On Sunday, Colombians voted “no” in a referendum to accept a historic peace agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the armed leftist rebel group that has been at war with the state for more than a half-century.
What happened? How could Colombians reject such an opportunity to end the country’s horrible conflict? No one has an accurate answer yet; even those who opposed the negotiations were surprised by the results. Media outlets and national polls expected a significant win for the “yes” supporters.
Some say that the rejection happened because of President Juan Manuel Santos’s repudiation of those who opposed the peace agreement; others argue that a large percentage of voters hid their true opinions in public but expressed their real desires when it came time to vote. Other blame the results of the referendum on the preferential treatment some 7,500 FARC guerrillas were going to receive under the terms of the peace agreement. Many media outlets have written that Colombians haven’t been able to forget more than 50 years of massacres, terrorism, kidnappings, rape, minefields, displacement and disappearances.
The public debate over the peace agreement was simplistically framed as a vote for or against war. But that framing presented a false dichotomy that overlooked a host of structural problems Colombia must deal with in order to achieve true, sustainable peace. Perhaps this may help explain why people in the areas of the country most affected by the FARC actually voted in favor of the agreement — however, in the cities, where 70 percent of Colombia’s population is concentrated, people voted to reject it.
Beyond the FARC, Colombia continues to face significant threats to its security from other armed groups. According to the Center of Historical Memory of Colombia, from 1956 to 2012, guerilla groups carried out just 17.3 percent of massacres in the country, while right-wing paramilitary groups committed 58.8 percent and unidentified groups were responsible for close to 15 percent. Additionally, it is estimated that in the past 25 years, the time frame during which violence dramatically spiked and generated the largest amount of killings — roughly 220,000 — 38.4 percent of the targeted killings were committed by paramilitary groups, 27.7 percent by unidentified groups and 16.8 percent by guerrilla groups.
Moreover, out of the almost 7 million Colombians who have been displaced by the armed conflict so far, official estimates show that 42 percent were displaced by unidentified groups, 38 percent by the guerrillas and 20 percent by the paramilitary groups.
Right-wing paramilitary groups demobilized in 2006 during former president Álvaro Uribe’s mandate and supposedly no longer pose a threat. Yet a large share of the 30,000 combatants that comprised the paramilitary groups simply switched to other criminal organizations with different names, and they continue fighting among themselves to control drug trade, illegal mining and other economic activities in Colombia. Groups such as the Urabaeños, Las Aguilas Negras, Los Paisas, Las Autodefensas Gaitanistas and Los Rastrojos are just a few examples of the dozens of militia groups that emerged after the supposed demobilization of paramilitaries.
To make matters worse, drug production continues to grow in Colombia. As The Post’s Nick Miroff highlighted recently, coca production in Colombia has doubled in the past two years. The worrying part is that drug trade not only keeps violence alive but also incentivizes the rise of new armed groups and the return of young ex-militants looking for a way to make a living and gain recognition.
Rising inequality increases Colombia’s risk of falling back in the hands of organized crime. According to the World Bank, Colombia is the most unequal country in Latin America after Honduras. Colombia lacks the financial resources to keep investing in social welfare programs; the country is scrambling to find new revenue sources due to a large fiscal deficit resulting from low international commodity prices. Inflation has increased significantly this year and unemployment has undermined the efforts of Colombians to be a part of the economic growth that Colombia has maintained in the past decade.
Despite Sunday’s shocking results, all is not lost. The guerrillas, Santos and the opposition, represented by Uribe, agreed that peace would still be a common objective for the polarized actors. Yet the conditions of the agreement will definitively have to change and will probably have to include jail sentences for FARC leaders, as well as reliable information about their hidden fortunes. A re-drafted agreement will also have to revisit the proposed idea of sending FARC leaders through special transitional justice mechanisms, as many of those who voted “no” wanted FARC leaders to be processed with ordinary criminal justice, without special pardons. The agreement will still not be perfect, but these changes will certainly appeal to a larger majority of Colombians.
Cristóbal Vásquez is the Washington correspondent for Caracol Radio in Colombia. He has a Master of Public Administration degree from the London School of Economics and Columbia University. His work focuses on telling stories about how U.S. political and economic events affect Colombia and Latin America.