Will Colombia's 2018 Elections Imperil Peace?
By: Steve Hege
The April 9 arrest and extradition request of former senior Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) commander and peace negotiator Jesús Santrich highlights the complex challenges Colombia faces in the implementation of the historic November 2016 peace agreement with the FARC. Over a year and a half since the signing of the agreement, Colombia finds itself in one of the most critical moments in its efforts to definitively put to rest over five decades of armed conflict that has left more than 8.5 million victims in its wake. Frustrations surrounding the mixed results in the implementation of the peace agreement are exacerbated by the natural uncertainty over the upcoming May 27 presidential elections and its policy impact.
Legislative Election Sets the Stage for Presidential Vote
Though sporadic incidents of aggression and hostility marred recent legislative campaigns, the March 11 legislative election was Colombia’s most peaceful in more than 50 years. The impact of the disarmament of over 90 percent of the FARC’s more than 10,000 combatants and militia members was clear. In contrast to the high levels of violence that have plagued past elections, only two minor incidents were reported this year. Moreover, the National Liberation Army (ELN), the country’s second-largest rebel group, upheld a temporary unilateral ceasefire bolstering flailing popular support for its own peace talks with the current government.
The congressional results were favorable for the right-wing Democratic Center Party, led by former President Alvaro Uribe who spearheaded the winning campaign against the FARC accord in October 2016 when it was put to a public referendum. The traditional Conservative and Liberal parties, as well as current President Juan Manuel Santos’ own party, lost seats while the political left and centrists candidates out-performed expectations. Plagued by limited access to banks and hostile protesters at many of its campaign events, the FARC’s candidates expectedly received few votes. However, as a part of the peace accord, the former rebels are guaranteed 10 congressional seats for two terms.
With the composition of the next Congress set, jockeying and coalition-building among the main presidential candidates has been in full swing. Recent polling indicates that Uribe’s protégé Ivan Duque and the leftist former mayor of Bogotá, Gustavo Petro, are the most likely candidates to reach a second round. Attempts to build a centrist coalition to overcome the country’s polarization have yet to come to fruition.
Most presidential candidates are divided on their support for continuing talks with the ELN in Quito, where delegations are racing against the clock before the next president is sworn in to design a new indefinite bilateral ceasefire and cement the parameters for public participation. However, with exception of Duque, nearly all candidates agree to continue efforts to implement the increasingly vulnerable FARC peace accord in one form or another.
A Lack of Progress Leads to Mounting Distrust
Over a year and a half since its signing and nearly a year since the FARC’s disarmament was completed, general mistrust in the capacity and will of the state to fulfill its commitments is mounting among ex-combatants and civil society organizations. The patterns of clientelism that traditionally plague government institutions are coupled with a skeptical and reticent segment of politicians and the population, which has been emboldened to resist the accord’s implementation by the failure of the October 2016 referendum.
While the rebels handed in more weapons per combatant than any insurgent group in modern history, in addition to extensive properties and stashes of gold, the former combatants are deeply frustrated with the significant delays in the implementation of the structural reforms outlined in the agreement and the practical support promised for their socio-economic transition to civilian occupations.
Thousands have deserted government and United Nations-monitored cantonment sites because of limited services and infrastructure. And despite all the expectations that the collective cooperative-style agricultural projects—in line with the insurgency’s leftist ideologies—would receive funding, no land has been set aside for such ventures and only one such project covering roughly 60 ex-combatants has been approved to date. Meanwhile, 625 FARC members remain in prison due to bureaucratic delays in the implementation of the amnesty law and many former rebels have still not yet been fully accredited to receive their promised monthly stipends, even though that assistance is slated to expire in less than two months.
Despite the mechanisms to fast track peace accord-related bills through Congress last year, no legislation was passed regarding the core political and agrarian reforms painstakingly negotiated during the first few years of the peace process. A proposed law to establish the 16 special peace electoral districts, agreed to in order to enhance the representation of victims’ groups, was voted down.
The rural development programs that have been launched have been plagued by poor planning and important structural governance challenges engendering weak coordination and limited effectiveness. Not only has this resulted in public resources assigned for the implementation process expiring and going unused in certain cases, but in the past weeks the attorney general has opened investigations into allegations of corruption in management of the hundreds of millions of dollars donated to the Colombian Peace Fund. For his part, the general secretary of the Special Peace Jurisdiction resigned after being asked to account for international donor funds.
Violence and Drugs Remain a Reality
Significant progress has been made in setting up the special transitional justice courts and an accompanying truth commission, reducing police and military casualties, expanding the demining program, and the number of internally displaced persons has dramatically fallen from annual averages. Nonetheless, while homicide rates have remained on a steady decline for the past 10 years, there was a dramatic increase in violence in post-FARC territories over the first months of 2018 in comparison to the same period over 2017. Though the FARC rebels withdrew from their historical rural strongholds in October 2016, it was not until early 2018 that the government launched a new security plan to deploy 63,000 new soldiers and police to 67 prioritized post-FARC municipalities.
With new structures of rural local power emerging in the absence of the FARC’s dominant parallel administration, competing organized crime groups and the ELN have been largely responsible for the alarming surge in targeted threats and assassination against “uncooperative” community and social leaders, which increased by 45 percent between 2016 and 2017. FARC leaders decry the fact that 51 of their members have also been killed since the signing of the agreement.
Although not entirely due to the peace process, coca production has increased over threefold from 118,000 acres in 2012 to 360,000 acres in 2016. One of the agreement’s core elements focuses on support to rural coca farmers to transition to alternative sources of income. As a result, about 54,000 out of 180,000 families have joined the crop substitution process with about half of them receiving roughly $400 per month from the government. However, there has been little progress in strengthening local markets for alternative products, providing technical assistance to farmers, constructing rural roads, expanding access to health care and education, and poor coordination between the crop substitution program and the police’s forced eradication efforts, further undermining trust between the government and rural communities.
Santrich’s Arrest Heightens Suspicions on All Sides
The arrest and extradition request of Santrich sent further shockwaves through proponents of the tenuous implementation process. Slated to take up a guaranteed seat in the next Congress, Santrich is alleged to have conspired with Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel after the signing of the peace agreement to traffic 10 tons of cocaine to the United States in exchange for a payment of three million dollars.
Although the arrest demonstrates that Colombian institutions have not been handed over to the FARC as former President Uribe has alleged, it has only bolstered suspicions that the former rebels are not fully committed to their disarmament and transition to legal civilian lives. Despite overwhelming evidence against Santrich, many former FARC rebels view his arrest as further undermining their legal security and thus trust in the peace agreement.
Ivan Duque has stated that upon taking office he would restructure the peace agreement including changing the amnesty provisions for drug trafficking carried out by FARC leaders prior to the signing of the peace accord. Such a measure would put hundreds of former FARC commanders in legal peril and likely lead to flooding the ranks of dissident factions, which already number over one thousand, thus sadly drowning even further any momentum in the peace agreement’s implementation.
Ahead of May’s presidential election, the stakes are higher than ever for peace in Colombia.