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Two Years On From the Peace Agreement With the FARC

Mexico & Central America

On 17 January 17 2019, in Bogotá, an attack on the Santander Police Training College killed 20, in the bloodiest attack conducted in Colombia’s capital since 2003. The National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) guerrilla group claimed the attack, which re-ignited tensions within Colombia society—and put the process of a negotiated settlement to the conflict with the guerrilla group on the rocks. Over two years ago, Colombia’s government had—not without some difficulty—signed a peace deal with both the country’s main guerrilla group, the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), and with the ELN, the second-largest. The ELN had already entered into a peace process under the presidency of Juan Manuel Santos. Since Iván Duque became President in August 2018, however, implementation of the peace process with the FARC has been halting, dogged by administrative, legal and political obstacles. From the breakdown in negotiations with the ELN through the slowness of the implementation of the peace process with the FARC and the alarming situation of human rights in the country, what is the true state of play of the peace process in Colombia?

Could you describe for us the political context in which the attack claimed by the ELN guerrilla group took place?

Julie Massal: Negotiations with the ELN began in February 2017, under the previous government led by Juan Manuel Santos. At first, they had made relatively good progress; there was even a bilateral ceasefire with the ELN between the end of October 2017 and the end of January 2018. So negotiations looked to be on the right track. That ceasefire then came to an end, and negotiations began to stumble over a crucial issue: the ELN’s demand for civil society participation in the peace negotiations. The ELN considered that such participation had been insufficient during the peace process negotiations with the FARC [that lasted from 2012 to 2016]. It is on this point that the negotiations began to falter. The Duque government was then elected in June 2018, and took office in August 2018. Negotiations have been suspended ever since. The Duque administration demanded an end to all criminal activities and the liberation of all hostages still held by the ELN. The ELN considered that this requirement was excessive before a return to negotiations.

“This breakdown in negotiations also once again endangers the civilian population in regions where the ELN is present”

With the attack of 17 January, that the ELN claimed on 21 January, the guerrilla group stood accused. The ELN considered that the attack was a response to the [Colombian army’s] military activities over Christmas, even while the ELN1 had proclaimed a unilateral ceasefire. Since then, the Duque government has broken off negotiations. It asked Cuba, where the negotiations are held, to deliver the members of the ELN delegation present on its soil to Colombian authorities. This has not happened for the time being —inasmuch as it creates a number of legal difficulties, in particular with respect to the countries acting as guarantors for the process, Norway and Cuba. Both countries have announced they would respect the protocols2 planned in the event of the negotiation process breaking down. The effect on the peace process with the ELN is as yet uncertain.

This breakdown in negotiations also once again endangers the civilian population in regions where the ELN is present—especially in the border region with Venezuela, and in areas where the FARC were previously present. There may be a resurgence of clashes between FARC dissidents and the ELN. [FARC dissidents are guerrilla fighters who refused to demobilize and to accept the terms of the peace process. They make up around 1600 armed men from various demobilized FARC frontlines, i.e. 6.4% of ex-fighters.3]

Various victims’ organizations demonstrate on Bolivar Square in Bogotá. The banner reads “Peace Without State Crimes”. November 2017. ©MathildeAllain

If we compare the FARC and ELN peace processes, what are the distinguishing features of dialogue with the ELN, in terms of the issues and the processes involved?

One point on which the ELN was very insistent was, not only agrarian reform [the first issue in the peace process with the FARC]—but also the use of natural and strategic resources, in particular anything related to mining and extraction policies. The negotiations also ran to ground on this issue, since both the Santos and the Duque governments refused to include these issues in the negotiations. Where the ELN is concerned, this aspect of energy policy is particularly divisive.

Since Duque took power, the main measures contained in the peace deal agreed between Colombia’s government and the FARC have been put at risk. A little over two years since this agreement was signed, how do you analyze how one of its central clauses—the clause concerning transitional justice—is being implemented?

Reports on the rate of progress in the peace process, conducted by the Kroc Institute at Notre Dame University4, show that in May 2018, at the time of the latest Presidential elections, around 21% of the measures included in the peace agreement had been implemented more or less entirely. The problem is that in practice the issues that remain most unresolved concern reparations to victims of the conflict and transitional justice, among others. Even if the transitional justice process has been set up for a year, the Truth Commission has only been in place since November 2018, and the Search Unit for Disappeared Persons (Spanish acronym UBPD) since April 2017.

All these institutions have thus begun their work—but they have limited room for manoeuver in terms of their budget, their capacity—and their jurisdiction. For example, various conflicts over jurisdiction have arisen between the Fiscalia (the public prosecutor) and the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Spanish acronym JEP). In this instance, the most problematic case concerns the ex-FARC leader Jesús Santrich, who was accused by the United States of involvement in the drug trade after the peace agreement, which would imply that he lost his right to benefit from the transitional justice process. A JEP decision of 28 January 2019, however, indicated a lack of sufficient proof that would enable moving forward with the accusation, such that the process is currently on hold.5

“Not all victims feel themselves to be acknowledged or heard by the state”

Other contentious cases include those of military officials accused of having committed extrajudicial executions of presumed “guerrillas” killed in combat: what in Colombia are called “false positives”6. These cases too are currently being examined by the JEP. Anumber of emblematic legal decisions are upcoming, then, that will display the political reach of the JEP’s decisions—and of the transitional justice process more broadly. The second key feature of the JEP is the fact that hearings held with civil society and various victims’ organizations have shown that not all victims feel themselves to be acknowledged or heard by the state, prompting various tensions between victims’ groups.

Last February 2, victims’ organizationsspoke out to condemn the little account taken of them and the slowness of reparations processes. Both victims of state crimes (in particular of extrajudicial executions) and victims of the crimes committed by paramilitaries feel that authorities take less account of them than they do of victims of the FARC. This has created various differences in how different kinds of victims become acknowledged, that in turn affect access to reparations.

Another important component of the peace accords is the political participation of former FARC guerrillas. On 30 August 2017, the FARC created a political party, the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force (acronym also FARC). What is the current status of the former guerrilla’s political option; how visible is it, and what is the situation of its members?

In the March 2018 parliamentary elections the party earned under 1% of the vote (0,86%)—but the peace agreement had provided that the FARC party should be awarded 5 MPs and 5 Senators. One Senator, J. Santrich, has now lost his seat, after he was accused of drug trafficking in April 2018.7 FARC’s representation in the legislature is thus very weak. The party’s presidential candidate, former FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño, had to pull out of the presidential race. Especially during campaign rallies, he had been attacked by opponents of the peace process, and of the FARC party participating in politics. Nor did the party manage to forge strong alliances with other political forces of the center or the left, that avoided expressing potential support for the FARC party given social stigma against it.

“A major challenge concerns the future of those demobilized ex-fighters who are still in the process of reintegration”

More recently, since September 2018, various divides and doubts have arisen with respect to the FARC party’s positioning. The party reaffirmed that it wished to continue the peace process. It therefore asked those of its leaders who were still subject to the transitional justice process to respect their obligations towards the transitional justice judicial system, including remaining within the areas (ECTR) that the process restricts them to. Since last September, however, several former FARC leaders have condemned the Colombian authorities’ failure to respect the peace process. They include Iván Marquez, who had taken part in the peace negotiations: Some of these have left the ECTRs, the areas where they were to remain while they were being reintegrated.

The FARC party split on the issue. Some understood the “reluctance” invoked by those who left the ECTRs; others condemned them a little more sharply. Debate on the subject is ongoing: does the FARC party still consider the peace process to be viable or not? In this respect, it bears mentioning that the FARC condemned the ELN attack. Another major challenge concerns the future of those demobilized ex-fighters who are still in the process of reintegration and have set up productive agricultural projects—but who face these projects being blocked for lack of outlets, financing, or land.

The risk is that their situation may help undermine the legitimacy of the peace process from their points of view. It also calls into question the future prospects for reintegration of over 7,100 ex-fighters who were gathered in the ECTRs in August 2017 after they were demobilized, and whose numbers have shrunk to 3,750 in September 2018.8 With respect to this process, lack of clarity and uncertainty prevail, making it one of the items of the peace agreement on which least progress has been made.9 The ECTRs are to be dissolved eventually. Demobilized fighters will have to reintegrate into civilian life, despite persistent social opposition to coexistence with them. They are also targeted by assassinations (at least 85 by the end of 2018).10

Various victims’ organizations demonstrate on Bolivar Square in Bogotá. The placards represent the disappeared. ©MathildeAllain

Much research has documented abuses against social leaders, trade unionists, grassroots, political and environmental activists, etc, and threats against them. How do you foresee the security situation in Colombia developing, on the one hand—and on the other, how do Colombians perceive it?

What must be emphasized is that the position of social leaders during the peace process has deteriorated, especially since 2014. Various sources now confirm that this process has intensified since the peace agreements came into force. According to the most recent report (October 2018), 257 “violations of the right to life” were recorded between 24 November 2016 and 31 July 2018, including as many cases (100) in the first half of 2018 as had occurred over the whole of 2016 (99).

“The rate of assassinations sometimes rises to one or two a day”

Several causes explain why this situation has deteriorated. Among these is the FARC’s withdrawal from the territories that it controlled, leaving the field to other armed and criminal players who use collective assassinations as a method of territorial control. The subject has become more prominent in political and media debate. Increasing amounts of scholarly research and investigations by various think-tanks testify to this resurgence. The rate of assassinations sometimes rises to one or two a day,as shown for example by the reports of the Somos Defensores NGO, that centralizes information gathered by over 500 organizations in the field.

But one must remain cautious: a great many and diverse parties provide sometimes very contrasting data. The discrepancies are tied to issues in data-gathering. Not all organizations consult the same types of actors and victims, nor do they do so in the same way or at the same frequency. But trends do emerge. The leaders of Communal Action Councils [the lowest administrative rung at the municipal level] are those most targeted, alongside community and ethnic leaders and environmental activists, most often at the local level.

Among these, all those who condemned mining and extraction policy, environmental abuses, and the developmental vision of local actors are especially targeted. So are those who promote the replacement of illegal agriculture— and, therefore, certain peasant leaders. At the outset of 2019, these abuses continued to intensify, tied to territorial control strategies on the part of criminal players linked to drugs trafficking, for instance in the border regions with Ecuador (Nariño county) and Venezuela (North-Santander, Arauca), and more generally in regions with split-offs from the FARC or other armed groups (so-called organized armed groups, derived from mafia organizations) are present.

Colombian authorities now somewhat concede the reality of such abuses, which was not the case prior to the end of 2017. Institutional initiatives to deal with the problem are beginning to emerge, originating from various judicial, police and ministerial institutions—without, however, managing to put a halt to the worsening phenomenon. Some institutions, however, still deny or minimize the systematic nature of this type of abuse. The UN Special Rapporteur visited in October-November 2018. He highlighted this systematic character and requested Colombian authorities to increase their actions and initiatives to combat the phenomenon. Awareness is rising among the population—witness a number of marches and collective actions to demand that the situation be publicly acknowledged politically and in the media, as promoted by organizations devoted to defending human rights defenders.

As a researcher on Colombia, do you feel that you encounter specific difficulties in conducting your research on social movements?

A major difficulty is access to the field: to be able to travel to the most complex and dangerous areas, and then to be able to meet interlocutors. In this context, some are of course suspicious, and do not wish to speak to someone they do not know. The language used day-to-day to describe social actors must also be very cautious and considered. Each of these variables creates difficulties in making and sustaining contacts for the long term. They imply relying on or forging contacts with institutions among local actors who are already present in the field, who are already well-known and arefirmly anchoredthere, and who are best able to remain in the field in the medium-term. The ability to invest time is thus a crucial factor in such research.


  1. Negotiations began without an end to the conflict as a prerequisite. Fighting is thus ongoing, all the more so that, even prior to the attack, the Duque government considered that the ELN had not fulfilled the conditions for dialogue to continue. ↩︎
  2. Failure to respect these protocols would imply breaking their own word as guarantors, a failure referred to in international law as “perfidy”. A further consequence would be that other countries would hesitate to lend their support to other peace processes. ↩︎
  3. According to the November 2018 report by the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation “Cómo va la paz ? La reestructuración unilateral del acuerdo de paz”, p.47. Available online. ↩︎
  4. Kroc Institute report, available online. ↩︎
  5. http://www.contagioradio.com/se-vencio-el-plazo-y-eeuu-no-aporto-pruebas-en-caso-santrich-articulo-60709/ ↩︎
  6. Executions of “dropouts” (the homeless) or young adolescents, disguised as guerrilla members, by soldiers under pressure to meet targets (in order to obtain bonuses or time off). Public security forces conducted such executions mainly under the Uribe government (2002-2010). Such executions were denounced as “state crimes” by victims’ organizations. They have, however, not entirely stopped since then. Official statistics estimate the number of such executions at 3,000. This is likely a considerable underestimation. ↩︎
  7. FFR 2018 report, pp.214, ibid. ↩︎
  8. Ex-fighters who are not subject to legal proceedings may leave the ECTRs through taking part in productive projects or other processes to reintegrate into civilian life. Some of them left the ECTRs due to the highly precarious living conditions in some of them. For more detail, see the 2018 FPR report, p.249, ibid. ↩︎
  9. Kroc report, August 2018 (concerning the period from December 2016 to May 2018). ↩︎
  10. Report of the United Nations Verification Mission in Colombia, n°S/2018/1159), 26/12/2018 (p. 10/16), available online. ↩︎