Prospects for peace rest on the Colombian state’s ability to implement the promises brought by the November 2016 peace agreements between the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC-EP) and the Colombian government. The agreements include provisions regarding various reforms related to illicit crop and drug use, FARC-EP’s political participation, transitional justice, agrarian policies, and disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR). The existing infrastructure in Colombia for demobilizing fighters has developed over the last three decades, during which at least five peace processes with five different organizations have taken place. The outcome of these has been twofold: the development of a capacity to demobilize cadres and an ability to reintegrate deserters from armed groups into civilian life. These efforts have experienced challenges and failures, and have highlighted the necessity of converting written agreements into practices and institutions to achieve promises made for cadres and citizens alike.
Executing the DDR accords with the FARC-EP and the prospects for peace in Colombia today depend on the state’s capacity to administer the agreements and enact them on the ground. Among these, one of the most important components is DDR. The Agencia Colombiana para la Reintegración (ACR), or the Colombian Agency for Reintegration—the governmental institution that deals with the demobilization of fighters and deserters who want to re-join civilian life—currently oversees these processes. This program will define FARC-EP cadres’ reincorporation into society; however, DDR faces challenges from distrustful citizens and the looming risk of attack from other armed groups and opponents to the peace process.
In accordance with the DDR agreements, the FARC-EP cadres will relocate to specific camps where they will hand in their weapons to the UN mission in Colombia, under the protection of the Colombian armed forces. This process will occur in three phases, and at each stage includes the registration, identification, and collection of weapons from forces concentrated in a series of twenty-seven camps across the country.
However, challenges remain regarding the implementation of these agreements and their capacity to reweave a social contract, as distrust and animosity between civilians and former insurgents affect integration efforts. The government expected full disarmament to take a period of 180 days; however, the process has faced delays that raise questions about the feasibility of demobilization and reintegration. Demobilization is not as simple as collecting a weapon and giving a pat on the back to a former rebel, especially for insurgents who dedicated years to fighting and who depended on their militancy to support their livelihood.
As a result, the government and insurgents have put into place a series of initiatives by which former cadres can contribute to FARC-EP leaders’ protection. They also have proposed that cadres and government forces form mixed units to secure areas where the FARC-EP used to operate, or that they contribute to programs that focus on eradicating illicit crops or clearing land mines.
However, the state has not been able to obtain widespread public support for these proposals, as demonstrated by the October 2, 2017 plebiscite vote that rejected the initial agreement. A significant sector within Colombian society distrusts the agreements and the FARC-EP’s commitment to them. Three main elements explain this distrust: first, the political establishment is divided on the desirability of the agreements for various partisan, defense, or even self-interested reasons; second, Colombians fear that a new “FARC” will emerge under a different name, as it did after the failure of the 2003-2006 peace process with paramilitary groups; and third, past experiences of failed negotiations with the FARC-EP have made Colombians suspicious of the possibility of peace.
While the prospect of a deal with the FARC-EP brings peace closer by reducing the number of soldiers’ deaths and homicides in the country, the assassination of human rights activists and the advance of other armed groups hoping to replace the FARC-EP negatively affect citizens’ perception of the reconciliation possibilities.
Thus, to achieve peace, three things have to happen:
First and foremost, FARC-EP leaders must demonstrate their commitment to politics and allay fears that they may use the negotiations as part of an ongoing war strategy (as they did previously in the late 1990s). They have signified this commitment by signing the agreements and advancing their implementation. While the government retains co-responsibility for previously failed peace negotiations, the FARC-EP should also be cognizant of the messages it conveys, perhaps by avoiding declarations like they “won’t give up weapons.” The FARC-EP should remember that it is entering a covenant with all Colombians, even with those who oppose it. The FARC-EP’s capacity to present gestures of reconciliation to its strongest opponents will determine the credibility of its political leadership.
Second, the state needs to continue efforts to reassert its presence in areas now abandoned by the FARC-EP. If Colombians observe the government providing security and delivering services in areas where the insurgents previously operated, the benefits of peace will become evident to many. However, state negligence or unresponsiveness to the incursion of other armed groups in newly demobilized areas will foster skepticism about the possibility of demobilization and the peace agreement.
Third, Colombian elites, both for and against the peace negotiations, need to recognize the historical opportunity to foster a positive future for Colombia and further develop the country’s institutions. Relapsing into war will keep Colombia on a violent path, which already has produced 8 million victims and more than 200,000 deaths. The country must not replicate this inexcusable record.
Staunch opposition to the peace agreements and the possibility of their renegotiation after the 2018 election provide support to those sectors within the FARC-EP that show interest in resuming violence. This attitude does not facilitate the implementation of agreements and thus risks the perpetuation of violence within the country.
The demobilization and DDR infrastructure and processes in Colombia, despite their present challenges, established FARC-EP cadres’ initial pacification. However, for peace to take hold in the country, society must embrace and support the demobilization, disarmament and reintegration process. Otherwise, former fighters will never succeed in transitioning to civilian life. Therefore, it is vital that the FARC-EP leadership, the government, and the opposition contribute with open, clear, and recurrent gestures that promote peace and reconciliation. It is imperative for existing state institutions to reassert their roles and support the expectation that peace does in fact mean peace.