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A Conversation with Iván Duque Márquez at the Inter-American Dialogue. Courtesy of Inter-American Dialogue/flickr

Colombia’s New President: Will the Peace Deal Survive?

Charlie de Rivaz
Commentary, 19 June 2018
Terrorism and Conflict, Americas, Central and South America, Law and Ethics, Peacekeeping and Peacebuilding
The newly elected president of Colombia may end up scuppering a deal which, despite its problems, could be the country’s best chance for prolonged peace.

Colombia has a new president. The victor of Sunday’s election was the young right-wing candidate Iván Duque, who won with 53.9% of the vote; his competitor, the former mayor of Bogota and one-time guerrilla, Gustavo Petro, took 41.8% of the vote. The most divisive issue in a rancorous and polarising campaign was the peace deal between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Signed in November 2016 after four years of negotiations, the deal effectively ended a 52-year conflict that had cost the lives of 220,000 people and led to the forcible displacement of another 5.7 million. But the deal has never been popular and its implementation has been fraught with problems. And now its most ardent supporter, President Juan Manuel Santos, will be replaced by one of its staunchest opponents: Iván Duque. The deal may not survive him.

In the first year-and-half of its life, the peace deal has had some striking successes. By June 2017 just under 7,000 FARC soldiers (see paragraph 47) had left the jungle and reported to 26 specially created camps where, under UN supervision, they had begun to lay down their weapons and start reintegrating into civilian life. By the end of September, the disarmament process had officially been completed (para. 23), with the collection of 9,000 guns, 1.8 million rounds of ammunition and 38 tonnes of explosives. An amnesty law saw 2,600 (para. 19) FARC members released from prison, and now almost 12,000 demobilised ex-guerrillas have access to healthcare (para. 35), a bank account (para. 20) and a monthly stipend of $220. What’s more, FARC transformed itself into a political party, the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force, and in March fielded 73 candidates in congressional elections. All this was accompanied by what is surely the best measure of peace, a reduction in violence, as the murder rate fell to its lowest level for 42 years.

But the deal has not been without its problems. In those March elections the FARC won a paltry 0.3% of the total vote, which seemed to confirm the suspicions of many ex-guerrillas – that they are not welcome in the new Colombia. There have been problems with the camps too. Some of the FARC soldiers living in the demobilisation camps – generally located in the remote countryside – have found themselves without running water or electricity (para. 23), or without access to a doctor (para. 36) for months at a time. Initiatives to train and educate FARC members – 70% of whom are reportedly illiterate – have been slow to get off the ground, as have the so-called ‘productive projects’ (para. 32) that were meant to provide them with work. As a result, the UN says (para. 30), a ‘sizeable number’ have left the camps. And leaving the camps can be dangerous: around 50 demobilised FARC members have been killed outside of the camps since the signing of the peace deal, reportedly by a range of criminal actors, thereby calling into question the government’s ability to protect those ex-guerrillas who chose to engage with the peace process. Worryingly, some FARC members chose not to engage at all. A recent report from InSight Crime, an investigative NGO specialising in organised crime, claims that the 12,000 demobilised guerrillas represent only half the actual number of loyal FARC members, and suggests there is a growing number of FARC dissidents – perhaps 1,000–1,500 – bent on continuing their old way of life in the jungle.

So, the deal is in a fragile state. But this is not particularly surprising. Sustainable peace takes a long time to achieve, and now Colombia is doing the hard bit: implementation. This much was acknowledged during the peace talks by Sergio Jaramillo, one of the government’s lead negotiators: ‘These negotiations are extraordinarily difficult, but not remotely as difficult as implementation will be’. So it has proved. And if implementation has been difficult during the term of a president fully committed to the peace agreement, how difficult will it be under a president who is staunchly against it?

Duque is a follower of former president Álvaro Uribe (2002–10), to whom he owes much of his popularity and his ideology. In the October 2016 referendum on the peace deal, Uribe and Duque were prominent supporters of the ‘no’ vote, which triumphed with 50.2% of the vote. (The deal was revised and pushed through Congress a few weeks later.) Since then, Duque has softened his stance, but not significantly. While he no longer wants to rip-up the deal completely, he does want to make ‘significant changes’.

These changes focus on two of the six strands of the peace deal: political participation and transitional justice. As part of the agreement, FARC’s political party is guaranteed 10 seats (out of 280) in Congress until 2026. Duque has said that FARC’s Congressional candidates should not be able to take up their seats without first going through the transitional justice system. That means standing before a truth tribunal and giving a detailed account of any crimes committed during the conflict, and then serving any sentences meted out for those crimes. Yet the justice component of the system, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (SJP), only began its work on 15 March, and none of the FARC’s ten congressional candidates has yet been through the process. So, the likely effect of Duque’s reform would be, at worst, to leave FARC’s seats in Congress empty or, at best, to fill them with lower-ranking members who may not command the support of the FARC rank-and-file.

Duque is also targeting other aspects of the transitional justice process. As it stands, those who admit to committing the most serious crimes – including war crimes, torture and kidnapping –will face five to eight years of ‘restricted liberty’, a vague term best understood as community service – certainly not prison. But Duque wants to see these criminals put behind bars. He also wants to ensure that those found guilty of drug trafficking do not escape proper punishment – something which could happen if drug trafficking is treated as a political crime, since from the late 1980s the FARC largely relied on drug trafficking to fund its activities, and at its peak in 2001 the group made an estimated $250–300 million a year from drugs. Few, if any, of the FARC’s leaders can claim to have no links to the production and trafficking of cocaine; indeed, one of them is currently fighting extradition to the US on drug trafficking charges.

Duque’s proposed changes do not seem unreasonable. It is galling to think that a war criminal might be able to take up a seat in Colombia’s Congress, or spend five years doing community service and then walk away scot free. But perhaps this is the price of peace. If Duque tries to re-write sensitive bits of the agreement he may just provoke the FARC into giving up on the deal and returning to the jungle, as well as to violence.

In fact, thanks to a ruling by the Constitutional Court, substantively changing the terms of the peace deal will be difficult, even for the incoming president. But undermining the deal will not. As Colombian news site La Silla Vacia points out, even if Duque is unable to push through big amendments to the peace deal, he can still hollow it out by other means, such as delaying its implementation and by denying it the resources, the talent and the political attention it needs to survive. The hope is that Duque proves to be a pragmatist, and that the posturing of the campaign trail is replaced with an acceptance of the need to build on the peace deal rather than destroy it.

Charlie de Rivaz is a Research Analyst in National Security and Resilience at RUSI.

BANNER IMAGE: A Conversation with Iván Duque Márquez at the Inter-American Dialogue. Courtesy of Inter-American Dialogue/flickr

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution. 

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