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Can a former left-wing guerrilla salvage Colombia’s peace plan?

The election victory of Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez marks a stunning shift away from elitist politics.

Colombian Vice President-elect Francia Marquez, left, gestures next to President-elect Gustavo Petro during a ceremony to receive their official credentials in Bogotá, Colombia, on June 23. (Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images)
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The June 19 election marked a pair of big “firsts” in Colombia’s history — a new left-wing president and a Black female vice president. Victories by Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez are a stunning shift in a country where the wealthy, right-wing elites have held power for generations.

Despite fears of electoral violence, a peaceful transfer of power seems likely, as both Petro’s opponent and predecessor acknowledged the election results and congratulated the president-elect.

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Why is this a watershed moment?

Last Sunday’s presidential runoff election pitted the populist, anti-establishment right and left against each other. Colombians voted in two rounds of elections, in the wake of massive national protests over economic, health-care and security issues. As the coronavirus pandemic spread, so did violence from armed groups.

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Casting a shadow over these crises is the government’s 2016 peace deal with the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia rebels (known as the FARC), ending five decades of civil war. Implementation stalled under Colombia’s current president, Iván Duque.

Petro promised to fully implement the peace deal and pursue similar talks with the National Liberation Army (ELN), another left-wing rebel group active today. As University of Denver political scientist Oliver Kaplan notes, “Petro’s election may have just saved the peace process.”

Who is Gustavo Petro?

Colombia’s next president is a controversial figure — not least because he’s a former left-wing guerrilla. In the 1980s, Petro served time in prison for his role with a group known as the April 19th Movement, or M-19.

But since his guerrilla days, Petro has amassed years of government experience. He served as a congressman and senator, and from 2011-2014 was the mayor of Bogotá, Colombia’s capital. His term was not without controversy, as voters opted to recall him after his attempts to institute broad changes to municipal trash and recycling processes left tons of garbage on the streets.

Eight years later, Petro’s national-level, anti-establishment platform focuses on economic redistribution and environmental justice in a country where nearly 40 percent of the population lives in poverty. He has proposed raising taxes on the wealthiest Colombians to support free higher education and universal health care while banning new oil exploration.

Paving the road from guerrilla to government

Colombia has a troubled history of left-wing insurgency, right-wing paramilitarism, criminal gangs and organized crime. Over the past six decades, armed groups have committed devastating violence by kidnapping, forcibly displacing and disappearing Colombian civilians.

The government’s 2016 peace deal with the FARC ended one of the longest-running insurgencies in the Western hemisphere. But the deal was far from the country’s first attempt to demobilize and reintegrate armed combatants — 30 years ago, the M-19 became the first armed group to sign a peace deal in Colombia.

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Although nearly 7,000 M-19 combatants put down their arms at the time, the violence continued. Right-wing hit men and paramilitaries assassinated hundreds of M-19 ex-combatants. Former M-19 leader and presidential aspirant Carlos Pizarro Leon Gomez was one of the three presidential candidates killed in the months before the 1990 election. Violence targeting ex-combatants followed other efforts to disarm and demobilize Colombian armed groups. For example, in the 1980s, when the FARC first attempted a peaceful transition to politics, right-wing paramilitaries assassinated thousands of its Patriotic Union candidates.

Yet the M-19 agreement laid important foundations for transition and success.

First, these and other narrow negotiations ushered in a wave of peace talks over the past 30 years, with dozens of paramilitary organizations and the FARC coming to the negotiating table for far more complex efforts at disarmament, demobilization and reintegration.

Second, the M-19 agreement helped launch major shifts within Colombia’s constitution, enshrining protections for ethnic minorities, facilitating broader participation and improving the country’s justice system.

Third, this agreement launched the political careers of former rebels, one of whom has now ascended to Colombia’s presidency.

What are the pathways to peace?

Petro and Márquez have the chance to help the FARC and ELN down the path toward peace. Beyond Petro’s personal history, there are other reasons that his victory might bode well for rebel disarmament, demobilization and reintegration.

First, the new president’s base supports peace. The electoral map of the results from last week’s election closely mirrors those areas of Colombia that supported the 2016 referendum for the peace deal with the FARC. Support for the Petro and Márquez ticket comes from parts of the country that were both significantly affected by decades of conflict and eager for a path forward.

Second, Petro and Márquez’s platform aligns with key elements of the FARC peace deal. The 2016 agreement covered five substantive issue areas: land redistribution, political participation, ending the conflict, tackling illicit drugs, and establishing a process for truth and reconciliation. While there has been substantial progress toward disarming rebels and providing truth to victims, the other issue areas have fallen far behind.

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Petro and Márquez have now prioritized two of the thorniest issues. They have pledged to upend decades of drug policies, which may cause tensions with the United States. Petro opposes extradition of drug lords, supports legalizing marijuana and cocaine, and favors crop substitution to help poor farmers transition to the licit economy.

The duo also pledged to attempt widespread changes to alleviate rural inequality — an issue at the heart of decades of Colombian conflict. Their plan is to adopt socialist policies, taxing the ownership of large land parcels and transferring land titles to Colombia’s rural poor.

If successful, these policies could also weaken still-active armed groups, who tax and extort rural Colombians to fund continued violence. How Colombia’s new administration tackles these issues could have big ramifications for inequality, violence and peace.

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Danielle Gilbert (@_danigilbert) is an assistant professor of military and strategic studies at the U.S. Air Force Academy and a nonresident fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force Academy, the Air Force, the Defense Department, or the U.S. government.