A perfect storm threatens Colombia’s delicate social balance. The government’s halfhearted commitment to implementing the peace accord, a deteriorating security situation in rural areas, a faltering economy, and ongoing frustrations with social inequality are reaching a boiling point. President Duque’s response to the police killing of Javier Ordóñez is likely to trigger a significant wave of social unrest. We’re just seeing the beginning.
Colombia’s social fabric has always involved walking a tightrope between hope and hopelessness, between trusting government institutions and discrediting them, between peace and war. Even singular events can precariously tilt this balance.
During the past two years of Iván Duque’s presidency, there have been a series of unresolved issues, all now coming to a head in a moment of tumult and unrest. The government has fumbled in implementing the peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and has been unable to establish territorial control in rural areas. At the same time, unemployment has skyrocketed to historic levels in urban centers, due in part to COVID-19.
As Colombia approaches October 2, the fourth anniversary of the failed peace referendum, the country is no closer to fulfilling the promise of addressing rural poverty, providing justice to the conflict’s main actors, disarming insurgents, and reforming the war on drugs. During his campaign, President Duque pledged to modify parts of the peace deal. However, the administration has failed to make significant changes, which must also go through Congress.
Tensions have focused on the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), a transitional justice tribunal set up by the peace agreement. The government’s attempts to reform the JEP, which it considers illegitimate, have so far been unsuccessful. At the same time, former FARC commanders have denied their involvement in crimes against humanity, such as rape and recruitment of child soldiers. The accused have asserted that these events were precipitated by soldiers, rather than war strategies dictated by commanding officers.
For his part, President Duque touted the “peace with legality” initiative as a way to implement parts of the agreement that he supported. The initiative includes programs that invest in territories most affected by war through Development Programs with a Territorial Focus (PDET), as well as policies to eradicate coca production through the Comprehensive National Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (PNIS). Still, coca yields have continued to increase. Last year’s crop was measured at 212,000 hectares. The government asserts that resuming aerial fumigation is the best solution to combat the continued rise, but the tactic is unpopular among coca farmers who often rely on the illicit crop as their only source of income. These rural communities already lack road access, have difficulty accessing credit, and are not receiving aid or purchase guarantees for their lost income.
The killing of social leaders and abundance of criminal groups vying for control of coca producing areas also threatens the security of rural areas. Dissidents and other criminal armed groups have taken control over these territories, exacerbating the already precarious stability of these regions. In 2020, social leaders have been murdered at a staggering rate of one per day. The government’s inability to address the violence has allowed criminal groups to consolidate power and subdue the local populations.
The peace agreement, and the subsequent disarmament of the FARC, opened a window of opportunity for the state to establish its presence in previously unreachable territories, but progress has been stymied by economic hardships and the administration’s halfhearted commitment to the process. Rural residents are still awaiting promises made by the government decades ago, which seem unlikely to materialize before the end of President Duque’s term.
To make matters worse, the global pandemic has put Colombia’s economy in dire straits. Not only did the country experience a record quarterly contraction of 15.7 percent in June, but unemployment rose to a near record high of 20.2 percent. While the government has approved an emergency stimulus package that includes subsidies, loan guarantees, and additional social programs, many citizens consider the efforts to be too little, too late. According to the most recent Gallup Poll, 77 percent of respondents say that they have not received government aid over the course of the pandemic.
The same issues that sparked the Colombian protests of 2019, including Duque’s handling of the peace accords, corruption, inequality, and a rollback of environmental regulations, have only grown worse. Although the government promised a national conversation to address the wave of indignation, solutions never came.
Now, on Tuesday, September 8, Javier Ordóñez was killed by police officers as a result of what appears to have been the use of excessive force. The event has triggered protests against police brutality, which have morphed into a confluence of protests that also ensnare the country’s economic malaise, the killings of social leaders, and the failures of the peace process. Colombia’s delicate social balance is at risk.
Many international observers have called what’s happening in Bogotá a “George Floyd moment,” but for Colombians it’s about the failure of the government to understand the pain, anger, and burning indignation of both urban and rural citizens. There is still time for the government to correct course and lead its people out of the crisis, but it won’t be easy and it won’t be calm.
Sergio Guzmán is the Director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political risk consulting firm based in Bogotá. Follow him on twitter @SergioGuzmanE and @ColombiaRisk
Katherin Galindo is a Research Analyst at Colombia Risk Analysis. Follow her on twitter @GalindoKatherin
All opinions and content are solely the opinion of the authors and do not represent the viewpoints of Global Americans.