A year after Colombia signed a historic and controversial peace deal with the hemisphere’s largest guerrilla group, pockets of this country still seem to be fighting the war.
Political assassinations remain depressingly commonplace, cocaine production is booming and new armed actors are battling to fill the power vacuum created when the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) demobilized.
As the government prepares to mark the Nov. 24 anniversary of the hard-fought peace deal, it has plenty to be proud of. The homicide rate is at its lowest level in four decades and members of the FARC — a grizzled fighting force of more than 7,000 soldiers — have laid down their weapons and become a political party.
But it’s also clear that the country’s historic problems aren’t going to disappear overnight — even though the deal won international praise and earned President Juan Manuel Santos the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize.
Never miss a local story.
Leyner Palacios, a 41-year-old human rights leader from the war-torn Chocó region in northeastern Colombia, said the communities he represents overwhelmingly support the peace deal although they have been alarmed by the continued murders and clashes.
“Even though the FARC have given up their weapons, violence, particularly along the Pacific [Coast], remains severe,” said Palacios, the co-founder of the Committee for the Rights of the Victims of Bojayá, which represents about 11,000 people. “These are communities that bet on the peace agreement, but so far that agreement hasn’t brought us peace.”
Last week, the United Nations said it was “increasingly worried” about the murder of activists, as at least 78 human rights and political leaders have been killed this year. In addition, some 1,500 people have been forced to flee their homes, as groups like El Clan del Golfo, the National Liberation Army (ELN) and others battle for control of coca fields and illegal mines.
Internationally, the government promoted the peace deal as a way to break the back of the coca trade — coca is the raw ingredient of cocaine. Instead, production has boomed even as the FARC has given up control of its fields. Today, Colombia is once again the world’s leading coca producer, drawing a rare rebuke from the White House.
In some ways the peace deal is a victim of high expectations, said Rodrigo Rivera, the government’s Peace Commissioner. The pact was designed to be implemented over years, even decades, he said.
Even so, the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, which is monitoring the process, has found that 45 percent of the accord’s 558 stipulations are being implemented in one way or another and its “implementation is on par or slightly superior to other peace agreements.”
And the pact has accomplished things that would have been unfathomable just a few years ago, Rivera said.
The FARC — which resisted all attempts to squash it militarily during five decades — is now committed to peaceful politics. Its new political party, called FARC-EP, will have 10 seats in the legislature next year. And the guerrilla group’s one-time commander, Rodrigo “Timochenko” Londoño, will be running for president.
Those milestones shouldn’t be overlooked, Rivera said. Even so, he understands why Colombians in South Florida — where many fled to escape the violence — are skeptical.
“Many of them had to leave due to the war. They’re in exile, and they were victims of the FARC or paramilitary groups,” he said. “They still have that memory of personal pain that’s totally understandable and has to be respected. And so they’re less likely to be open to second chances, to being open to reconciliation.”
Many Colombians in the homeland are also struggling with the idea that longtime guerrillas with blood on their hands might slide into politics. That perception, and ongoing corruption scandals, have hammered Santos, whose approval ratings are near historic lows of 26 percent, according to a Gallup poll published by El Pais newspaper.
Juan Carlos Pinzón was Santos’ minister of defense from 2011 to 2015. His orders at the time were to pummel the FARC on the battlefield as negotiators in Cuba tried to convince them to embrace peace.
Now an independent presidential candidate, Pinzón — who was also the country’s ambassador to the United States until May — said he’s a firm believer in peace, but dislikes this particular deal.
Under the agreement, the former combatants have to present themselves to a special court where they will face alternative sentences but avoid jail time if they confess their crimes and cooperate.
Pinzón said that, as minister of defense, he was told the guerrillas would have to face that court before they could participate in politics. Earlier this month, however, the constitutional court ruled that the guerrillas can take their legislative seats and run for president prior to facing judgment.
Asked about participating in a presidential race where he might have to run against the FARC’s Londoño, Pinzón called it “absurd.”
“It’s unacceptable and I don’t understand why the president of Colombia has allowed this to happen,” he said. “This man [Londoño] is a delinquent and the biggest human rights offender in Latin America, not just Colombia.”
“I, and I believe most Colombians, understood that the end of the conflict was going to require assuming a series of responsibilities including allowing the [FARC] to participate in politics,” he added. “But not like this. It’s just not right.”
As it turns out, the former FARC members aren’t entirely happy with peace either. Last week, Londoño sent an open letter to Santos saying the organization “was extremely alarmed” by the administration’s broken promises and how the spirit of the deal was being twisted by the courts and congress.
Originally, the transitional justice system was designed for the guerrillas, the military — and the politicians and civilians who financed and played a role in the conflict. Last week, however, the courts ruled that the new judicial body won’t have jurisdiction over politicians and will be “voluntary” for civilians.
The FARC has warned (and Santos has agreed) that giving politicians and civilians a pass could lead to impunity. In addition, the guerrillas are worried that under some interpretations they might have their rights stripped and face extradition to the United States even if they commit minor infractions.
Rivera, the peace commissioner, said that’s not the government’s interpretation, and Santos has tried to reassure the FARC leadership. Santos and Londoño are scheduled to meet Friday to discuss the issue.
Even so, in a statement, the FARC warned that “as things stand now, the only way to save this peace process is with massive marches on the streets.”
The peace deal itself still isn’t out of the woods. While the Senate approved implementing regulations earlier this month, congress has until Nov. 30 to complete that process under expedited “fast track” rules. There’s the risk that foot-dragging by those trying to score political points could throw last-minute obstacles in the way.
Rivera said he’s confident congress and Colombians will keep giving peace a chance.
“We’re really in uncharted territory,” he said. “Over the last 207 years of Colombian history, we’ve become experts in violence and experts in peace … but it’s obvious that we’re completely ignorant when it comes to reconciliation.”
Follow me on Twitter @jimwyss