Six months after the Colombian government and the country’s largest insurgent group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), agreed to end a five-decade-long conflict, many Colombians remain skeptical about the deal. In October, a narrow majority voted against the peace agreement in a national referendum.
Less widely noted, however, has been the fact that some of the guerrillas have their doubts as well. Many have decided to break ranks with their peace-seeking comrades. The number of rebels who reject the agreement is estimated at between 5 percent and 10 percent of the 6,900 guerrillas that are currently in demobilization camps. Yet a well-informed assessment also has to account for the FARC’s affiliated militias, who provided the group with many support services, including help in running the illicit drug trade, mining and extortion. Estimating their numbers is a challenge, given their secretive and semiautonomous nature. Some experts put their membership as high as 13,000.
The existence of anti-peace-deal factions within the FARC is further eroding public confidence in the peace process. Some commentators on social media have claimed that so-called dissenters within the FARC actually represent the group’s backup plan — that if it doesn’t do well in next year’s parliamentary elections, it will take up arms again. Some commentators claim that the dissenters operate with the approval of the FARC’s leadership, holding on to weapons and lucrative illicit businesses to ensure that the rebels have resources in case the peace process doesn’t go well for them and they decide to return to war.
The risk is that any signs of hesitation among the FARC will give the government an excuse to give up on parts of the peace deal and return to a military approach.
Matters are complicated by the fact that Santos is under tremendous pressure from his predecessor, Álvaro Uribe, a fierce opponent of the peace process. Uribe successfully campaigned for the rejection of the original peace deal in last year’s referendum. The agreement was slightly reworked and approved by the parliament without a second plebiscite.
The peace process will be a hot topic in the campaign for the 2018 elections. Uribe’s supporters are likely to use the FARC rejectionists as an argument in their favor. Colombia might then very well elect a president who will want to revoke at least a part of the peace deal with the FARC.
There are a number of reasons some rebels have decided to abandon the peace process. One is the desire to continue running illegal businesses previously controlled by the FARC. For low-ranking guerrillas, however, it might be more a question of survival than profit. Civilian life looks frightening to some. Uncertainty persists about where they will go and how they will earn their living after they demobilize, which is set for May 31.
Economic inequality was the main reason that the FARC started the conflict with the Colombian state in the mid-1960s and also explains why the group has never lacked for new recruits. The leaders of the FARC rejectionists fuel these fears, saying that the peace deal brings few benefits to ordinary guerrillas and that the FARC has betrayed its ideals by negotiating it.
Many of the rebels also suspect that the government will fail to live up to its part of the agreement, perhaps throwing them in jail once they disarm. They also worry about their personal safety. In 1985, as part of a peace process underway at the time, FARC and its allies created a left-wing party designed to allow them to participate legally in politics. But its members were virtually wiped out in a widespread campaign of assassinations and terror waged by the government.
The current peace deal is designed to ensure that Colombians will never again have to use weapons to achieve political goals. But delays in its implementation are denting confidence in the process.
The government has failed to prepare demobilization zones for the arrival of FARC fighters. The army has not yet fully deployed to the territories left behind by the rebels, allowing other illegal armed groups to fill the vacuum. One of the consequences has been an increase in the assassinations of local community leaders. Two FARC members who adhered to the peace process, and some of the relatives of others, were killed in April.
FARC guerrillas currently in detention were supposed to receive amnesty and be let free so long as they were charged only with the crime of rebellion. Yet so far few have been released.
The numbers of those rejecting peace could swell in the coming weeks unless the government takes concerted action. Bogota urgently needs to present a concrete plan, with sufficient resources, for reintegrating FARC members into social and economic life. The guerrillas need to be assured that they will not be evicted from the demobilization zones as soon as they disarm. They need to know that they will have jobs and will be safe. Cuba’s offer of 500 places for FARC members to study medicine has had a very positive impact in the camps.
The government needs to convince the rebels that civilian life is better than warfare. Colombia’s international allies should do their best to help. If the current peace effort fails, it will not be long before Colombia returns to the conflict with the FARC or its successors.