Note: This article originally appeared in Spanish on our partner website esglobal. To read the original, click here.
Colombia is the birthplace of Macondo: the land in which the magical becomes the stuff of everyday life, the place where the predictable is non-existent. In a country that has suffered almost fifty years of political violence and armed struggle, parts of Colombian society seem determined to keep ripping open the wounds of a conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions.
First of all, to understand the seemingly never ending path of violence in Colombia, it is necessary to dwell on the implications of the Peace Agreement signed with the FARC. The agreement is by far the best of the more than thirty agreements signed in recent decades that attempt to put an end to more than fifty armed groups that have operated in the country. The agreement includes land redistribution in rural areas and support for rural production, guarantees of political participation, mandates to surrender arms, new commitments to combat drug trafficking, and protections for the universal rights of truth, justice and reparation.
However, just as everything seemed close to a final agreement, a miscalculated plebiscite on the part of then-President Juan Manuel Santos and unexpected shifts in Colombian society and political perceptions, ended up polarizing the country and weakened support among the communities that were essential in supporting the peace agreement.
The enemies of peace are centered around former President Álvaro Uribe and current Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez, as well as many of the Christian churches, all of whom demonized the four years of cooperative exchanges in a manic attempt present the Agreement as a Castro-esque framework to undermine Colombian democracy. The truth of the Agreement was far from the way it was presented by these actors.
Conservative sectors of society cast the Agreement as a capitulation to a hostile enemy determined to continue internal armed conflict. In reality, these conservatives needed to keep this enemy alive for their own survival, at the cost of a peace that much of Colombian society has never known.
Even after its eventual convoluted approval, institutional and government resistance have made the implementation of the agreement with the FARC a perfect example of how not to close a dialogue aimed at ending decades of struggle. The inaction gave fruit to disaffection and, eventually, the idea that despite the agreement, nothing had changed. Much of Colombia seemed to believe that the country was destined to continue suffering violence and insecurity at the hands of the FARC.
The institutional strengthening of long-neglected municipalities promised in the agreement never came. Nor did the transformation and strengthening of the social state, much less the military occupation of the previous centers of the conflict that aspired to adopt a scheme of citizen-led security. In addition, the restitution of rights through mechanisms such as the Truth Commission or the Special Jurisdiction of Peace were politicized and sabotaged.
The result, as expected, has been a failed peace-building process and the return to violence by many former combatants—currently estimated at 30 percent of the total number of guerrillas that were initially demobilized—and the continuity of an armed conflict that is increasingly without ideology. Instead, local warlords are creating their own criminal empires. The result has been a confrontation both against the state and between these warlords, leaving tens of thousands of previously internally displaced Colombians without an option to return and a continuous stream of murders of social leaders and activists—more than 600 in the last three years. In the face of all of this, the current government of Iván Duque maintains a position that’s somewhere between indifference and lack of compassion.
Next up: the ELN
What has happened with the National Liberation Army (ELN) is also important. With little more than 1,800 fighters, the ELN is active in three distinct territories within Colombia: Arauca and Catatumbo in eastern Colombia; Antioquia and the south of Bolívar; and, finally, the department of the Pacific coast, especially Chocó, Nariño and Cauca.
While the ELN originally blended (Che) Guevarismo, Marxism-Leninism, and liberation theory, and many conservatives still cast the group as a leftist guerrilla group, nothing could be further from the truth. The ELN of today is an armed group without a command unit and with two competing structures, one centered in Arauca in the east, the other in Chocó in the west. ELN Central Command has been reduced to a symbolic leadership without any significant control over the organization. Expressed differently, whereas the FARC was always a relatively well-organized guerrilla group without strict ideology. The ELN’s path is the opposite—initially a guerrilla group without organization but a strict ideology, it is today lacking in either.
To this complex structure must be added the misgivings and skepticism of the Colombian people surrounding the Agreement with the FARC, the low popularity of maintaining a parallel process of dialogue with the ELN, and the escalation of violence between the group and the Colombian government. While the FARC demonstrated a clear will to reduce and de-escalate the conflict—it went from more than 800 armed actions in 2012 to 40 in 2015—the opposite has happened with the ELN, as armed conflicts have ballooned between 2013 and 2018.
In addition, its armed actions are growing increasingly antagonistic and bold in the face of a possible return to uribismo, and the related context of distrust that has resulted from the systematic breaches from the government of its agreement with the FARC. In hindsight, the mismanagement that led to the current situation was easily avoidable. The ELN was a weak group, and the government never should have let them leave the negotiating table in Havana.
Now, with its latest attack in Bogotá, which resulted in more than twenty deaths and seventy injuries, the ELN is signing its death sentence. These violent actions fuel the spirits of those who never believed that negotiated peace was possible in Colombia. It stirs up resentment over the already scant progress made under the existing agreement with the FAR, and makes it very easy for uribismo—fueled by a commitment to violent responses to these armed groups—to continue to gain strength.
What remains is a reactive security policy, a growing militarization in the government and, very possibly, an escalation in a conflict that will inevitably lead to the ELN’s annihilation in the face of one of the region’s preeminent militaries. In addition, Cuba and Venezuela, two of the few strongholds of support to these groups that remain in the region, seem unlikely to get involved to aid an armed group that could hardly be portrayed as a committed, ideological guerrilla movement.
Those who wanted a second Democratic Security Policy and a second Plan Colombia found a welcome opportunity thanks to the recent actions of the ELN. By opting for irreverent irrationality, which has now resulted in the death of innocent young people, the ELN’s actions have dimmed hopes of millions of Colombians who thought that, despite everything, a second peace agreement, and a lasting peace, were possible.