In Colombia, only the old can remember the country when it was last at peace. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, began fighting for a Marxist revolution in 1964, leading wealthy Colombians to form vigilante groups that outdid the rebels in their savagery. Fueled by cocaine money, both sides helped make the Andean nation one of the most violent countries in the world. Following four years of negotiations, the government and the FARC reached a peace deal last August. After voters rejected it in a plebiscite, the government instead turned to Congress for approval of a revised version. There, it was ratified in November, and the guerrillas have moved into United Nations-monitored camps and begun to disarm. Yet the spread of other illegal armed groups into former FARC zones and a surge in political assassinations could still undermine the hard-fought agreement.
The modified accord, which passed Congress with opposition lawmakers abstaining from or boycotting the vote, calls for the 6,000 or so guerrillas to disarm in exchange for seats in Congress, reduced punishment for crimes and a program to redistribute land to small farmers who were forced to flee the tumult. It also requires the FARC to compensate victims of the conflict using its own assets and clarifies that FARC leaders who confess to serious crimes will be confined to areas no bigger than a hamlet. The deal was championed by President Juan Manuel Santos, who won the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. Former President Alvaro Uribe, who led the opposition to the accord, has continued to argue that the terms should be tougher for a group that kidnapped and murdered Colombians. He says FARC leaders guilty of major crimes should face harsher penalties and restrictions on taking seats in Congress.
Other Marxist insurgencies in the Americas fizzled out after the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s, but Colombia’s intensified as guerrillas tapped into a massive new source of funding: cocaine. Output of coca, the raw material, tripled in the 1990s in Colombia. Much of the production gravitated to FARC areas, where the state’s presence was weak, giving the group’s finances a big boost from the “taxes” it collected from farmers and traffickers. At its peak around the turn of the century, the FARC had a presence in 70 percent of the country. But it never captured a major town or came close to its goal of imposing a Cuban-style socialist model on Colombia. More than 200,000 people died in the fighting, with millions driven from their homes, often to live in shantytowns in the main cities. Many of the worst atrocities were carried out not by the FARC, but by so-called “self-defense” groups set up by landowners and cocaine cartels to combat it. Still, FARC bomb attacks and the kidnapping of civilians earned it the hatred of many Colombians. In 2002, the nation elected the hard-line, anti-FARC Uribe, whose father had been murdered by the group. Under Uribe, government forces cleared FARC roadblocks from the main highways, and the air force became increasingly effective at targeting the group’s commanders. But the army was never able to eradicate the guerrillas, who used Colombia’s dense forests to evade pursuit and planted land mines to protect their positions. Santos, Uribe’s former defense minister, was elected president in 2010 and, with neither side close to victory, began making peace overtures.
The government hopes that the accord will boost tourism, agriculture and oil production, giving the nation of 49 million a peace dividend after nearly three years of slowing economic growth. The deal aims to cut cocaine production, with the guerrillas committed to helping with programs to substitute legal crops for coca. However, it’s unclear whether the government has the funds and managerial capacity to organize this nationwide. In many regions, as soon as FARC fighters deployed to UN-monitored camps, drug-trafficking mafiosos moved in to replace them, producing a wave of murders of local leaders as the new groups consolidated control. The killings have raised the specter of a failed peace process from three decades ago, when mafias, paramilitaries and security forces murdered thousands of members of a political party formed by the FARC.
The Reference Shelf
- An explainer of the Colombian conflict by the Council on Foreign Relations.
- A history of earlier Colombian peace talks by the U.S. Congressional Research Service.
- Wilson Center report on the connection between the FARC and the drug trade.
- The website of InSight Crime, a research institution, analyzes the impact of the Colombian conflict on organized crime.
- Alvaro Uribe’s autobiography in English.
First published Oct. 18, 2016
To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
Matthew Bristow in Bogota at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
Lisa Beyer at firstname.lastname@example.org