Death by bad implementation? The Duque administration and Colombia’s peace deal(s)

Colombia's President-Elect Ivan Duque addresses the audience after receiving his credentials from the election council, in Bogota, Colombia July 16, 2018. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez - RC114FCC4240
Editor's note:

Support for this publication was generously provided in part by the United States Department of Defense-Minerva Research Initiative. The views expressed are the author’s alone, consistent with Brookings’s commitment to independent research.

During his presidential campaign, Colombia’s President-elect Iván Duque promised to “modify” —but not abrogate—the historic peace deal with the leftist guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). His Democratic Center party and its leader, former President Álvaro Uribe, were vociferous opponents of the peace accords and mobilized a razor-thin majority to defeat a 2016 referendum on the deal. Many Colombians remain dissatisfied with the leniency that FARC members received under the accords, especially avoiding jail sentences and provisions allowing the guerilla group to transform itself into a political party (former FARC military commanders are now top party politicians).

Under the best of circumstances, the accords’ implementation was going to be complicated and require long-term dedication. The risk now is that the peace agreement will suffer death by a thousand cuts—via budgetary measures and other subversions—by the Duque government. As a result, the prospects for lasting peace and social integration and equity in Colombia are subtly but profoundly in jeopardy.

Four core peace accord issues at stake are detailed below, with the fifth—drugs—discussed in a separate blog post.

Reinsertion and reintegration of ex-FARC combatants

The FARC has already handed over its weapons under a U.N.-verified process. Yet even under the outgoing Santos administration—which negotiated the peace deal—the development of basic facilities in the demobilization camps, the so-called zonas verdales, has been slow. Lacking has been literacy and vocational training, as well as psycho-social support, let alone a systematic, determined effort to prepare both the ex-combatants and local communities for social reintegration. Mostly, the government has been providing only a stipend of $220 per month to the former guerrillas. Close to 90 percent of them have been on this payroll, scheduled to end in August 2019. But the recipients continue to lack skills for satisfactory legal livelihoods. Many want to be farmers but do not have legal plots of land, though some have informally started collective farms funded by the stipends.

This resulted in significant frustration among the 8,000 guerrillas who were originally located there, as well as the additional 5,000 who did not and stayed in cities or were released from prisons. By May 2018, thousands of guerrillas left the zonas verdales, with little knowledge of whether they went home or elsewhere.

Although President-elect Duque has expressed full support for reintegration of FARC’s foot soldiers, a key sticking point already plaguing the Santos administration is unlikely go to away: The FARC leadership insists on collective reintegration through collective business projects to maintain FARC’s ideology and political cohesion (without having any actual operational design of such projects), whereas the government of Colombia has preferred individual-level reinsertion and reintegration. Duque’s instincts, too, will be to embrace the latter.

Rural development

Providing economic and social development of Colombia’s long-neglected vast periphery was a key feature of the accord and is indeed a foundation for lasting peace in Colombia. The perpetual underdevelopment of large rural areas and the festering poverty and inequality have been fertile grounds for militant mobilization, drugs, and criminality for decades.

Yet rural development is complex and time- and resource-intensive. It is also very vulnerable to Duque’s policy moves. The Santos administration planned to construct 50 kilometers of roads in each of the 51 conflict-affected municipalities; provide land titles to small farmers, with the National Land Agency (ANT) established for that purpose; and through consultative local development plans deliver energy supply, market access, arable land improvement, and development of community facilities administered by the new Agency for Territorial Renewal (ART).

Duque has announced plans to scrap the new agencies and hand rural development to the Ministry of Agriculture, which could have profound implications for the accords’ implementation. For decades, Colombia’s Ministry of Agriculture has been captured by vested interests of large agri-businesses (which constitute a crucial element of Duque’s political base), often usurping resources for small farms and allowing land theft and resource misappropriation. The ministry turned out to be a key obstacle to rural development in its implementation of the Uribe administration’s 2009 National Territorial Consolidation Plan (Plan Nacional de Consolidación Territorial), with the unruly captured ministry effectively running local development efforts into the ground in many areas and the Consolidation Plan ultimately withering.

Moreover, Duque prefers to create jobs for the rural poor through strengthening large-scale agri-businesses in general, reversing the accords’ vision of bottom-up development focused on small farmers. And historically, although large landowners and agri-businesses in Colombia have taken up large tracts of land (often letting them lie fallow to launder money and avoid taxes, and exacerbating deforestation), they have been poor sources of job generation—nowhere matching the labor-intensiveness of coca cultivation, for example. Colombia has a long history of promising rural development projects and rolling them out only in name or in a meager form, checking the box once a single bridge is built, an electric generator delivered, or a clinic established.

Transitional justice and FARC’s political representation

Duque and other opponents of the accords have sharply criticized the fact that FARC combatants who admitted their crimes to a special transitional justice tribunal—the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (SJP), currently being stood up but not yet fully functional —would avoid prison sentences. They see the alternative punishments proposed, such as house arrest, as tantamount to impunity. Duque and Uribe have also insisted that members of the Colombian armed forces should not face the same tribunal for their crimes committed in the course of the counterinsurgency. A core campaign issue for Duque was strengthening punishments for the FARC. Yet as the International Crisis Group explains, it will be hard for Duque to make major changes since the accords’ transitional justice elements are now enshrined in Colombian law and since Colombia’s sentencing guidelines point judges to the most lenient law available. Nonetheless, he could create fear and suspicion among FARC commanders by fueling public outrage at lenient sentences the court may hand out.

Duque has similarly objected to the FARC’s political representation in the Colombian congress, where the group has five seats guaranteed in each chamber for eight years. He has argued that FARC members should first serve jail sentences and only then be allowed to participate in politics. Since Colombia’s supreme court has already approved the arrangement—which requires former combatants to confess to their crimes through the SJP process, pay reparation to victims, and comply with their (non-jail) sentences—Duque and his Democratic Center party would instead mount social and political campaigns against the group. The FARC performed poorly in Colombia’s March 2018 congressional elections, shocking the group’s leadership. A steady string of such disappointments may sour the leadership (particularly former middle-level commanders) on the accords.

4Rising insecurity: FARC dissidents, the ELN, other insurgencies, and bandas criminales

Meanwhile, after the significant reduction in violence since 2012, insecurity in Colombia started rising again over the past year, with departments such as Chocó, Nariño, Arauca, Meta, and Guaviare affected particularly badly.

Some 1,500 FARC members have created dissident groups, returning to the battlefield to fight the government, rival guerrillas, and so-called bandas criminales, as well as participate in illicit economies. Already, such rival criminal groups—such as the Gaitanistas (also known as the Urabeños)—have been fighting with dissident FARC units and others over territories with drug cultivation, illegal mining, logging, and other extractable resources vacated by the FARC. The Santos government deserves much praise for its effort to combat these bandas criminales, which often emerged out of the demobilization of the paramilitaries a decade ago and which constitute a major threat to peace and social integration in Colombia. It’s not clear whether the Duque administration will take a similar approach or strike a lenient political deal with groups such as the Gaitanistas, failing to advance public safety in a lasting way. Meanwhile, dozens of community leaders have been assassinated, with almost no prosecution of those who ordered their deaths.

The peace process with Colombia’s second-largest leftist insurgency, the National Liberation Army (ELN) has been stalled for months. During the winter of 2017 and spring of 2018, the ELN mounted a vicious military campaign. While the group does not pose a threat to the central state, its violence has had debilitating effects in local areas, giving rise to new displacement of thousands and halting economic development. One area particularly badly hit is Catatumbo, which is on the border with Venezuela where the ELN has been battling another small insurgency, the Popular Liberation Army (EPL). The preconditions that Duque places on political negotiations with the ELN, including the assembly of ELN forces in designated areas and the cessation of criminal and military activity, is a nonstarter for the group. So is Duque’s stated intention to negotiate only disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration, without any political elements. But the fact that the ELN uses Venezuela as a safe haven and has many connections to Venezuela’s military and regime—and is deeply intertwined in cross-border illegal economies—means that the group will not be easily defeated on the battlefield.

The crux of the issue

Thus for at least the first part of the Duque administration, violent conflict in Colombia is likely to intensify. And over time—if the Duque administration manipulates and starves the implementation of the accords, particularly for equitable rural development—there could be more severe blows to the hopes of building lasting peace and social integration in Colombia.

His plans to use money allocated for U.N. monitoring of the accords’ implementation for, instead, addressing the humanitarian needs of Venezuelan refugees crossing into Colombia does not bode well, for instance. A comprehensive and well-funded plan for the Venezuelan refugee crisis—which puts further stress on Colombian communities along the Venezuelan border—is urgently needed. But so is independent monitoring of the implementation of the FARC peace accords.