Will Last Year’s Peace Treaty Survive, or Is the Past Prologue in Colombia?

Will Last Year’s Peace Treaty Survive, or Is the Past Prologue in Colombia?

Will Last Year’s Peace Treaty Survive, or Is the Past Prologue in Colombia?

An interview with historian Robert Karl on the country’s violent demobilization.


Even as the demobilization of the FARC guerrillas and wind-down of Colombia’s long civil war continues apace, political violence targeting human-rights activists, trade unionists, and environmentalists ticks up. Between January 2016 and February 2017, there have been 134 assassinations of political activists, in addition to failed assassination attempts and other acts of violence. The rate seems to be accelerating. The first four months of 2017 alone witnessed the assassinations of 41 “social leaders,” many of them demobilizing members of the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia). Between April 15 and April 25, for instance, two FARC activists and six FARC family members were killed. More than 300 social organizations are operating under increasing threats. Also on the rise is the number of “mass displacements.” According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Colombia in all of 2016 experienced 47 “mass displacements.” There have been 42 more just in the first five months of 2017. Tallied together, these 89 displacements have produced more than 20,000 refugees.

The violence is broadly, and more or less evenly, spread across the country, as this map reveals, though one report, here, identifies three key, if not surprising, patterns: First, “where municipal elections were highly competitive (with a low concentration of votes for any given party), killings of social leaders were higher than in municipalities with noncompetitive elections. Municipalities where leftist candidates won in 2007 were also more likely to experience attacks on social leaders than areas where moderate or right-wing candidates won.” Second, “relatively rich municipalities with high concentrations of land (more inequality) are witness to more attacks per capita against social leaders.” And third, there is significantly less repression in areas that had been controlled by the FARC than in those areas were right-wing paramilitaries established dominance. Human-rights groups say most of the repression is a result of a working alliance between paramilitary groups and state security forces.

The past is prologue, and nothing foreshadows Colombia’s current peace process more than what happened in the 1980s, when peace talks between the government, the FARC, and other guerrilla groups led to the creation of the Patriotic Union (UP), which, according to The Washington Post, was “the most successful leftist party in Colombian history.” The UP quickly threatened the traditional oligarchy’s monopoly of political power. But not for long, as UP members were targeted by landlords, death squads, and narcos for execution. Thousands of UP members were murdered. More than 70 percent of all center-left presidential candidates in 1990 were assassinated as well. The murders were carried out by a relatively new alliance to the counterinsurgent scene: “a combination of drug dealers, right-wing paramilitary groups and members of the incumbent government and army.” The slaughter of these Colombians who mistakenly believed they would be allowed to participate in the political system led the FARC to remilitarize, and to step up the financing of that remilitarization through narcotics and kidnapping.

This history of violence hangs over the current peace process, not just because there is a fear that it will be repeated but because the right-wing narco-para executors of the repression then are so much more powerful and entrenched today, as Robert Karl discusses below. Karl, a Princeton historian, has a new book out, Forgotten Peace: Reform, Violence, and the Making of Contemporary Colombia, which deals with many of these issues, looking at an even earlier cycle of reform and repression. It’s really a wonderful work, bringing readers back to those post–Cuban Revolution days, when Colombia teetered between promise and peril. Below, Karl answers a few questions about his book and what is going on.

Your new book, Forgotten Peace, is excellent, and especially timely, as Colombia goes through yet another peace process. The book focuses on an earlier period, the failure of which set the stage for the rise of the FARC. How so?

The story of the 1950s and ’60s that I tell in my book suggests three interlocking phases or scenarios in which a peace process can start to come apart. First, small but symbolically important acts of violence can alienate the rural parties to a peace process, undermining trust between them and the government. That’s what happened in 1960 to the rural Communists who would later form the FARC. Second, the government can fail to follow through on the reforms and development projects it’s promised to undertake. This is, of course, a fundamental challenge facing Latin American states in the 20th century and now. The stakes are simply heightened in post-conflict situations; any shortcomings on the government’s part can further alienate not just armed actors but rural communities more broadly, potentially ensuring a social base for a future insurgency. The third scenario is a mix of the first two: At the national level, symbolically important acts of violence can empower the anti-peace political opposition, which can then apply pressure that leads the government to scale back its material commitment to the peace process. That, in turn, can exacerbate deteriorating relations between the government and rural constituencies.

Sounds like there are similarities with today?

Colombia’s current political environment is different from that of the period I write about, but there are important parallels. The anti-peace opposition has already taken a major step to derail the process, with the win of the No camp in the October referendum on the FARC-government peace deal [The Nation covered that No vote here]. The referendum vote was not the fatal blow to peace that many feared at first, but the ensuing delay in the peace process may yet cause long-term ramifications. One of the central processes that I describe in my book is the return in the late 1950s of Colombians who had been forcibly displaced from their farms during the internal conflict of the prior decade, but were then met with violence by local interests opposed to their presence. This had serious consequences for peace as both a national political project and a local reality. The question of how demobilized FARC fighters will integrate into their larger communities is therefore a crucial one. In this regard, the fact that not just FARC members but their families have been assassinated in recent months is concerning.

How is disarmament proceeding? Is the rise in political violence a threat to the peace process?

The roughly 9,000 FARC fighters and militia members who are gathered in the 26 demobilization camps established by the peace accord began the final stage of their disarmament on June 20. President [Juan Manuel] Santos is scheduled to attend a ceremony marking the end of this process on June 27, but United Nations monitors will continue working to destroy far-flung caches of weapons and explosives through the end of August. The formal peace process is thus moving forward in ways that had seemed uncertain given the delays in implementation earlier this year.

It is important to keep in mind that the FARC is not the sum total of the peace agreement. The insurgency’s political successor movement will have 10 guaranteed seats in Congress from 2018 to 2026, at which point it will begin competing in elections like any other political party.

However, the peace deal also establishes 16 special electoral districts for the 2018–26 period, as a form of reparation to conflict zones. Neither the FARC’s successor organization nor any established political party is permitted to run for these 16 seats, which will instead be filled by candidates nominated by civil society organizations—the same groups that are now under threat by criminal groups moving in on the FARC’s former territories.

The peace accord contains stipulations on land distribution [Winifred Tate here discusses the massive dispossession of land that took place under cover of the drug war and the counterinsurgency, and the challenges it presents to peace] and other economic reforms. Even if we are pessimistic about these initiatives’ prospects, the accord’s creation of democratic spaces offers reasons to be hopeful. A useful way to think about these broader implications would be the question of inequality in the United States. Doing away with the Citizens United ruling would not in and of itself resolve inequality. It would, however, encourage the political conditions necessary for the issue to be tackled. That’s what’s at stake in Colombia as the FARC’s disarmament ends and the hard tasks of social reintegration and democratic contestation get under way.

You mention “criminal groups,” and it’s curious how such a politicized alliance of paramilitaries, narcos, and right-wing militarists have been rebranded as a sociological category. Maybe if we push the Koch brothers and Fox into their Weatherman phase, we can then just start dealing with them as “criminals”! Seriously, to call the Uribist irreconcilables “criminals,” I imagine, is both useful and depoliticizing. Useful in the sense that of course that is what they are, not least because they presided over a massive illegal land grab. Depoliticizing in that it might foreclose more systemic analysis and action. I assume these are the groups responsible for the majority of the executions? Who exactly are they? I noticed, in some of the sources I linked to above, a tendency to use passive constructions when reporting political murders: “Social activists were killed,” and so on. But we are talking about persisting paramilitary power, the kind that was institutionalized during the Uribe years, no?

Eduardo Álvarez and his colleagues at the Bogotá-based think tank Ideas for Peace Foundation have put out a number of excellent analyses on this question. They calculate that half of the assassinations have been carried out by unknown actors; the next largest proportion are linked to what the Colombian government long referred to as “criminal bands”—groups of paramilitaries who formally demobilized under Uribe in the mid-2000s but never stopped their illegal activities. In various parts of Colombia, these paramilitaries have recruited dissident members of the FARC who have opted to remain in the narcotrafficking or illegal-mining games. Colombia’s rural underworld is changing because of the peace process, as former rivals come together in new combinations.

At this stage, we can only guess at how these actors might relate to the kinds of regional elites who comprised Uribe’s coalition. On a related note, it is suggestive that one rural activist, who was killed just days before the signing of the peace deal in November, died near a military base. On the whole, the military has remained committed to Santos’s pursuit of peace. However, as I indicated before, even a couple of small acts of violence could have serious consequences. The government’s refusal to treat the assassinations as potentially part of a systemic threat gives further cause for alarm.

That said, Álvarez makes another important observation about the pattern of violence we’ve seen since 2016. The diversity of the people killed, and of the potential motives for their murders, makes it impossible to attribute this violence to a single cause. The dead include indigenous leaders opposed to narcotics cultivation near their territories, environmental activists opposed to legal fracking or illegal mineral mining, displaced people who have been involved for years in legal efforts to have their lands restored—the list is a near-perfect distillation of all of the small, individual conflicts that have added up to Colombia’s war.

Not a single cause, but a fairly straightforward analysis. Individuals fighting for a just and equitable peace are targeted, and the postbellum state can’t protect them. I mentioned the history of the UP in the 1980s above. Does that weigh heavily on how the current process is experienced?

The elimination of the Patriotic Union is the most important example of political exclusion in Colombian history. The year after its establishment in 1985, the Patriotic Union—the creation of leaders from the FARC, from Colombia’s Communist Party, and from other left groups—had the best electoral showing that any left party in the country has even managed. It was successful at both the national and local levels, in some of the county’s poorest corners. The subsequent, systematic elimination of at least 3,500 UP politicians and members is important too for the contemporary history of the extreme right in Colombia. Alliances between drug lords, local politicians, and elements of the state security forces had begun to form earlier in the 1980s, but their combined campaign against the Patriotic Union can be seen as a crucible for the matrix of money, violence, and landed political power that we now define as paramilitarism. Whether UP members were targeted because of ideological suspicions that they were close to the guerrillas, or because their activism threatened traditional local political sinecures, the results for Colombian democracy were catastrophic. My colleague Abbey Steele, a political scientist, has an important book coming out later this year that deals with the intersection of democracy and displacement since the 1980s, including how political violence played out against local supporters of the UP.

The legacy of the 1980s has left an unmistakable imprint on the current peace accord. The government has pledged to dismantle the violent political and criminal networks that might conspire against former FARC members and politicians. The campaign will involve special prosecutorial action, along with a dedicated police unit that was formed just this week. This additionally reflects a commitment by the Santos administration to avoid what happened with the paramilitary demobilization under Uribe. That process did not require commanders to reveal their funding sources or political connections, which, as we just discussed, left intact significant circuits of armed political power in the countryside.

The first FARC members to be amnestied have also recently begun training to become bodyguards for their comrades and for other social and political leaders. The hope is that these steps will prevent a repeat of what’s known as the political genocide against the Patriotic Union.

Wow, that actually sounds quite radical, legally arming former FARC members as a countervailing power to the paras.

There is some precedent for this in the hemisphere. For instance, El Salvador’s 1992 peace accord set up a civil police force to replace the state’s existing security forces; 20 percent of the new hires went to demobilized FMLN fighters. If you look at the numbers they’re talking about in Colombia, the logic of the move makes even more sense: Not only do you have a force that’s presumably less likely to turn on the people it’s protecting, but at 1,200 strong, it will provide jobs for more than 10 percent of the FARC’s ranks.

For my next book, a history of impunity in modern Colombia, I’m looking at the ways in which the Colombian state has historically shared its authorities with private actors. This is a process that goes much farther back in Colombian history than the last 35, even the last 70, years of reliance on paramilitary-like forces would indicate. A lot will have to go right for this to happen, but the integration of ex-FARC bodyguards into the state apparatus, and the integration of former FARC members into electoral politics, might indicate the start of a new model of state-building in Colombia, one that will give rural Colombians meaningful forms of participation and voice, all within legal frameworks.

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