The Colombian Peace Deal: War is dying but peace has not yet been born


The surprising results of the Colombian peace referendum on 2 October 2016 received a lot of attention all around the world. The content of the agreement between the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces–People’s Army (FARC-EP) and the government, on the other hand, has been surprisingly neglected. In a nutshell, the roots of the conflict can be boiled down to three issues, which in turn constitute the core of the Peace Agreement reached on 24 August 2016.

First, there are the deep economic roots of the armed conflict. It is a war that grew out of agrarian conflicts inherited from Colombia’s colonial past. Until today, according to official figures, the 0.4 of the landowners hoards the 46% of the land while 70% of landowners possess less than a 5% of the total, something that keeps almost half of the rural population below the poverty threshold.

Political exclusion has also played a role: Liberal and Conservative parties controlled the political system until the end of the 20th Century. When Belisario Betancur’s administration (1982-1986) established the first negotiations with the FARC-EP (Chernick, 1988), guerrilla and government agreed upon the need for a “democratic opening” and the creation of a new political party, the Unión Patriótica (UP) – Patriotic Union –, expected to include guerrilla fighters once the disarmament process was concluded. However, at least 3,500 members of the UP were assassinated during the following years, many of them during the negotiations.

Then there is Colombia’s longtime leadership in the global production and trade of cocaine. Chased by the War on Drugs declared by the Reagan administration at the beginning of the 80s, the country’s main drug-dealers escaped to the countryside just as the State began to promote the creation of civil self-defense organizations as a response to the guerrillas’ expansion in rural areas. The result was the rise of right-wing paramilitary groups (Durán, 2013), a complex alliance of ‘narcos’ with members of the army and the police, supported also by landowners and transnational corporations (Laverde, 2012). They were responsible for the killings of thousands, including union leaders, activists, journalists, judges and prosecutors.

Although the paramilitaries led the Colombian drug economy after the death of Pablo Escobar, they were not the only armed group involved in the business. When the economic liberalization of the early 90s led to a crisis of agricultural production, tens of thousands of peasants migrated to the south, finding in the production of coca leaves an alternative form of subsistence. The FARC-EP took advantage of the absence of the State there, gaining the control over those areas and taxing activities all along the chain of production (Molano, 2000).

Final Agreement for the End of the Conflict and the Construction of a Stable and Lasting Peace

The Havana Peace Agreement, reached on 24 August 2016 after four years of talks, is comprised of six points that attempt to address these roots of the conflict.

The first section, the ‘Comprehensive Rural Reform’, is an attempt to solve the dramatic inequalities in the countryside that underpin the rural-urban divide. It recognizes the agrarian origins of the conflict and the guerrilla, laying the foundations for peace by improving the living conditions of rural communities long ignored by the State. The main goal here is to return to the peasants more than six million hectares that were taken from them during the process of expansion of right-wing paramilitary groups.

The second section, on ‘Political Participation’, recognizes pending tasks: the reform of the Electoral System and the creation of a Statute for Political Opposition, measures that should have been taken at least 25 years ago in order to ensure the political participation of all opposition parties. The State also commits to implementing what has been called the ‘Comprehensive Security System for the Exercise of Politics’, providing security measures for all opposition movements and parties including the one that is expected to be created by the FARC-EP at the end of the disarmament process. Needless to say, this is fundamental to avoid repeating what happened with the UP.

The ‘Solution to the Problem of Illicit Drugs’ seeks to change the dominant approach to drug policy, addressing the social and economic issues behind drug production. In that sense, this section is articulated in the ‘Comprehensive Rural Reform’ that acknowledges that any illicit crop eradication program will only be successful if the State provides the peasants with the infrastructure and economic resources needed to shift into legal and sustainable productive activities.

21836222986_5481e3c6fc_o.pngThe ‘End of the Conflict’ section contains the protocols for a bilateral and definitive cease-fire as well as the conditions and guarantees for the guerrilla’s disarmament and reincorporation into civilian life. This also includes the State’s commitment to dismantling the so-called ‘criminal bands’ that succeeded the paramilitary groups after their failed demobilization during Álvaro Uribe’s administration (2002-2010).

But perhaps the most decisive section of the agreement is the ‘Comprehensive System for Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-Repetition’. The purpose of the ‘Justice’ component, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, is to establish responsibilities for issues like war crimes and the financing of illegal groups, including paramilitary organizations. It will also have to investigate, prosecute and define the punishments for the most serious crimes committed in the context of the conflict.

The referendum: Why it failed and what lies ahead

Although it was not a legal requirement, both parties agreed to seek popular ratification of the agreement in order to strengthen its legitimacy. Despite its comprehensive character, and the fact it represented the most concrete opportunity to end a conflict that has caused at least 250,000 deaths and 7 millions of displaced people during the last 50 years, the deal was narrowly rejected at the polls.

On 2 October 2016 out of 13 million votes cast, the “no” vote won with 50.21% against the 49.78% who supported the agreement – a margin of fewer than 54,000 votes. Voter turnout was the lowest in 22 years, with an abstention rate of 62.5%. The results showed that the most affected areas, mainly rural and peripheral, strongly supported the agreement. Although the rejection was narrow, the result meant that the implementation process had to be suspended, leading the country into a political crisis whose resolution is still uncertain.

There are several reasons behind the poll results. Discontent with the Santos administration certainly had an impact. A few weeks after the referendum, a scandal emerged around the strategies of misinformation used by the “No” campaign which, by its own director’s admission, focused on instigating fear and rage against guerrilla and the government, avoiding any direct reference to the content of the agreement. Nevertheless, there are issues deeply linked with the content behind the current impasse.

First, big landowners have reasons to fear that some of their holdings may have originated in illegal expropriations done by paramilitary groups. If that happened without their knowledge, they say, the State should provide them with fair compensation in case their direct complicity with paramilitary groups fails to be proved.

A second matter of concern is the importance the agreement gives to revealing the truth about what actually happened during the conflict. The collective demobilization of the paramilitary groups that took place during the Uribe administration used a controversial legal framework called ‘The Justice and Peace Law’, where the components of truth and justice were marginal. Once the leaders of paramilitary groups started to confess, naming their political and economic allies, Uribe unexpectedly decided to extradite them to the US, making the prosecutors’ job more difficult. Nevertheless, investigations have continued, linking close allies of the former president with paramilitary organizations (Brodzinsky, 2008), resulting in the so-called ‘para-politics’ scandal. Uribe could also fear potential prosecutions for ‘extra-judicial killings’, which some organizations say increased in 150% while he was in office. No wonder one of his suggestions for the current peace agreement has been a ‘judiciary relief’ to members of the police and the army and the application of either the ‘Justice and Peace Law’ or the ordinary jurisdiction rather than the proposed Special Jurisdiction for Peace.

21018993743_4dc766c676_o.jpgBut the victory of the “no” mainly reflects the major change in political culture that happened between the current negotiations and those initiated almost three decades ago. Back then, both the government and the civilian population recognized the FARC-EP and other guerrilla groups as political actors with belligerent status, whose origins were in part a result of an exclusionary political regime. Nowadays, for a broad sector of Colombian population the FARC-EP are seen instead as a terrorist organization, closer to a drug cartel than to a communist insurgency – a shift that began in the 90s but consolidated during Uribe’s administration. From that perspective, restorative justice measures for the guerrilla members, as well as the mechanisms oriented to ensure their political participation have a fragile legitimacy. This social representation of the armed conflict prevents an understanding of the main issues behind this crisis and moves the debate away from what is really at stake.

Even though the referendum results blocked the immediate implementation of the agreement, they have also shown that all sectors agree – for the first time in Colombian history – on a political solution to the conflict. The Nobel Peace Prize awarded to President Santos on 7 October 2016 was an important push to continue with the negotiation and preserve a fragile cease-fire. Significant grass-roots mobilizations have occurred after the referendum, all of them supporting the agreement and its immediate implementation, and the National Liberation Army (ELN), the second biggest guerrilla in the country, should soon start negotiations with the government.

Looking ahead: Implementation Now!

The promise of the “No” campaign was to get ‘a better agreement’ with the FARC-EP. Only a few weeks after the referendum, the government started talks with the leaders of the most prominent groups behind the victory. As a result, more than 400 proposals were discussed afterwards in Havana. Most were included, and on 12 November 2016 a second Peace Agreement was reached.

Not all the proposals were feasible, however. Some of them even threatened the very core of the peace process: to imprison the FARC-EP main Commanders and to prevent their political participation, for example. This was, no doubt, an attempt by the most radical leaders of the “No” campaign to avoid the recognition of the political nature of the conflict. Although it could be expected that the renegotiation increased the new agreements’ legitimacy within civil society, the discussion of the details has once again moved the debate away from the most important issue: the roots of the conflict and the way they should be addressed.

Meanwhile, the “No” leaders seem to have good reasons to strengthen their position. The big landowners did not get to block the potential revision of their property titles (Peña et al., 2016). The recent sentencing of 21 members of the military for extra-judicial killings may be generating unrest among the army officials. At the same time, Uribe and his allies see the whole juncture as an opportunity to increase their popularity looking ahead to the 2018 presidential elections. And paramilitary and right wing groups have activated an extermination process similar to the one against the Patriotic Union (Gutiérrez, 2016): this year, 70 human rights activists have been killed and almost 300 have been threatened.

The next step will be the signature of this new peace agreement, its ratification and implementation. But even if the government gets the parliamentary majority it requires in order to move forward, the agreements will continue to be threatened by a potential victory of the conservative forces in the next elections. Two different narratives about the conflict will be disputing during this crucial juncture. A way out of the oldest armed conflict in the continent will depend of the extent to which its history is acknowledged, understanding the reasons why all previous negotiation attempts with the FARC-EP failed.


Sara Tufano is a sociologist specialized in the Colombian conflict as well as in peace processes from an historical perspective. She holds a Sociology degree from the University of Paris VII and a Master’s Degree in Sociology from the University of São Paulo. She wrote her Master’s thesis on the Colombian peace processes during the 1980s. E-mail:

Jorge Enrique Forero is a sociologist and political scientist, currently PhD Fellow of the International Center the Development and Decent Work in the University of Kassel, Germany. He is the author of the book Political Economy of Colombian Paramilitarism. E-mail:



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