Note: This piece originally appeared in Spanish in esglobal. To read the original piece, click here.
Since the end of the Cold War, the usual means of ending internal armed conflicts in the world has largely been dialogue and negotiated agreements, rather than unilateral military solutions. The case of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia- People’s Army (FARC-EP) is no different. In fact, as the Kroc Institute of the University of Notre Dame has recognized on multiple occasions, the Peace Accord between the FARC and the Colombian Government signed in 2016, at large, was one of the most ambitious and complete agreements of the more than 30 conflicts ended in the last two decades.
However, if it’s already complex to achieve a successful dialogue, as was the case after more than half a century of armed conflict in Colombia, the peace-building process is even more complex. It is an exercise that involves a guerilla group, government, state and civil society that affects institutional, territorial and normative factors, and that, almost always, in one way or another, ends up shedding light on the enormous gap between expectations and reality. The late historian Francisco Muñoz highlighted this contradiction when he coined his concept of imperfect peace.
The truth is that, in Colombia, almost from the beginning, the myth of the Peace Accord surpassed any level of tangible reality. Without a doubt the state faced a very ambitious compromise, with serious difficulties in its implementation. Both from the institutional effort that the transformation required and the important resistance that—from within the government—Uribista Iván Duque, pursued.
There are multiple parties responsible for the return of the armed struggle announced by FARC-EP leaders, “Iván Márquez” and “Jesús Santrich,” on August 28. Duque’s executive team has never felt comfortable with the terms of Peace Agreement that, in particular, affected the command and the hierarchy of the FARC. The level of implementation presented important flaws. Territorial development plans were vague on paper; as a result investment and institutional interventions on the territories are simply a chimera. Funding for guerrilla demobilization shines for its absence, prioritizing individual projects that avoid any sense of collective reincorporation.
On the other hand, the political party born from the guerrilla group, the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force, barely registered in the 2018 elections, and the National Development Plan failed to include budget lines intended to fund the implementation of the Peace Agreement. The Colombian president himself tried to torpedo the creation of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace.
Likewise, the 2020 budget to finance the Truth Commission’s activities—and actions targeted to clarify the range of events that occurred within the framework of the internal armed conflict—appears to have been reduced by up to 30 percent. Added to his lack of support for clarity and some form of justice from the past have been the unsolved cases of the more than 150 ex-guerrillas and 600 social leaders killed in the last three years.
This is not the best environment to generate trust from a former guerrilla group, that despite everything, continues to comply with and waits for the compromises and actions from a government that must understand that peace cannot be fixed by executives, but rather needs an organic, comprehensive policy focused on the reconstruction of a social fabric that has been battered for decades. Be that as it may, in the eyes of the old FARC-EP, and those of Iván Márquez, Jesús Santrich, “El Paisa” or “Romaña,” the situation described above justifies the return of the armed struggle. A return, though, that should be addressed carefully.
The first two names, once the greatest exponents of the peace dialogue, were linked last year to drug trafficking cases, which, if true, invalidates any demand for the effective fulfillment of the commitments contained in the agreement for ex-combatants of the FARC-EP. The other two, El Paisa and Romaña, are commanders who, marked by their violent past, wouldn’t have made it through the transnational justice process due to their involvement in two of the most combative and organized units within the FARC-EP: the South Bloc and the Eastern Bloc.
It is no coincidence that it is this harder-line, more belligerent faction, and not the political faction led by the former FARC-EP leader, Rodrigo Londoño “Timochenko,” that is returning to arms.
So, what implications does the return of armed conflict by some prominent members of the FARC-EP bring about?
First of all, it should be noted that there will always be defection is always to be expected in peace processes negotiated with armed groups. In the first years after a peace agreement, the return of between eight percent and 14 percent of former members of the armed struggle is common. That said, the first video published by this new version of the FARC-EP tries to highlight the continuation of the movement. This is to say, the intention of dissident leaders is to show the direct causality between the original FARC-EP reacting to the (un)fulfilment of the Peace Agreement in a way that looks to hold the Colombian oligarchy and elites directly responsible for this process. It’s worth stopping to appreciate the symbolism and attention to detail of the video’s production. The short clip evokes some of the most important figures of the FARC-EP, such as “Manuel Marulanda” or “Jacobo Arenas.”
In any case, the consequences of this [resurgence] leaves many doubts in the air. For example, what will be the organizational structure of this new FARC-EP? Before it’s demobilization, the group had just over 7,000 combatants. At present, the figures vary between 900 and 1,800 combatants that have returned to criminal activities, of which a good number are new recruits. Moreover, these combatants are dispersed across more than twenty atomized groups, so it will not be an easy task to organize and command them under the leadership of the four remobilized commanders.
A second question is: where will this new structure operate? Observing where the greatest number of dissidents are based and where the largest scenarios of the greatest political violence have been after the signing of the peace agreement, there could be two locations: southwest and northeast Colombia. These are two border territories—Ecuador and Venezuela—with a very high presence of coca crops and illegal mining, and where the presence of the FARC-EP has always been significant, to a large extent, because of Colombian government’s lack of presence in these areas. However, in the video published by dissident leaders, there is talk of a new way of operating, this time, against the Colombian oligarchy opposing the agreement. This would imply a greater activity in urban centers and a greater recourse of terrorism, as compared to a conflict that in the past was largely disputed in forgotten and peripheral locations in the country’s geography. This will be an undeniable challenge for the government, but also for the FARC-EP that, with exceptions, never developed an effective strategy in Colombia’s main cities.
Finally, a third question would be the role of the new FARC-EP in relation to the rest of the actors perpetuating violence in Colombia. “Iván Márquez” has called a possible coalition with what is now the most important guerrilla group in the country, with more than 2,000 members: the National Liberation Army (ELN). This was already attempted in the mid-80s through the Simón Bolívar Guerrilla Coordination, and resulted in an absolute fiasco. Obviously, the times and needs are different, but we must not forget the FARC-EP enters with less strength and much reduced operational capabilities. This is something that would collide with the guerrilla group’s traditional, absolute control at the local level—a change that will increase should past confrontations between the FARAC and the ELN resurface. Since the 1990s, and for a good part of the past decade, the FARC-EP fought against the ELN in Colombian departments like Arauca or Nariño, locations that today would clearly be renewed places of coexistence in the return to arms of the old guerrilla native of southern Tolima.
All of the above puts Uribismo’s dream scenario on a platter. The return of the FARC-EP was the greatest desire of Álvaro Uribe. In Uribe’s view the development discredits the legacy of Juan Manuel Santos, extinguishing any of the supposed benefits of peace, eliminating any hint of dialogue with the ELN and confirming that the FARC command never believed in overcoming violence. Thus, Duque’s government, which for more than two years did not have a clear direction, now finds its motive: the return to a strong state in which security must be the priority.
In this polarized political battle, we must not fall into the temptation of reductionist conclusions. There are more than 6,000 ex-combatants who are today in the process of re-integration into civilian life. We must demand the Colombian state comply with them and with the more than eight million victims left by the conflict. Peace is a commitment of the state, not of the government, and will only be effective and lasting as long as intervention is made on the structural and symbolic conditions that for decades sustained violence. Above all, even with the exposed difficulties, the trees should not prevent us from seeing the forest, the larger gains and benefits of perhaps an “imperfect peace.”
Jerónimo Ríos Sierra is an International Relations Professor at the EAN University of Colombia and author of “Breve historia del conflicto armado en Colombia” (La Catarata, 2017). He holds a PhD in Political Science from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid.