One could be forgiven for thinking that peace finally arrived to Colombia this February. Despite voters’ initial rejection of a peace deal last October, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have finally begun to demobilize after fifty-one years of fighting the state.
Meanwhile, after countless delays over the last two years, formal peace talks have started between the government and the smaller Army of National Liberation (ELN). But a lasting peace is still a long way off. The ELN and state forces continue to engage in combat. Meanwhile, the resurgence of right-wing paramilitaries in areas once controlled by FARC threatens a new wave of death and displacement.
At the turn of the month, over six thousand FARC members began their final march as an army. On foot, in buses, or by boat, they made their way to over two dozen UN-monitored transitional zones around the country. Here they will gradually surrender their weapons over the next six months before beginning reintegration into civil society.
FARC will become a political party seeking change through peaceful means. Over 1,000 of its members will assist the army in removing landmines from conflict zones. This mass demobilization, unthinkable just a few years ago, represents a huge step toward peace for many war-stricken areas. Despite many delays on both sides — the government has been slow to provide necessary infrastructure while the FARC have stalled on handing underage members over to the authorities — the process continues to move forward.
The inclusion of Colombia’s second-largest guerrilla army, the ELN is also a huge step forward. Many dissident FARC members have turned to the ELN, which has roots in liberation theology unlike the Cuban-inspired FARC, and the ELN has moved into areas once dominated by FARC. They have continued to engage in kidnappings and attacks on the police. No peace deal will be complete until they too have laid down their arms.
But the greatest threat to peace in Colombia comes not from the Left, but from the right-wing paramilitaries.
Many of these groups have moved into areas formerly under FARC control in an effort to take control of coca production. They have also began a new wave of terror against trade unionists, human rights activists, and suspected FARC sympathizers.
This is reminiscent of previous terror campaigns when the paramilitaries, often with state support and funded by drug cartels, ranchers, and multinational companies made the country the world’s most dangerous for trade unionists and stole 15 percent of the national territory through a process of forced displacement.
The Colombian military was due to move into the many rural areas previously under the control of FARC, but in many cases they have failed to do so or did so behind schedule. This has left many people at the mercy of paramilitary groups. In Chocó and northern Antioquia, hundreds of armed men have entered villages and threatened to murder left-wing activists and land claimants. The road between Medellin and the Gulf of Uraba has become too dangerous to travel, as paramilitaries attack vehicles at will.
In the North Santander region of Catatumbo, locals refused to allow the thirty-third front of FARC to demobilize; they believed it was their only protection against paramilitaries. The demobilization eventually went ahead after the defense minister promised protection, but this proved an empty promise: over two hundred people were soon forced to abandon their homes and flee across the Venezuelan border.
Some of those most worried about the threat of paramilitaries are coca farmers. In the southern departments of Putumayo, Nariño, and Cauca, FARC exercised authority over the illegal drug trade with the farmers living in relative security. Now they fear a battle for control of their fields between the numerous illegal groups that remain active. They are also skeptical of government plans for coca elimination and crop substitution, doubting the government’s ability to provide alternative methods of earning a living or protect them from retaliation should they attempt to make the change.
For years, the government has denied the existence of paramilitaries in Colombia, claiming they are only “criminal bands,” or BACRIM. This is largely due to the government’s long history of association with such groups and the deeply flawed demobilization” of the paramilitaries which resulted.
At the height of the conflict during the 1990s and early 2000s, the Colombian political establishment was closely linked to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). The AUC aided the army in fighting FARC and upheld the interests of landowners and large companies, often carrying out some of the most brutal massacres the country has ever seen. Under former president Alvaro Uribe (one of their closest allies in government and a persistent opponent of peace talks with FARC) the paramilitaries received a lenient peace agreement, and they all supposedly demobilized.
Ever since the government has persistently claimed that paramilitaries do not exist in Colombia, despite the fact that many did not demobilize and remain active. They have long been the biggest human rights abusers in the country.
The long history of state support for paramilitaries — hundreds of politicians and senior military officers have been jailed for links to the AUC, including Uribe’s brother — and resulting media bias mean that many urban Colombians are unaware of the extent of right-wing violence in the country. Many regard the paramilitaries as a necessary evil required to defeat FARC, despite the paramilitaries being responsible for over 80 percent of civilian deaths in the conflict and having destroyed Colombia’s trade unions.
But should president Juan Manuel Santos wish his peace process to be a lasting success, he will have to face up to reality.
Despite being the embodiment of Colombia’s ruling oligarchy and responsible for the horrors of war as much as anybody else (he served as Uribe’s defense minister), he began Colombia’s peace process in the face of huge opposition and reached an agreement with FARC when so many others had failed. He publicly apologized for the state’s role in the brutal campaign carried out against the Patriotic Union, the political party formed by the FARC during the 1980s in an attempt to lay down arms and transition to peaceful politics, and called for an end to the war on drugs.
He has shown the ability to recognize past mistakes and change policies accordingly. He and his government now need to acknowledge the threat of the paramilitaries and taking effective steps to protest peasants and workers from their terror campaigns. Efforts to return stolen land must be stepped up and the land claimants protected from retaliation.
Unfortunately, Santos does not have a great deal of time in which to take the right steps. His term ends next year, and he is unable to run for election again. Should problems in the peace deal appear or should negotiations with the ELN go badly, the far-right will be resurgent. Every delay or sign of flaws in the accord increased that chance that one of Uribe’s inner circle will win the presidency in 2018.
Colombia has taken enormous steps towards peace, but the shadow of right-wing violence remains. This year, it has already taken the lives of dozens of people and forced many more from their homes.
Should the paramilitaries continue unchecked, they will destroy this chance at peace and unleash a wave of terror such as has not been seen in Colombia for many years. If the current government is serious about building a more inclusive, equal, and democratic Colombia it is vital that they address this problem quickly — or they will live to regret their mistake.