Six months ago, Colombians noted in their calendar the most important national event since the Declaration of Independence in 1810.
President Juan Manuel Santos announced the deadline for a peace accord with the FARC: March 23. The day would mark an end to half a century of conflict that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives – many of them non-combatant civilians.
Instead, the guerrillas called the President’s bluff. The peace process – nearly four years in the making already – has been pushed back. Both sides say they will try to reach a deal by the end of this year.
Suddenly, the 2018 presidential elections feel perilously close. Santos’s main challenger – the conservative former president, Álvaro Uribe – has been a staunch opponent of the peace process. “Many Colombians can’t understand the difference between terrorist acts in Brussels and the many carried out by FARC in Colombia,’ Uribe tweeted last week.
The public is growing more sceptical too. A Gallup poll at the beginning of March showed around 80% of Colombians didn’t expect a peace deal to happen this month and nearly three-quarters said social conditions are worsening. Nationwide anti-government protests are scheduled for April, spearheaded by Uribe.
It’s not just Colombians who are concerned about the peace process. The uncertainties it creates impact the entire region.
Ecuador’s Minister of Defence, Ricardo Patiño, told local media he was preparing to “shield” his country’s border from “death throes” on the horizon.
His comments aren’t entirely unreasonable. A recent study conducted by the Foundation of Peace and Reconciliation found that several municipalities near the border were at ‘extreme’ risk of suffering increased illegal activity as well as institutional and social instability in the fallout from a post-conflict Colombia.
Patiño openly invited his Colombian counterpart, Luis Carlos Villegas, to provide direct assistance in forging such a shield.
But Colombia’s security capabilities will be stretched to their limit should an agreement materialize. Its priority will be to maintain order in the FARC’s future ‘demobilisation zones’ that were approved by Congress on March 10.
As yet, however, no one yet knows precisely where these demobilized zones would be – nor indeed, who would be trusted to securely guard them.
It’s one of the many unknowns that made this month’s deadline impossible.
What is certain is that a peace deal would trigger a major shift in criminal dynamics. The FARC demobilization fires the starting gun for opposing networks fighting for control of lucrative narcotics production. There’s plenty on offer – 159,000 new hectares of coca plantations sprouted up in Colombia in 2015 alone.
Illegal mining operations and access channels to foreign networks would be up for grabs. Many unrepentant FARC cells in unconnected areas would simply fail to recognise the terms of the agreement, while some would be tempted to start their own illicit ventures or merge into other existing insurgencies, such as the National Liberation Army (ELN) or the People’s Liberation Army (EPL).
Meanwhile, the threat of intensified military aggression would swing toward the right-leaning narco-paramilitaries like Los Urabeños, Los Rastrojos or Oficina de Envigado. Things won’t calm down any time soon in Latin America’s fourth largest economy.
It’s these risks associated with criminal transition that are partially blocking a final deal. The FARC is reluctant to disarm because it fears for the safety of demobilised members, especially with powerful competitors still at large.
In February, US President Barack Obama pledged a $450 million “Peace Colombia” package during a visit by Santos to Washington – an updated version of Bill Clinton’s “Plan Colombia” in 1999.
In an effort to advance the process, part of Obama’s historic visit to Cuba last week was devoted to the Colombian peace talks.
Secretary of State John Kerry, meeting both sides in Havana, proposed “extraordinarily concrete elements” to bolster US support for the security of disarmed guerrillas, Colombia’s government negotiator Humberto de la Calle told journalists.
While those “elements” have been kept under wraps, FARC leader Timoleón Jiménez, alias Timochenko, seemed highly encouraged. He described the meeting as ‘historic’ and ‘unthinkable,’ in a video released by the FARC.
Meanwhile hundreds of Colombians protested Kerry’s visit, using the Twitter hashtag #KerryConTerroristasNo (#NoToKerryWithTerrorists).
Tired of Talking
It’s the public that will have the final say in any deal – at least according to the government. The FARC argues that the agreement should be verified at the negotiating table, specifically through a constituent assembly that would mark the beginning of its legitimate participation in constitutional change.
After so many years of talking, most Colombians are weary with the entire peace process. Along with the false promises, many continue to reel from shortcomings in the sub-agreements that have already been made on political participation, rural development and transitional justice.
For a start, there are no mechanisms in place for appointing the magistrates to make up the Special Tribunal for victims; and although the foundations have been drawn up for the FARC’s political participation, it’s still unclear when or how elections will be organised.
Then there’s the ‘Fondo de Tierras’ (Land Fund) agreement to support the redistribution of illegally acquired territory. There is no indication as to how many hectares will be eligible for this support.
Nor are there any mechanisms in place for tackling hunger and fortifying local markets – an essential supplement to the newly proposed education, housing, health and infrastructure programs. With local food prices spiking under the merciless ‘El Niño’ weather phenomenon, tempers are beginning to boil over.
Yet even filling these gaps, along with agreeing on disarmament and protecting demobilised zones, won’t be enough for a truly stable peace.
In order to build public confidence in the government – and by extension, its deal with the FARC – there are even greater challenges: corruption, unemployment and political marginalisation.
Measures for implementing local institutional reform must be transparent. There will need to be cultural programs to end the stigmatisation of individuals caught up in armed conflict. Excavating and reconstructing the vast informal economy, and shutting off criminal access to the state, are among the hurdles further along this road.
Unless urgent progress is made on these fronts, the peace that has eluded politicians for decades will continue to be beyond the grasp of Santos, Timochenko and Kerry.
Perhaps the real date for the peace referendum was set long ago: Colombians will decide to abandon or revisit the process when they pick their next president in 2018.
The author is Jack Nott-Bower, Latin America Analyst at West Sands Advisory Limited. A Spanish speaker, Jack has lived in Mexico and traveled through the Americas. His analysis focuses on political, criminal and governance dynamics throughout the region.
West Sands Advisory Limited is a business intelligence, investigations and political advisory firm that has, since 2006, helped clients identify opportunities and reduce risk in emerging and frontier markets http://www.westsandsadvisory.com.