Insights into Editorial: The elusive peace in Colombia

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Insights into Editorial: The elusive peace in Colombia



A narrow win for Colombia’s opponents to a government peace deal with FARC rebels has thrown the country into disarray, leading one journalist to starkly declare, “Nobody really knows what will happen tomorrow.”


What happened?

A majority of the electorate in Columbia voted ‘No’ in the recently held referendum on a peace agreement reached between the government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). It would have immediately set in motion the process of disarming the rebels.


Why did they reject it?

It is because many Colombians were angered by what they saw as insufficient punishment for those who perpetrated a litany of crimes against their people.

  • It’s estimated 220,000 were killed in the 52-year conflict which displaced as many as 5 million people.
  • At the height of its terror campaign, the armed group seized territory, attacked government forces and conducted high-profile kidnappings. The rebels also hijacked planes, made millions trafficking cocaine and forced children to fight.
  • For just over half of those who voted, the FARC’s past crimes were too much to forgive.
  • The main criticism is that “justice” is being sacrificed for achieving “peace”. Under the terms of the current agreement, most of FARC’s rank and file would be allowed to lead civilian lives. The leadership will be judged in special tribunals with reduced sentences.


How it all started?

The 1948 assassination of populist firebrand Jorge Eliecer Gaitan led to a political bloodletting known as “The Violence.” Tens of thousands died, and peasant groups joined with communists to arm themselves. A 1964 military attack on their main encampment led to the creation of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.


What the rebels wanted?

Though nominally Marxist, the FARC’s ideology has never been well defined. It has sought to make the conservative oligarchy share power and prioritized land reform in a country where more than 5 million people have been forcibly displaced, mostly by far-right militias in the service of ranchers, businessmen and drug traffickers. The FARC lost popularity as it turned to kidnapping, extortion and taxes on cocaine production and illegal gold mining to fund its insurgency.


Involvement of the US:

In 2000, the United States began sending billions of dollars to counter drug-trafficking and the insurgency under “Plan Colombia,” which helped security forces weaken the FARC and kill several top commanders. The State Department classifies the FARC as a terrorist organization and its leaders face U.S. indictments on drug-trafficking charges.


What next?

The rejection of the plan has left the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos wrongfooted and, as the president himself said, “without a plan B.”

  • Now the rebels and the Colombian government, facilitated by international leaders, will have to go back to the drawing board to re-imagine a peace that is acceptable to the people of Colombia, speaking on behalf of the victims of murder, extortion and kidnapping.
  • It is largely unclear what the path forward looks like. Now, a ceasefire will remain in place and negotiations will continue in Havana, Cuba. However, the FARC maintains the willingness for peace and they reaffirm their disposition to use only the word as a constructive weapon towards the future.
  • It’s unlikely that the FARC leadership would give up former rebels to jail time to satisfy the demands of the slim majority which rejected the deal. FARC members and supporters already feel that the group has conceded too much in its quest for a settlement.
  • As so little is known about what comes next, it is unclear if the process to get the derailed deal back on track will happen quickly or slowly. It is unlikely that the whole deal will be scrapped, but rather the contentious clause which keeps former rebels out of jail will be renegotiated.



With all its imperfections, this was the best opportunity in decades to end a war in which both sides have committed terrible crimes. While the atrocities committed by FARC are well-documented, government troops and the army-backed right-wing paramilitaries stand accused of excessive use of force, turning the Colombian countryside into a war zone. Now, the government and the rebels may have to go through another round of tortuous talks. While reaching a new agreement has its own challenges, it is plausible for both sides, having established goodwill and trust over the past four years of negotiations, to look for creative diplomatic solutions to end the war for good. The Colombian government should also try to win over the opposition, which would strengthen its appeal to the public for a deal.