Forever War: The Unfulfilled Peace in Colombia

Forever War: The Unfulfilled Peace in Colombia

Despite the signing of a peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla organization in June 2016, Colombia continues to struggle with armed violence by far-left guerrilla groups including the ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional) and FARC dissidents, as well as by right wing paramilitaries and criminal cartels. The causes of this continued violence are numerous and range from the attitude of the Duque administration towards the peace agreement, to the situation in neighbouring Venezuela. 

Unfulfilled Peace

In 2020, Colombia has seen the continuation of this violence, with 340 people killed in over 79 massacres between 1st January and 5th December this year according to data collected by Colombian NGO Indepaz. Indepaz defines these massacres as the homicide of 3 or more defenceless persons at the same time and location. Many of those killed were local community leaders and advocates for human, indigenous or environmental rights. The reasons for their murder are often unclear but it has been hypothesised that community leaders are being killed as part of the struggle between state forces and various criminal and guerrilla groups over drug trafficking and control over the land. The COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened the situation; the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) shows that from May this year, after the onset of the pandemic in Colombia, there was a significant increase in killings compared to both before the pandemic and earlier in 2019.

Why, despite the signing of a peace agreement, does Colombia continue to struggle with criminal and paramilitary groups and what are the prospects for this situation to improve in the near future?

The Duque Administration

Part of the reason for continued difficulty with the country’s peace process stems from the attitude of the incumbent Ivan Duque administration towards its implementation. In the first place, Duque was one of the main proponents of the ‘No’ campaign which called for the rejection of the peace deal during the referendum on it in 2016. Moreover, Duque is the protégé of former President Alvaro Uribe, who took a hard-line stance against the FARC and has faced accusations of links to paramilitary groups in the past. Given this information, it is not too surprising that implementation of the peace agreement’s terms has been slow in a number of areas; in fact, only around a quarter of the agreement’s stipulations have been fully implemented, and 60% of stipulations display only marginal implementation or none at all.  

One example of the Duque administration’s shortcomings in implementing the terms of the peace deal concerns the substitution of coca plant cultivation. The Duque administration has underfunded the country’s illicit crop substitution programme, placing many poor farmers who participated in the programme and disposed of their coca plants in a desperate situation; with government compensation payments drying up and no support for growing valuable legal crops, the likelihood of these farmers returning to coca cultivation in order to maintain their livelihoods becomes increasingly likely. The prospects for improvement in this area do not look positive, with Colombia’s Centro de Pensamiento y Diálogo Político (CEPDIDO) highlighting a trend towards still less funding for crop substitution in the national budget.

The ELN and Venezuela

The ongoing violence also stems from the fact that the government has been unable to negotiate a peace agreement with other guerrilla groups like the ELN; though negotiations towards a deal occurred in 2019, they were cut short by an ELN bombing in Bogotá that left 22 casualties. Military operations against the ELN and other active guerrilla groups also face obstacles. The lenience of the Maduro regime in neighbouring Venezuela towards the presence of the ELN and other groups within Venezuela’s borders permits them the opportunity to escape from pressure on the Colombian side and makes uprooting them from Colombia exponentially more challenging. 

Beyond acting as a safe zone, the Colombia-Venezuela border also provides numerous opportunities for these groups to increase their strength and fund their operations by exploiting the trade of illicit goods and the flow of Venezuelan refugees fleeing the deteriorating situation in that country. This is apparent from the situation in Catatumbo, a Colombian region along the border. After the FARC demobilised following the peace agreement, the region became increasingly contested by drug cartels and guerrillas including the ELN and EPL (Ejército Popular de Liberación). The ELN profits from the growth and trade of coca in the parts of the region it controls and employs desperate Venezuelan refugees to grow and transport it, as well as for other illegal activities. Venezuelan refugees have also been targeted for military recruitment by the ELN and other groups, enhancing their manpower and making an end to the conflict look increasingly unlikely.

The possibility of the situation in Colombia’s border regions improving or negotiations with the ELN going forward in the near future is highly unlikely. With few indications of positive change in Venezuela, the Duque administration and ELN’s mutual failure to negotiate in good faith and a continued lack of development or state presence in Colombia’s border regions, it will likely remain difficult to say that Colombia has achieved an enduring peace for some time.

The Future Course

As things stand, the direction the Colombian peace process is taking is not a positive one. If the Colombian government does not make changes in its funding or strategy regarding areas critical to the peace process like crop substitution or support for ex-combatants, the risk of conflict resurging is likely to increase. Furthermore, Colombia is unlikely to be able to achieve peace on its own. Colombia’s conflict is an incredibly deep and complex one; for the peace agreement to succeed and its terms to be implemented, the international community is likely to need to provide both support and pressure in key areas. This does not merely apply to Colombia but to Venezuela as well; without pressure or incentives for the Maduro regime to cease its tacit support for guerrilla organisations, the people of Colombia’s border regions will never know peace.

 

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