The Battle for Peace in Colombia

The government and the FARC have agreed a deal to end the 50-year guerrilla war. But those against the agreement believe the guerrillas will be let off too lightly and will never make reparations – issues that could pose a challenge to lasting peace.

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos, left, shakes hands with FARC rebel leader Rodrigo Londono, better known by his nom de guerre Timochenko, right, as Cuba's President Raul Castro looks on after the signing of a historic ceasefire deal between the Colombian government and FARC rebels in Havana, Cuba, on June 23, 2016. Credit: Reuters

Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos, left, shakes hands with FARC rebel leader Rodrigo Londono, better known by his nom de guerre Timochenko, right, as Cuba’s President Raul Castro looks on after the signing of a historic ceasefire deal between the Colombian government and FARC rebels in Havana, Cuba, on June 23, 2016. Credit: Reuters

After four years and an intense week of final talks in Havana, Cuba, on August 24, the government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (FARC-EP) finalised the text of a 297-page agreement to end the armed conflict dating back to the 1960s.

This is a personal political victory for President Juan Manuel Santos, who staked his political reputation – and his re-election in 2014 – on the peace process. As defence minister (2006-2009), he had eliminated FARC leaders and decimated its cadres. In August 2010 he was sworn in as an acolyte of his predecessor Alvaro Uribe. Santos soon turned Uribe’s policies around, commenced negotiations with the FARC and made an enemy of his former mentor.

The peace deal is backed by guarantors Cuba and Norway, with Chile and Venezuela as facilitators, and has wide international support. US special envoy Bernie Aronson accompanied the talks over the past year. In July, Colombia’s Constitutional Court cleared the proposal for a plebiscite on the agreement, scheduled for October 2, with a minimum positive vote of 13% of the electorate, or 4.3 million votes. The Colombian Congress will have a month to ratify the accord.

The peace agreement

The agreement, which reads like a socio-political Magna Carta, will be finally signed by Santos and the maximum leader of the FARC, Rodrigo Londono, better known by his nom de guerre Timochenko, probably in September. It has six fundamental chapters:

Integral rural reform: In deference to FARC’s alleged raison d’être, it calls for ‘structural transformation of the countryside’, greater inclusion, equality and integration, eradication of poverty, agricultural reform, including land redistribution.

Political participation: FARC will give up arms and violence to achieve its political aims, and be assured political participation and inclusion. An integral security system for free political expression by new parties and political movements will oversee special measures, including a transitional period during which the state will provide minimum salaries, finance political activities and reserve seats for the guerrillas in Congress, to facilitate their incorporation into the mainstream.

Cessation of hostilities and surrender of arms: FARC will be assigned 23 transit zones and eight camps for their cadres. The group will have to completely surrender all arms to a UN force 180 days after the commencement of this process. They will then collaborate with the Colombian armed forces against organised criminal groups and the like.

The drugs trade: The problem will be redefined, focussing on consumption, cultivation and organised crime with a view to ‘dismantle the narcotics value chain’, while protecting legitimate interests of traditional cultivators and the recently legalised medical marijuana industry.

Colombia has become the largest producer of coca and exporter of cocaine in the region. The Colombia Coca Survey 2016 by the UN Office of Drugs Control and the government shows a doubling of coca cultivation since 2013, to 96,000 hectares in 2015. In 2015, cocaine production was 646 tons, a 46% increase from 2014 production figures. The trade is estimated at around $40 billion, or 15% of Colombia’s GDP.

By contrast, between 2010 and 2014, Bolivia achieved a 34% net reduction in the area under coca cultivation and should soon meet its goal of limiting cultivation for traditional and other legal uses to 20,000 hectares. Peru, another important source of the coca leaf, also reduced the area under coca cultivation, from 42,900 hectares (2014) to 40,300 hectares (2015) (

Victims and justice: Truth, reconciliation, reparations, non-repetition of atrocities and location of missing persons will be overseen, adjudicated and enforced by judicial and quasi-judicial institutions and procedures. The ‘widest possible’ amnesty will be provided to guerrillas, except to those guilty of crimes against humanity and crimes under the Statute of Rome.

According to Colombia’s National Centre for Historical Memory, over 220,000 people died, 80% of whom were civilians, and over 7 million were displaced during the conflict. The Economist documented almost 900 cases of ‘false positives’ or incidents where the military killed innocent civilians passed off as guerillas. Several high-ranking officials have already paid for their actions and more will be called to account.

Implementation and verification: A bipartisan commission, with representatives from the international community, will set out a basic plan with a 10-year time-frame to implement the agreement.

Several smaller guerrilla groups like the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the People’s Liberation Army (EPL) emerged during the course of the conflict. On March 30, 2016, the Colombian government announced the commencement of peace talks with the ELN, which has around 3000 guerrillas compared to around 9000 of the FARC.

The reckoning

Colombians, including the government, are under no illusion about the monumental task ahead. Reconciliation will be difficult for hundreds of thousands of families affected by the conflict. Proponents of a vote against the agreement, led by Uribe, are gaining ground with their arguments that the guerrillas will be let off too lightly, will occupy reserved seats in Congress and will never make reparations. Estimates of the cost of post-conflict measures have still to be drawn up.

The Colombian economy has suffered a decline in GDP growth with the fall in crude oil prices and production. According to the finance ministry, contribution from oil and gas to government revenues fell from 19.7% in 2013 to 7.5% in 2015 and is projected at 1.9% this year, around $ 700 million.

Despite the scepticism, Colombia has set a fascinating example for the world. Cuba, today the Mecca of the communist world, brokered talks between an avowed marxist group and one of the most conservative governments in the region. Fundamental clashes of perceptions, ideas and convictions have given way to a common vision for the future. Colombia avowedly ignored a large percentage of its marginalised population, only to succumb to the backlash of rebel rage and the machinations of organised crime, and must make up for lost time.

The vision of a more egalitarian Colombia was articulated by Ivan Marquez, the FARC leader in Havana, even as Humberto de la Calle, the leader of the government delegation, reiterated that the fundamental political and economic bases of the Colombian state had not been bartered away in exchange for FARC arms. Marquez’s gratitude was heavily weighted in favour of Cuba and fellow traveller Venezuela. While both sides condemned corruption and organised crime, the differences in their perception of what needs to be done are clear. The challenges for both sides going forward have been exhaustively detailed in the document signed in Havana.

The battle for peace may have concluded but it remains to be seen if it will end the war that has ravaged this beautiful country far too long.

Deepak Bhojwani is a retired Indian diplomat who was Ambassador to Colombia from 2007 to 2010.