Peace came tantalizingly close. On October 2, the Colombian people went to the polls in what was meant to be the final act of the conflict between the Colombian army and the Marxist rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, Latin America’s oldest and bloodiest civil war. Colombians were asked to vote yea or nay on a peace accord to end the war, a conflict whose longevity, at more than half a century, earned it the moniker of “Latin America’s endless war.”

Victory had seemed like a foregone conclusion. The war had torn apart Colombian society by killing almost a quarter of a million people (more than 80 percent of them civilians) and driving an additional six million from the countryside to the cities. Millions, traumatized by the violence, left the country altogether. The war also poisoned the country’s politics, wrecked the economy, and tarnished Colombia’s international reputation. After all, the conflict with the FARC is the last of the many guerrilla conflicts that flourished in Latin America during the Cold War, and its persistence to this day stands in the way of presenting Colombia as a modern, progressive society.

More importantly, the peace accord before the voters was the product of four years of delicate negotiations with the support from the Obama administration, the Cuban government, and the European Union, and a full review by the country’s highest court. Only six days before, on September 26, in a ceremony in the resort city of Cartagena, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño (alias “Timochenko”) had signed the accord. They were both dressed in white to symbolize peace, as were the hundreds of war victims, including war widows, former FARC hostages, and relatives of people murdered by the FARC, who the government had flown to Cartagena as a symbol of national reconciliation. 

Befitting the occasion, a who’s who of the international community was in attendance, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, former Spanish King Juan Carlos I, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and numerous Latin American heads of state. Following the signing ceremony, the international media hailed the historic accord and pronounced Latin America “guerilla warfare free” for the first time in six decades, and celebrations broke out all over Colombia and among Colombian expatriate communities (which were allowed to vote). Polls seemed to confirm that the upcoming vote would yield a resounding victory for peace, showing the (yes) campaign outpolling the No campaign 2 to 1.

But by the narrowest of margins (50.2 against and 49.7 in favor) the peace accord went down in defeat, with fewer than 54,000 votes determining its fate. As might be expected, the outcome shocked Colombia and sent tremors throughout Latin America. This was Colombia’s own “Brexit,” the surprise defeat of the British referendum on European membership. For Santos, who had staked his legacy on the peace agreement, this was a heartbreaking defeat. Disappointment was also prevalent in Washington, which had invested a lot in the negotiations in the hopes that Colombia could become a model for the spread of peace in other conflict-ridden societies. So what happened, and what comes next?


There is much to be said for why peace lost in Colombia, starting with the vote itself. Turnout was surprisingly low, especially considering how highly anticipated the poll was and that it was open to overseas Colombians (who voted overwhelmingly against the accord; 61 percent to 39 percent according to The Miami Herald). Only 37.4 percent of eligible voters took part in the referendum; a significantly lower percentage than the 59.9 percent that voted in the last presidential elections. Turnout was especially low in the Caribbean coastal areas of the country, likely the consequence of torrential rains from Hurricane Matthew, where support for the agreement and for the Santos government is strongest. In the Department of La Guajira, for example, turnout was as low as 19 percent. There were also problems with the polling data. Some people likely mislead the pollsters about their intentions, saying that they would be voting for the accord for fear of expressing their real intention of opposing it. To these explanations we must add three factors not readily apparent, especially to outside observers.

First and foremost among these factors is deep loathing of the FARC among the Colombian people. This sentiment is rooted in the history of the organization and its “revolutionary” struggle—especially the savagery of the FARC’s terrorist campaign; the sense that the left-wing ideology of justice and economic equality that once guided the organization has long since been replaced by avarice and greed, as shown by the reliance on the narcotics trade to finance its reign of terror; and the widespread perception that the main reason why the FARC entered negotiations with the government was not because it wanted peace but because it was too weak to win the war. The last point was underscored by the lack of contrition on display throughout the four years that the negotiations lasted. 

Second in line is the belief among many Colombians that peace is being purchased by the government at too high a price. In particular, the accord includes a controversial amnesty that spares prison sentences for even the most serious of human rights transgressors. It also provides a way for incorporating the FARC into the political system. None of this sits well with many Colombians, especially those in the countryside, which bore the brunt of the FARC’s terror. In the eyes of many Colombians, five decades of murders, extortions, bombings, kidnappings, and illegal land seizures in the name of a Marxist take-over deserve more than a slap on the wrist.

In the eyes of many Colombians, five decades of murders, extortions, bombings, kidnappings, and illegal land seizures in the name of a Marxist take-over deserve more than a slap on the wrist.

Third, but not least, is a dearth of consensus among the leading political forces on the merits of the peace accord. For some members of the political class peace is paramount; for others justice is a higher priority. This tug of war between those pressing for peace and those pushing for justice made it difficult for the public to reconcile its own doubts and concerns about the peace accord. Any prospect for salvaging the peace agreement currently on the table—and for capitalizing on Colombians’ genuine desire for peace—will most certainly depend on the capacity of the nation’s leaders to find common ground among themselves.


A real oddity about the FARC is that it did not perish with the end of the Cold War, as was the case of most Latin American revolutionary movements. As reported in NPR, one of the few American media outlets to have provided extensive coverage of the making of the peace accord, “The end of the Cold War rapidly reduced regional tensions, led to peace treaties and elections, and helped create the space for Latin American countries to work out protracted feuds.” Although compelling, this argument does not apply to Colombia. Ironically, the FARC thrived in the post-Cold War era, having reached its years of peak strength in the early 2000s, when the organization had some 20,000 fighters, was kidnapping some 3,000 people per year, and had control of almost a third of the country.

Of course, the FARC is no ordinary guerilla insurgency. For one thing, the FARC actually predate the Cold War, and can be traced to La Violencia, the civil war between the Liberal and Conservative parties that lasted between 1948 and 1958. After the hostilities ended, disillusionment with the Liberal Party, especially with the party’s unwillingness to pursue a more radical policy of land distribution in the countryside, where rural oligarchs had controlled vast swaths of the country since the colonial era, led to the formation of the FARC, in 1964, as the armed wing of the Colombian Communist Party. Although similar movements in the rest of Latin America eventually ran out of steam, especially after the collapse of Communism, which eroded the popularity of left-wing ideologies, the FARC was kept alive by the narcotics trade, which began to emerge in Colombia in the 1970s.

In its early years, the FARC limited its activities to the countryside and to altercations with the rural oligarchs. It financed these activities by kidnaping for ransom politicians and business leaders. By the 1970s, the FARC’s activities began to shift toward the cities and rural areas rich in natural resources, which brought the organization in direct confrontation with the Colombian army. The FARC also expanded its military infrastructure by increasing recruits, including women, teenagers, and children (according to some reports, 40 percent of FARC members are female and between 20-30 percent are under 18 years of age), and sending them abroad, as far as Vietnam, for military training.

A boom in coca production allowed for the FARC’s expansion, with the introduction of a “revolutionary tax” on the drug cartels to finance the organization’s terrorist activities. During the 1990s, prompted by the weakening of the cartels by the Colombian government, the FARC restructured its involvement in the drug trade by moving into narcotic production and distribution. Through the early 2000s, greatly aided by profits from the narcotics trade, especially cocaine, estimated to be between $500-600 million annually, the FARC grew exponentially as did its campaign of terror. Clearly, narcotics rather than ideology have kept the FARC in the revolution business. 

It was the FARC’s involvement in the drug trade that dragged the U.S. into the Colombian conflict (by some estimates, about 60 percent of the cocaine entering the U.S. is provided by the FARC), and despite the very sour taste that the counterinsurgency interventions of the U.S. in Central America during the 1980s had left in the mouths of American politicians and diplomats. American involvement in the Colombian conflict dates to 1999, with the launching of the Plan Colombia, which for the last 16 years has transferred some $10 billon dollars in military aid to assist the Colombian military in fighting the FARC. By 2003, this spending, labeled by American policy-makers as a “counternarcotics program,” had made Bogotá home to the largest U.S. embassy in the world (an “honor” since replaced by Baghdad) and doubled the size of the Colombian military, today the second-largest in Latin America. 

Students rally in favor of the peace referendum in Bogota, October 2016.
Students rally in favor of the peace referendum in Bogota, October 2016.
John Vizcaino / Reuters

Government attempts at reaching a peace accord with the FARC go back to the early 1980s, under the presidency of Belisario Betancur, when the FARC attempted to enter the political arena as the Patriotic Union Party. But the most recent peace accord is the fruit of the dogged determination with which Santos embraced the cause, which is the main reason why the defeat of the peace accord is seen as a personal failure. Santos’ peace offer was massively abled by the years of relentless attacks on the FARC by the U.S.-backed Colombian army. Since the early 2000s, the Colombian army has embraced a scorched earth policy intended to eradicate the movement once and for all, aided by American military technology, such as satellite-guided bomb “kits” and Black Hawk helicopters. This assault has succeeded in destroying drug laboratories, the economic lifeline of the FARC, and in killing hundreds of FARC rebels. By the time the FARC arrived at the negotiating table in Havana, Cuba, in February 2012, the organization’s once formidable army had been reduced to 7,000 rebels. FARC leaders have all but admitted that growing military weakness is what brought them to the negotiating table. Lucas Carvajal, a member of the FARC’s negotiating team, told The Washington Post last month that: “We were no longer in confrontation with the Colombian army…we were facing an international intervention, and it took a toll.”


Despite the sense by the winning side of the referendum that the government gave away the store to get an accord with the FARC, reaching the final agreement required considerable determination from both parties, and skillful prodding from external agents. Especially notable was the role of veteran U.S. diplomat Bernard Aronson, whom Obama recruited to travel to Havana to broker the negotiations. A top State Department official during the 1990s, Aronson brokered the 1992 agreement that ended El Salvador’s 12-year war between the government and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, or FMLN. So contentious were the negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC that they lasted four years and involved two-dozen trips to Cuba by Aronson. NPR reported that: “Aronson was a reassuring presence and helped the two sides overcome numerous roadblocks as they moved toward a final accord.”

The peace accords crafted in Havana between the government and FARC negotiators calls, first and foremost, for the FARC to disarm within six months and to hand their weapons to UN inspectors. Everyone is hoping to avoid what happened in El Salvador, where following the 1992 peace accord, the streets were flooded with weapons, a key factor in fueling gang violence. FARC leaders have also promised to help the Colombian army destroy land mines and to pay for reparations to the victims of the war, once the FARC’s assets (land, factories, bank accounts, etc.) are liquidated. Key among the concessions made by the government was a broad amnesty that would spare high-ranking FARC members of prosecution for human rights abuses, as long as they provide a full confession about their sins to the Historical Commission on the Conflict and its Victims, the first “truth commission” in Colombian history. Justice is reserved for egregious human rights abusers, but the agreement calls for “alternative punishment,” such as community service. The peace accord also grants the FARC five seats in the Colombian Senate and five in the House of Representatives in the next two congressional sessions to facilitate the FARC’s conversion to a political party.

A big unknown about the peace process is the eventual fate of the “rehabilitation” of thousands of FARC guerilla fighters. This cannot be expected to be easy. Many FARC members have only known warfare in their lifetimes; indeed, for some guerilla fighting is a family affair given that their parents and grandparents were also FARC revolutionaries. It is also not clear that all FARC battalions will surrender their weapons; one then, in fact, the notorious “First Front” (infamous for holding former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt hostage in the jungle for more than six years), comprised by some 200 rebels, has said that it would disregard the peace accord. Another worry is that disaffected FARC members might choose to join the National Liberation Army, or ELN, a significantly smaller guerrilla group not covered by the peace accord, that the government and the FARC expect will disband once the peace accord goes into effect.

Colombia’s long-suffering political class, although eager to put the war with the FARC behind them, is deeply divided on the merits of the peace accord, and this is mirrored in the vote on the referendum. These divisions reflect the political and social cleavages that divide the Colombian political establishment. Santos, an economist born into a family of newspaper publishers, is the embodiment of liberal, urbane, and cosmopolitan Colombia. He is an open proponent of globalization and sees the peace accord as a gateway to foreign investment and to raising Colombia’s standing as a Latin American leader befitting the country’s rank as Latin America’s third most populous nation and the region’s fourth largest economy. Thus, for Santos and likeminded politicians, the war with FARC is not only an anachronism but also an impediment to economic progress.

Colombia’s long-suffering political class, although eager to put the war with the FARC behind them, is deeply divided on the merits of the peace accord.

Leading the opposition to the peace accord, and one of the biggest winners of the referendum, is former president Álvaro Uribe, a mortal foe of the FARC, not the least because his father, a cattle rancher, was killed in 1983 by the organization. Uribe hails from the interior of the Department of Antioquía, a conservative region, and is very close to the rural elites, who, for obvious reasons, despise the FARC. As president in the early 2000s, Uribe was the architect of the scorched earth attack against the FARC. In attacking the peace accord, Uribe did not mince words, and this gave license to many Colombians to openly oppose it. Uribe criticized the accord for “rewarding the rebels with impunity,” and called Santos “a traitor to justice.” He also painted the accord as a give away from the government to ungrateful and unrepentant thugs, an impression unintentionally underscored by FARC’s behavior during the four years of negotiations.

FARC leaders resisted until one of the last rounds of negotiations to agree to finance the reparation scheme for the victims of the war, arguing that it did not have the means to do so, since it assets were depleted from fighting the government. For many Colombians, this was hard to swallow considering the wealth that the organization has accumulated from its involvement in the lucrative drug trade. The FARC also fought hard for amnesty and for the concessions to allow it to transform itself into a political organization, arguing that: “you don’t come to the bargaining table if you know you are going to be sent to jail.” A formal apology to the nation was not forthcoming until the signing of the accord in Cartagena.


Notwithstanding the setback to the peace process dealt by the referendum, the prospects for peace in Colombia remain good. For one thing, a peace deal is still possible, even though Santos had insisted before the vote that, “there is no plan B, this is it.” Right after the vote, a visibly humbled Santos indicated that he intended to send his negotiators back to Havana to re-start negotiations with the FARC for a new accord. For its part, the FARC, which is now under pressure to accept a tougher set of conditions for reaching a new accord and to show more contrition, issued a statement lamenting the failure of the accord to win popular approval, but pledging its support for the peace process. The organization also noted its intention to observe the ceasefire already in place. So, at least for now, there’s no return to fighting.

Colombians are also very supportive of the peace process, and maybe because they are already enjoying the fruits of the negotiations. According to the Colombian Ministry of Defense, since 2015 acts of terrorism, murders, and kidnappings have fallen to 2007 levels. A 2015 study by Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Public Opinion Project, or LAPOP, underscored the level of public support for the peace process. It found that support for the negotiations with the FARC was high, but that the public was less than enthusiastic about certain provisions, such as amnesty, that were construed as “concessions.” Curiously, opposition to amnesty was rooted not in the concept itself but rather in a deep distrust in the capacity of the FARC to deliver on its commitments. The poll also found that a majority of the public approved of the FARC’s conversion to a political party, but opposed special efforts to make this happen. This suggests ways in which the negotiators might reset the current peace framework to suit the public’s mood.

Broad international support for a peace agreement is another hopeful sign. All the major international players—the UN, the United States, the EU, and mayor international financial institutions, such as the World Bank—desperately want a peace agreement; they see it as a positive development for Colombia and an inspiring example for other raging conflicts around the world. In a sign of how certain it was about the peace accord, the UN was already on the ground in Colombia to monitor compliance. The same goes for international donors: the U.S. has already pledged an aid package of $390 million to assist with the post-conflict recovery. The EU has gone farther: it has already suspended the FARC from its list of terrorist organizations, a step the Americans have yet to take, and it has pledged an economic package worth 575 million Euros.

Finally, the prospects for peace in Colombia are brightened by the maturity of Colombian democracy, as shown, oddly enough, by the referendum on the peace accord. Even in the most remote parts of the country, those ravaged by poverty and unspeakable violence, the vote went without a hitch. Those opposing the accord and those in favor of it made their case without resorting to any form of violence. In the end, there is no better antidote to war than democracy by encouraging people to settle their conflicts thorough the ballot rather than through gunfire. 

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