Colombia’s Imperiled Transition

A rebel fighter with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in a hidden camp in northwest Colombia, in January 2016.CreditRodrigo Abd/Associated Press
A rebel fighter with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in a hidden camp in northwest Colombia, in January 2016.CreditRodrigo Abd/Associated Press

A nation’s transition from conflict to peace is something to celebrate, but it’s also an uncertain process that requires diligence and commitment. In Colombia, where a November 2016 agreement ended 52 years of bloody internal conflict, the stress is mounting.

It’s affecting the whole idea of ending internal wars through negotiations. A European diplomat recently told me, “Insurgent groups in civil wars are watching Colombia to see what happens, whether the government keeps its promises.” In a recent meeting, a senior United States military officer heard concerns from some colleagues and said to me, exasperated, “Can you give an example of anywhere that a peace process has actually worked?”

Colombia should be one. Last year, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerrilla group, or FARC, turned over its weapons to a United Nations mission, ending a war that killed about 260,000 people. Seven thousand FARC fighters reported to 26 “Territorial Spaces for Training and Reincorporation,” encampment-size zones around the country. They stayed there for about six months until last August, when they were free to go. Twenty-eight hundred more urban “militias” registered themselves, and over 3,000 guerrillas were released from prison.

FARC became a political party called the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force. Vast areas of the country became safe enough to visit, and homicides plummeted to a 42-year low. After 40 years of United States-funded policing of cocaine-producing areas, herbicide spraying to destroy coca crops and the loss of many lives to drug-related violence, it became possible to talk of a permanent solution to illicit cocaine production, which fueled the violence and made the conflict a priority for Washington.

However, the peace deal with FARC had only tepid support at home, even though President Juan Manuel Santos won the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating. The guerrillas were unpopular after years of militant posturing, massacres, kidnappings, land mines and the recruitment of children. The agreement Mr. Santos reached was rejected in an October 2016 referendum, forcing a hasty renegotiation.

The effort to implement the accord never recovered. It limped out of the starting gate like a runner with a sprained ankle. The Legislature failed to pass several laws needed to keep promises made in the agreement. Ex-guerrillas languished in rural demobilization camps, many of which the government didn’t even finish building. In the March 2018 legislative elections, the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force crashed into reality: Its candidates got a combined 0.3 percent of the national vote. The former insurgents face the possibility of more defeat if, as polls indicate might happen, an opponent of the peace accord, Iván Duque, candidate for the right-wing Centro Democrático party, wins Colombia’s May 27 presidential election.

The uncertainty falls heaviest on the near 13,000 former FARC combatants, most of them rank and file, many recruited at a very young age. Their main skill is warfare, and many have contacts in Colombia’s criminal underworld. Without help, they could slip back into violence and make much of the country ungovernable. An ungovernable Colombia would be a disaster for United States interests, because an unstable ally — Latin America’s third-most-populous country — could produce more cocaine, scare investors and export more organized crime.

This is avoidable. Experts in disarmament, demobilization and reintegration tell us how to prevent it. A former combatant needs a basic income. He or she needs vocational training — sometimes just literacy training — or help starting a business. Psychological support helps to deal with trauma, to reconcile with victims or to learn how to disagree without fighting. Ex-combatants need someone watching them, especially if they could earn more as criminals.

Alarmingly little of this is happening in Colombia. Ex-guerrillas are getting a two-year stipend of $220 per month and little else. Just under 200 have been trained as bodyguards and are now protecting former FARC leaders. Some have received a few months of basic education, and many got a few days of vocational training or the possibility of participating in farming projects, few of which have begun.

Because of what Colombia’s United Nations verification mission calls “growing frustration with the lack of opportunities,” most ex-guerrillas have left the 26 demobilization zones. Eight thousand were there last May, but by November, there were perhaps 3,600. There are fewer today, and it’s nobody’s job to know where the rest are.

Between 1,000 and 1,500 (including some new recruits) have returned to the jungle as “dissident” groups. They are once again enriching themselves from cocaine, illegal mining and extortion, intimidating the population and attacking the security forces.

FARC shares some of the blame. It wanted “collective reintegration” to keep its cadres together in rural areas. But its leaders weren’t clear about how they wanted this collective model to work, and the government didn’t want it at all. Sixty percent of ex-FARC guerrillas say they want to be farmers. Now the FARC is asking for 67 plots of land around the country, covering just 5,000 hectares (12,400 acres).

The cost of reintegration shouldn’t be a roadblock. Whether for land, training or busywork, funding an ex-combatant at four times Colombia’s gross domestic product per capita would cost $25,000 per year. Multiplied by 13,000 guerrillas, that would be $325 million per year. That’s less than 0.4 percent of Colombia’s national government budget for 2018.

Foreign donors can help. But as it’s interpreting current law, the United States government can’t buy even a cup of coffee for a former FARC member, because the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force, the political party that sprang from FARC, is on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. Any aid — even for reintegration — is interpreted as “material support for terrorists” under United States law.

Taking a group off the terrorist list is a slow process, and FARC will remain on it for a while. The question is whether the “material support” provision should continue to apply to all individual ex-combatants. If someone with skills for making war wants to leave them behind and is resisting the lure of crime, it’s in the United States’ interest to help him or her to do that. The United States should be able to help ex-guerrillas who are not top leaders, not wanted by American justice, not awaiting trial for war crimes and reasonably believed to have abandoned violence. At least 7,000 people fit these criteria and need attention. But the number shrinks every day, as ex-guerrillas abandon the process and melt into the countryside.

Peace processes are fragile, but they can and do work. Negotiated agreements save years of bloodshed and are an honorable endeavor. Past experience offers rich lessons for reintegrating ex-combatants. Colombia and its friends must heed these lessons and prove the skeptics wrong.

Adam Isacson is director for defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America.

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