2016.

If passed into law, the current accords would permit FARC leaders, many of whom are suspected of committing crimes against humanity, to run for political office after completing five to eight years of “alternative” community service, such as clearing land mines and eradicating illicit drug crops. This transitional justice scheme would exempt FARC members of all ranks from jail time in return for honest confessions to their crimes. Since the peace talks began in Havana, Cuba, in 2012, both sides have also reached an agreement on improving peasant access to rural land—one of the FARC’s founding aims—through government-sponsored credits and subsidies. The FARC was also able to obtain a commitment from the government to boost investment in the countryside, including infrastructure, health services, and education.

On June 23, the FARC and the Colombian government signed a historic bilateral cease-fire agreement in the Cuban capital in the presence of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and seven heads of state. The longtime adversaries inscribed their commitment symbolically, too, using an AK-47 bullet repurposed as a pen. Santos, who was reelected in 2014 with a mandate to secure a peace deal, is eager to begin overseeing the guerrillas’ disarmament by the close of this year. Despite the president’s low approval ratings, which hover at around 30 percent, recent polling suggests that a vast majority of the Colombian electorate believes that peace is on the horizon. Whether or not Colombians will vote in favor of the final peace agreement in a national referendum, however, remains to be seen. Such a vote is required for the accords to go into effect, and public opinion is divided on the peace process.

The government’s concessions to the FARC are highly controversial. One of the most difficult elements of the negotiations for many Colombians to stomach will be the eventual inclusion of the FARC in politics. A large majority of Colombians, 72 percent, oppose this element of the agreement. The FARC still adheres to a Marxist political ideology, yet the massacres and bombings attributed to the guerrillas have convinced many Colombians that the FARC is little more than a drug-trafficking and terrorist organization. Persuading the public that these same individuals are now ready to govern, given the great leap of faith required, may be too difficult a task.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International has criticized the transitional justice elements of the deal as insufficient. The human rights group wants to see the FARC face harsher prison sentences commensurate with the severity of crimes committed in the course of Colombia’s war. These objections were echoed by former President Álvaro Uribe, the peace process’s most outspoken critic. Uribe, a current opposition senator with a devoted following, is credited with beating back the FARC during his presidency through a relentless military offensive from 2002 to 2010. Following the latest cease-fire announcement, he publicly railed against the peace process, insisting that the talks have “left the word ‘peace’ injured” by failing to deliver prison sentences to FARC officials and by offering the guerrillas, whom he considers mere bandits, a pathway into politics. Uribe and his supporters have organized a “No” campaign to discourage the electorate from voting in favor of the peace deal in case there is a referendum.

What Uribe and opponents of the peace process fail to acknowledge, however, is that getting the FARC to lay down arms requires a compromise, in some ways, between justice and peace. The group adamantly rejects any postconflict scenario that does not recognize the political nature of its rebellion, which was to champion the concerns of neglected rural communities, and it is likely that the group’s leadership would have left the negotiating table long ago had they expected to spend time behind bars. Santos’ balancing act may, in the end, satisfy popular demands for justice and insurgent demands for political inclusion. But even if the accords pass muster, pervasive public skepticism about the FARC and a political opposition keen to frustrate the negotiated peace will complicate their eventual implementation.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos shakes hands with FARC rebel leader Rodrigo Londono after signing a historic ceasefire deal between the Colombian government and FARC rebels in Havana, Cuba, June 23, 2016.
Alexandre Meneghini / Reuters

CRIME CONTINUES TO PAY IN COLOMBIA

Another key aspect of the peace process is that it calls for the FARC to abandon its drug-trafficking activities. The FARC controls roughly 60 percent of the country’s coca crops and coveted drug routes. In the group’s absence, the resulting security vacuum is likely to contribute to a spike in violence, as the country’s remaining trafficking groups compete for control of newly available drug turf. The Colombian military intends to intensify offensive actions against the country’s drug gangs in the postconflict period, but Colombia’s notoriously treacherous mountain and jungle terrain will continue to provide cover for a multitude of criminal outfits.

In fact, the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia’s other main guerrilla group, stands to benefit from the FARC’s departure from the drug trade. Although the ELN has commenced preliminary peace talks with the Santos administration, the ELN’s leadership has refused to abandon ransoms, a prerequisite for negotiations. The ELN continues to abduct journalists and other Colombians for ransom, extort businesses to fund the group’s armed activities, and traffic cocaine. In recent months, insurgents from the group have ambushed police and military convoys, leaving more than a dozen people dead or injured. Following the demobilization of the FARC, the ELN could assume a more prominent role in the illicit economies of Colombia’s remote and oft ungoverned areas. Moreover, the most heavily entrenched FARC fronts may prove reluctant to relinquish control of their lucrative drug activities knowing that some of their chief rivals are poised to inherit the business. At least one 200-strong rebel unit that operates in a renowned drug corridor has already announced its intentions not to demobilize. Although the FARC’s leadership immediately disowned the dissenters, the unit’s decision demonstrates that some members of the FARC may not abide by the terms of the peace deal. 

Reincorporating some 7,000 ex-FARC fighters into productive society will also be tremendously challenging, particularly given Colombia’s current economic slump. From 2003 to 2006, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, a right-wing paramilitary group, participated in an ambitious government-led demobilization campaign that sought to reintegrate 32,000 of its fighters and supporters into Colombian society. However, the program failed to invest sufficiently in educational and employment opportunities, which propelled thousands of the organization’s fighters to reorganize and rearm. Today, many of them belong to what are known as Colombia’s criminal bands, or BACRIM. The BACRIM are 17 distinct armed groups totaling approximately 3,500 members. They have displayed a willingness to work with the FARC, wherever it is mutually profitable, and would probably welcome the criminal know-how and contacts of the FARC’s narco-insurgents, if they choose to join BACRIM after the peace agreement.

The peace negotiators, anticipating these risks, have placed stipulations in the deal that require demobilized FARC members to reside for six months in one of 23 concentration zones, which will be protected by more than 12,000 Colombian soldiers and monitored by 500 UN observers. The guerrillas will use the zones to turn in their weapons while they await assignment to either reintegration programs or court proceedings under the transitional justice model. The zones are situated primarily within the country’s major coca-growing regions, where the FARC has traditionally thrived and retains influence over the local populations. The government hopes that by collaborating with the disarmed guerrillas in these areas, it will be able to assert its own authority in rural spaces that have been long bereft of state presence. Nevertheless, coca cultivation in Colombia has surged over the past three years. This trend, taken alongside the increasing fragmentation of the BACRIM, suggests that the country’s problems with illicit narcotics, and the associated violence, will not wither when the FARC lays down its arms.

A relative of a FARC victim holds a sign that reads "No peace with impunity" in Bogota, Colombia, June 23, 2016.
John Vizcaino / Reuters

THE DRUMS OF POSTCONFLICT

In spite of this rather bleak picture of the country’s postconflict landscape, there are good reasons to believe that peace with the FARC will succeed. First, both sides recognize that a military solution to the conflict is unlikely. The FARC is at one of its weakest points, but the group, renowned for its resilience, still represents a major security threat, which is why compromise is necessary. The FARC has insisted that it has no intention of returning to war and is ready to exercise “politics without arms.” Moreover, with the exception of Uribe and his following, the gamut of political parties in the Colombian Congress endorse the current peace talks.

Second, the negotiators have empowered civil society actors and victims of the conflict to shape the peace deal by participating directly in the talks, thereby boosting the legitimacy of the final accords. The creation of a historical memory commission, which will investigate and clarify atrocities committed during the conflict, is an important step in establishing a permanent mechanism for addressing victims’ demands for reconciliation and justice. Widespread backing of the process by Colombian civil society groups, churches, unions, and peasant associations is a promising indication that the deal will come through.

Third, the international community has thrown its weight behind the current peace agreement to an unprecedented degree. The U.S. government, which has invested more than $8 billion since 2000 under Plan Colombia, has approved a $450 million postconflict assistance package; the European Union and Canada have followed suit with their own peace-driven aid. For its part, the UN will deploy a peace verification mission to facilitate the FARC’s disarmament. The international faith in the peace negotiations has also assuaged FARC insurgents and Colombian civilians who are equally anxious about their futures postconflict.

The fate of four years of negotiations and more than a half century of mutual mistrust between the Colombian government and the FARC will be decided by the events of the next few months. Campaigns for and against the peace agreement in expectation of the referendum are already under way. For Santos and the FARC’s leadership, the hard work of designing a durable peace is about to come to a close, but in the coming years the Colombian people, to whom the success of peace is entrusted, will write their own history. It remains to be seen whether they will do so with bullets or with pens, but the accomplishments of peace talks to date, unthinkable less than a decade ago, give cause for cautious optimism.

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  • PAUL J. ANGELO is an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He currently resides in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where he researches crime and violence prevention strategies. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent the positions of the U.S. government or the Council on Foreign Relations.
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