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On November 24, 2016, at a somber ceremony in Bogotá, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Rodrigo Londoño—leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a Marxist-Leninist rebel group—signed a historic pact to end Latin America’s longest-running conflict.
Less than three years later, Colombia’s peace process is unraveling. Santos’s successor, conservative President Iván Duque, campaigned on a promise to dismantle the 2016 accord, appealing to segments of Colombian society that wanted a more punitive deal for the FARC. Once in office, Duque found himself constrained by the Constitutional Court, which ruled that he, along with the next two presidents of Colombia, must implement the peace deal. The international community has also continued to express strong support for the accord. And so Duque has trod a dangerous middle path, claiming to support peace while at the same time defunding or derailing key provisions of the deal.
Duque’s administration has slashed funding for or otherwise maladministered truth and justice initiatives, programs aimed at reintegrating demobilized fighters, and efforts to support small-scale farming as well as other alternatives to the drug trade. As a result, tensions have flared between the government and various armed groups. In September, several FARC commanders announced their intention to take up arms once again.
The Duque administration’s mismanagement has had many destabilizing effects, but one stands out as particularly troubling: since the peace deal was signed in 2016, hundreds of human rights defenders and social activists—at least 486, according to Colombia’s human rights ombudsman—have been murdered. A disproportionate number of the victims have been members of the country’s long-neglected Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. And although Duque’s government did not carry out these killings, by defunding the truth and justice provisions of the accord, Duque sends a message to illegal armed groups that if they commit crimes there will be no consequences.
As long as those demanding land reform and other rights in underserved areas are gunned down by armed actors who have nothing to fear from the justice system, marginalized Colombians will continue to believe that armed rebellion is the only way to bring about political change. For that reason, the Colombian government must collaborate with Afro-Colombian and indigenous leaders to fulfill the peace deal’s promise of investment, security, and justice for the rural communities hardest hit by the conflict. Failure to do so will risk erasing all of the progress that Colombia has made through its historic peace process.
More than 200,000 people lost their lives in Colombia’s 52-year conflict. Over eight million more were either displaced, injured, or suffered other abuses, according to government records. Much of the violence was concentrated in frontier zones primarily inhabited by Afro-Colombians and indigenous peoples, and many of the worst atrocities were perpetrated against these ethnic minorities.
Colombia currently recognizes 710 indigenous reserves, covering an estimated 34 million hectares of land. Afro-Colombians have formal rights to another 6.5 million hectares. During the war, illegal armed actors—primarily right-wing paramilitaries ostensibly dedicated to fighting the FARC—employed a deliberate strategy of fomenting terror to force these communities out of their homes. This allowed drug traffickers, multinational companies, and commercial developers to take over much of the territory without the consent of those legally entitled to live there.
Many of the worst atrocities befell Colombia’s ethnic minorities.
The 2016 peace deal secured new protections for these communities and sought to extend civilian authority to areas that, for decades, had been controlled by illegal armed groups. The deal formally acknowledged that Colombia’s ethnic minorities were disproportionately affected by the half century of conflict, and enshrined their right to approve any norms, laws, and plans that affect their communities. Tireless negotiating also guaranteed them special representation before the international commission charged with verifying implementation of the peace deal, as well as the new transitional justice court set up to try combatants, known as the Special Jurisdiction for Peace.
But both the government and the FARC had their own plans for indigenous and Afro-Colombian territories. The Santos administration wanted to use these zones to advance extractive projects, such as large-scale gold mining operations. And the FARC erroneously saw these rural areas, which the guerilla group historically controlled, as a captive voting base for its new political party, the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force, established in 2017 as a result of the peace deal. Afro-Colombian and indigenous leaders vocally opposed encroachments by the government and the FARC alike, but their voices have largely been drowned out.
Since taking office in August 2018, Duque has actively worked to sabotage the deal, in particular by deprioritizing the provisions that protect Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. In July, Duque’s Finance Ministry told the Special Jurisdiction for Peace to expect a budget cut of 30 percent. Fierce pushback from the international community, in particular from the UN Security Council, forced the Finance Ministry to backtrack, and the transitional justice court ended up getting a one percent budget increase for 2020. But another of the accord’s bodies, the Truth Commission, was granted just 56 percent of its required budget. Overall, Colombia’s transitional justice institutions face a $2.3 million deficit.
Duque’s government has also failed to implement other key aspects of the peace accord related to ethnic minorities. It was supposed to prioritize development projects in some 170 municipalities that contain indigenous reserves or Afro-Colombian land collectives. But these projects have been slow to materialize, forcing ethnic groups throughout the country to design their own development projects without the government’s political and institutional backing.
Overall, Colombia’s transitional justice institutions face a $2.3 million deficit.
Another major peace-related project is a special program meant to counter the cultivation of coca, which, when processed, yields cocaine. The accord’s signatories designed this illicit-crop substitution program without input from ethnic leaders, making many communities skeptical of the initiative. What is more, Duque’s administration attempted to restart aerial fumigation of coca crops, a practice that was banned after the World Health Organization identified glyphosate—the primary chemical used in fumigation—as a likely carcinogen. Pending a decision by Colombia’s national narcotics council, new aerial fumigation efforts could soon begin, exposing rural ethnic communities to potential health problems and accidental destruction of legal food crops.
At the same time as Duque has sought to weaken the protections afforded to indigenous communities under the 2016 accord, his administration has taken other measures that place these communities at greater risk. In particular, he has emphasized the demobilization of FARC fighters over structural reforms called for in the peace accord, such as rural land reform, which are needed to address the root causes of the conflict. While the demobilization of around 7,000 FARC combatants since 2016 contributed to an overall decline in violence, it opened the door for other illegal armed groups to fight for control of areas abandoned by the FARC guerrillas. The National Liberation Army (ELN)—another Marxist guerilla roughly as old as the FARC—and various right-wing paramilitary groups have stepped into the vacuum.
The struggle to control these territories, many of which are home to indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, has led to a wave of killings of human rights activists, labor leaders, and other advocates who speak out against the surge in militancy. The Colombian think tank INDEPAZ reported that between November 2016 and July 2019, some 627 social leaders were killed, of whom 142 were indigenous and 55 were of African descent; another 245 were rural farmers who were defending the environment or attempting to implement the peace accord’s crop substitution program. According to the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement, a Colombian think tank that monitors displacement and human rights abuses, 56 percent of activists and social leaders killed in 2018 were ethnic minorities.
The security crisis is particularly acute in Colombia’s Pacific region, where Afro-Colombians and indigenous people are experiencing a new wave of displacement. The lack of infrastructure in this region exacerbates the problem: in an area where most people travel by boat, it is easy for both government forces and illegal militias to restrict civilians’ freedom of movement, whether by corralling them in place or preventing their return home. As a result, many civilians cannot access their lands to cultivate food, to trade, or to escape the wrath of the armed groups.
Duque’s systematic assault on the peace process has led to a resurgence in violence and displacement in certain parts of the country not seen since the height of the conflict, between 1999 and 2004. But it is not too late to prevent Colombia from sliding backward. The mechanisms that can keep the peace are well known—and enshrined in the 2016 accord. Colombia just needs to implement them.