As Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos worked to forge a historic peace deal with the hemisphere’s oldest and bloodiest guerrilla group, he often said he preferred an imperfect peace to a perfect war.
Six months after a contentious deal was signed, his remarks seem prescient: Coca crops are booming, politically motivated murders are on the rise, peace is being challenged in the courts, and new armed groups are rushing in to fill the void left behind by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
If war was waged with military precision, everything from rain to poor roads seems to be derailing carefully laid plans for peace. On Monday, Santos announced that the FARC would need an additional 20 days to hand over its weapons. The delay wasn’t due to lack of will but rather — at least in part — because the shipping containers where the FARC are supposed to store the weapons aren’t in place yet.
On a recent weekday, Gregory Morales, a longtime combatant, was showing visitors around the Antonio Nariño “normalization” zone about two hours south of the capital where about 300 FARC members have gathered since December. The government had missed an April 30 deadline to build shelters, a dining hall and provide basic services. Instead, troops were sleeping in makeshift tents strung across a muddy hillside, using latrines and drinking untreated river water — pretty much as they always have.
“We’re trying to stay positive,” Morales said. “We don’t want to believe that these delays are in bad faith to try to demoralize us — even though it’s entirely feasible that that’s what they’re doing.”
Implementing a peace deal after more than 50 years of civil conflict was bound to be tricky. After all, many of the underlying issues that drove the bloodshed, like rural neglect and lack of state presence, can’t be resolved overnight.
But the obstacles this early in the process have created doubts, admits Rafael Pardo, the administration’s “post-conflict” czar.
He said an assortment of issues — the rains and changes in the fiscal year, among others — have caused delays that “have done a great deal of damage to people’s faith in the [peace] process. ... We’ve had thousands of problems that are not excusable in any way.”
But the problems shouldn’t overshadow the deal’s successes, he said. Since the pact was finally approved on Nov. 24, almost 7,000 guerrilla fighters have peacefully gathered in 26 “transition” zones, Colombia’s homicide rate has hit a 40-year low, and the country continues to be lauded as a bright spot in a war-torn world.
In addition, the FARC and government are working together to remove land mines and reduce coca crops. “The implementation is working,” he said.
The guerrilla high command has let the delays slide, saying peace is worth the wait. But there are other issues that are rattling the troops.
Earlier this year, National Ombudsman Carlos Alfonso Negret reported that 156 community leaders and human rights advocates had been murdered from Jan. 1, 2016, through March 1, 2017. Some of those killed are FARC family members and people considered aligned with the guerrillas’ political views.
That’s raising fears that the FARC might be targeted as its members lay down their weapons and reenter civilian life as a political party. There’s precedent for the concern: As many as 3,500 members of a previous FARC-backed political party, Unión Patriótica, were murdered in the 1980s and 1990s.
Adrian Reyes, a grizzled guerrilla, has been out of touch with his family since 1985 when he joined the group. But even though he’s in a camp full of cellphones he’s resisted reaching out for fear of putting a target on their backs.
“It’s still not time to contact my family,” he said, “because there’s the risk that someone will try to hurt them.”
While the FARC left tens of thousands of victims in its wake, it’s unclear who might be targeting them and their supporters. One possibility: rival groups trying to muscle into the lucrative coca and mining trades that the guerrillas have abandoned.
In his report about the killing of social leaders, Negret said, “one of the principal causes of this phenomenon is the pretension of armed illegal groups to occupy the territory which the FARC have withdrawn from.”
According to a military intelligence report published by Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper, at least 6,000 armed actors are still at large. Among them are members of the left wing National Liberation Army (ELN), criminal gangs like the Urabeños that trace their roots back to right-wing paramilitary organizations, and an estimated 400 dissident members of the FARC who didn’t join in the peace deal. That rogue FARC group, concentrated near Guaviare region, has taken responsibility for the May 4 kidnapping of a United Nations worker.
As guerrilla and government negotiators spent almost four years hammering out the deal in Havana, one of the key selling points to the international community was that peace would help end the coca trade, the raw ingredient of cocaine.
But since the deal has gone into effect, crops have boomed and Colombia, once again, is the world’s top coca producer. In 2016 alone, coca crops here swelled by 20 percent, according to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Critics blame the increase on concessions made to the guerrillas during the negotiations — namely, the suspension of aerial spraying.
Earlier this month, Santos was in a village called Pueblo Nuevo symbolically yanking out a coca plant and replacing it with a yucca tree as he launched a pilot program to provide cash and training to farmers who make the switch.
Speaking to a group of foreign reporters, Santos said peace is still the answer to the drug war. The fact that the FARC is now a partner in persuading communities to eradicate coca represents a “fundamental change,” he said.
“Now with the peace process, we have for the first time an opportunity to have a structural solution, a long-term solution because we are giving the campesinos that are planting the coca an alternative,” he said.
Troubles at home
The deal has been hailed around the world and earned Santos the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize. But at home he’s been punished for it. A February Gallup poll found only 49 percent of the population believe the peace deal is on the right track, and Santos only has approval ratings of 24 percent — about on par with the unpopular president of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro.
Fernando Londoño, a former interior minister under the Alvaro Uribe administration and a harsh government critic, says Santos violated the will of the people by ramming a peace deal through a compliant congress — even after it failed in a national referendum in October.
Speaking at a recent gathering of Uribe’s Centro Democrático party, Londoño said Santos had in effect “stolen” the vote “to hand the nation over to a caliphate of bandits who are members of the FARC.”
Even direct beneficiaries of the deal are having second thoughts. Luis Fernando Zorro, 40, says the government paid him $34,000 to host the FARC camp on 12 hectares of his farm for six months. But the guerrillas were forced to occupy an area twice that size because the homes they were supposed to move into are not ready.
On Tuesday, as Zorro learned that the government said the camps would remain open at least another two months, he said no one had talked to him about it.
“I have no idea what’s going on,” he said. “This isn’t what I agreed to.”
Other farmers groused that the government had promised new roads, but had instead destroyed the few dirt roads they have by bringing in construction equipment to build the FARC camps.
“Peace travels on roads,” grumbled one old farmer. “And we don’t have any.”
One thing does seem clear, however. Six months of imperfect peace have taken the fight out of the FARC. At the Antonio Nariño camp, fighters are having babies and adopting pets — something they couldn’t do dodging bullets and bombs.
“We feel like we’ve burned our boats,” said Morales, as he noted that no one was carrying their weapons anymore. “This process, for us, is totally irreversible.”
Follow Jim Wyss on Twitter @jimwyss