Image: A 2016 celebration in Bolivar Square of the signing of a peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Source: Federico Rios Escobar / The New York Times.
Many Colombian communities, particularly in rural and conflict-affected areas, were elated when Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez won Colombia’s June 19 runoff elections. They were excited to finally have a president and a vice president who would represent their interests in the Casa de Nariño and advance key aspects of the 2016 Peace Accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). However, it is unclear whether President Petro will be able to capitalize on the enthusiasm of his electoral base to make significant gains in Colombia’s long quest for peace.
The Colombian state has historically neglected and been unable to promote change in the countryside, leaving many of its responsibilities in this area unfulfilled. Therefore, the government’s inability to meet its longstanding obligations with conflict-affected communities following the peace agreement is unlikely to change quickly, making it difficult for Petro to implement the comprehensive, total peace process he envisions.
A key focus for Petro’s government will be accelerating the implementation of Point 1 of the peace accord, comprehensive rural reform. Since the signing of the agreement with the FARC, rural reform has been the least-implemented and least-funded aspect of the peace agreement, even though it is the lynchpin to achieving sustainable peace. Petro’s success in furthering progress in this key aspect will hinge on his ability to make good on the promises of prior administrations. To accomplish this goal, he needs to expand Colombia’s state presence in conflict-affected zones, provide desperately needed public goods and services as well as sustainable economic livelihood alternatives to coca cultivation, and guarantee the safety and security of the citizens living in these departments.
He has made promises to carry out land reform and implement the territorially focused development program (PDET) projects, enact a new crop substitution program, and reform Colombia’s drug policy, which Petro attributes to the rising crime and violence levels across Colombia. However, Petro is likely to face resistance from large landowners, the livestock sector, and their congressional allies, which will make it increasingly difficult for him to make substantial progress in this part of the peace deal.
Another focal point for the incoming administration will be security. Violence and insecurity have increased sharply in recent years. In some communities, violence has surpassed previous highs, with attacks against ex-combatants, community and social leaders, and human rights defenders on the rise. The heightened insecurity and criminal activity can be directly attributed to the power vacuum left by the FARC after it demobilized and the Colombian government’s inability or unwillingness to expand state presence in conflict-affected departments meaningfully.
As a result, illegal armed groups, including the National Liberation Army (ELN) and FARC dissident groups, along with criminal organizations, swooped in and cemented their presence and control over these territories and the illicit economy. These groups further solidified their hold on these zones during the pandemic when travel was restricted and the government limited interaction with these rural areas. Petro and Vice President Márquez have indicated that reducing violence will be a centerpiece of their peace plans. To accomplish this objective, the incoming government will facilitate regional dialogues with these illegal armed groups and criminal organizations and attempt to reshape Colombia’s security policy and security forces’ relationship with rural communities. Petro’s ability to implement these policies will influence his success in negotiating with the ELN and the coalition led by the Gulf Clan. The success of these policies will hinge on Petro and Minister of Defense Ivan Velasquez improving their poor relationships with Colombia’s security forces and implementing the other aspects of the peace accord concurrently.
These dynamics highlight an important facet of implementing the peace accord, its interconnected and interdependent nature. Petro will be unable to achieve total peace if he does not advance progress across all aspects of the peace agreement simultaneously. Therefore, upholding the peace deal’s security objectives is impossible without achieving gains in rural reform and vice versa.
Hence, in addition to carrying out rural reform and upholding security guarantees, Petro will seek to implement the transitional justice, reparations, and political participation aspects of the 2016 Peace Accord. He has already taken steps to do so by promising to read and implement the findings and recommendations of the Truth Commission’s final report and pledging his support for the continued work of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP). However, more work remains to promote a more inclusive Colombia and eliminate the social and economic stigmatization faced by many victims of the conflict and ex-combatants seeking to reintegrate into society.
The peace process involves thousands of Colombians and a multitude of public institutions. In addition, private sector engagement has a role to play. However, the sector’s willingness to work with Petro will depend on his ability to put forth sound, rational economic policies, improve his relationship with the sector, and overcome his image as an inefficient micromanager during his time as mayor of Bogotá.
It is evident that Petro cares deeply about the peace process and is motivated to make significant progress toward achieving “total peace.” His sentiment can be attributed to two things. First, his past as a former guerilla in which he underwent his own demobilization process. Second, the fact that his political and electoral support was bolstered in large part by the communities most affected by the conflict. However, he will be unable to accomplish his peace goals on his own through sheer will and motivation. To overcome the obstacles facing the peace process, Petro should look north to the United States. The U.S. could provide essential funds as well as technical expertise to help Colombia continue on the path to sustainable peace.
Furthering the progress of the peace process will be important not only for the Petro administration but for the future of Colombia. What Petro can achieve in furthering peace will determine whether the enthusiasm that propelled him to victory will quickly turn into disillusionment and anger and whether Colombia’s peace process will sink or swim.
This article is part of a larger report published by Colombia Risk Analysis on August 16. Click here to read the English-language report.
Sergio Guzmán is the director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political risk consulting firm based in Bogotá. Follow him on Twitter @SergioGuzmanE and @ColombiaRisk.
Steven Holmes is a Risk Analysis Intern at Colombia Risk Analysis and is currently a graduate student at The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @StevenHolmes34.