By Victoria Harrison Neves, Head of Communications, IISS
Who were the FARC and what now for peace?
‘Our peace is real and irreversible… our only weapons are words,’ Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos proclaimed, as rebels from the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) handed over weapons to UN observers in a symbolic step marking the end of more than fifty years of bloody civil war.
More than 200,000 people were killed during the conflict, and millions more internally displaced. Last summer, four years of negotiations culminated in a peace agreement, which was, unexpectedly, rejected in a referendum put to the Colombian people in October 2016. A revised version was then pushed through Congress and, given the fragile peace it ushered in, a ceasefire was extended and a six-month timetable set in motion processes for demobilisation.
At one of the last FARC camps in Colombia’s eastern jungle, a ceremony took place on 27th June to mark the end of the armed group and the handover of more than 7,000 weapons under the peace process signed at the end of 2016.
From rural revolutionaries to the political arena
In 1964, Marxist-inspired FARC rebels took up arms against the state, sparking one of the world’s longest-running armed insurgencies.
Colombia had just lived through a decade-long civil war, known as La Violencia (1948–1958), during which fighting in the countryside between the Conservative and Liberal parties had left more than 200,000 people dead, the majority of the victims from rural communities.
Post-1958, many continued to feel neglected under the new government, a desperation tapped into by members of the Colombian Communist Party (PCC) as they established a number of settlements – or ‘self-defence communities’ – in the Colombian countryside, the aim of which was to address the concerns of the rural poor.
Following Colombian government attacks on these communities in a bid to drive out the revolutionaries and take back land, PCC members joined forces to form the FARC. From there, the organisation grew from a few dozen to the thousands of men and women, with support from peasant farmers, land workers, students and intellectuals – in particular, as many of the former group were thrown off their land for government-backed large-scale farms. As they laid down their arms this year, there were thought to be around 6,000–7,000 rebel fighters, down from an all-time high of approximately 20,000.
As the largest of Colombia’s armed rebel groups, the FARC garnered criticism for their recruitment tactics among the poor and of children, who were often lured by money and arms as opposed to a shared ideological belief. The group also kidnapped thousands for ransom, including a presidential candidate, and resorted to extortion. During the 1980s, income from the cocaine trade – primarily derived from taxes on producers and traffickers operating in FARC-controlled areas – fuelled overseas military training of rebel fighters. The FARC became more organised and skilled militarily, able to launch larger-scale attacks.
In 1997, the United States added the FARC to its list of Foreign Terrorist Organisations, a move followed by the European Union in 2002.
Plan Colombia and security
During the 1980s and 1990s, a number of attempts to reach a peace deal were brokered but eventually failed. More recently, concerted efforts by the government have taken their toll on the organisation.
Brought in by then presidents Andrés Pastrana and Bill Clinton, Plan Colombia – a 15-year US initiative costing around US$10 billion – focused on providing military aid to local troops, equipment and intelligence, and counter-narcotics operations, in particular aerial eradication of crops. However, critics claimed that the plan’s primary aim was to fight the FARC.
During the 1980s, Colombia also saw the emergence of right-wing paramilitaries supported by drug traffickers and landowners. Links between the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) and armed forces, as well as former president Álvaro Uribe, have been questioned, with the government being accused of overlooking the paramilitaries’ abuses, and even being implicated in them.
In 2002, Uribe was elected president on a ticket vowing to tackle the violence in the country, before leading a crushing military campaign against the FARC. His eight-year presidency delivered a mixed legacy.
Despite the many accusations of human-rights abuses linked to the state during his presidency, security in Colombia did improve. A sense of confidence returned to the country and the economy recovered. Uribe left office with an approval rating of 75%.
Will the demobilisation of the FARC bring stability to Colombia?
Last year’s referendum reflected just how raw wounds remain for ordinary Colombians. Many – including Uribe, whose father was killed by the rebels – felt an amnesty for FARC fighters was just too much.
The new deal subsequently passed by Congress also raised the same objections, seen as too lenient by allowing rebel leaders to enter politics and evade justice. Under the revised agreement, the FARC will have to declare and hand over assets for the reparation of victims, but the group rejected jail sentences for its leaders.
For many Colombians, as with the revised peace deal passed by Congress last year, the FARC ceasing to exist as an armed group has been met with more resignation than joy, in part because security had already improved, but also because the majority of Colombians oppose the group.
Despite more than five decades of conflict originally borne out of class struggle and inequality, and subsequent measures to tackle poverty, Colombia remains a poor country; rural areas are underdeveloped and the distribution of wealth is among the most unequal in the region. The country continues to have the highest number of internally displaced people in the world and the majority of the population has never lived in a country at peace.
The peace process will be costly for the state, at a time when oil prices have fallen. There has been concern that, with limited alternatives, FARC fighters may go on to join the forces of criminal gangs involved in drug-trafficking and extortion. The FARC has long been involved in such activities.
Attention must also turn to the ‘on-and-off’ peace process with the smaller rebel group, the National Liberation Army or ELN.
There is greater concern, still, over battles for control over drug territory. The cocaine trade has, after all, been intrinsic to the civil war in Colombia for decades.
President Santos served as Defence Minister under Uribe. Formerly his champion, Uribe campaigned against last autumn's referendum on the peace agreement, accusing Santos of seeking peace at any cost.
Succeeding where his predecessors had failed, Santos has been lauded internationally for his efforts to bring peace to Colombia. Despite losing the referendum, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But the perception at home is somewhat different. His ratings have slumped.
Santos staked his presidency on peace, now he needs more than ever to deliver.