March 27, 2017
3:07 pm

What Peace Really Means in a Post-War Colombia

After more than 50 years of war, peace has finally been secured between the Colombian Government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The long-running conflict between the government and FARC[i] has taken a massive human and economic toll on a nation rich in natural resources and population.

“We have won the most beautiful of all battles: [the battle] for peace in Colombia,” said FARC’s top negotiator, Iván Márquez. “The battle with weapons ends and the battle of ideas begins.”[ii]

Due to the unsteady history between the Colombian Government and rebel groups, including FARC, the announcement of the peace accords has been met with celebration and apprehension in equal measure.

“There are many people who are sceptical or against the accords because they don’t trust [FARC] and they don’t trust the government either, and they have good reasons for it,” said conflict resolution expert, Kristian Herbolzheimer, who is with Conciliation Resources and has consulted with negotiators in the Colombian peace process.

The origins of the armed conflict can be traced back to a period of war called La Violencia (The Violence), which began in 1948 and ended ten years later. This ten-year conflict claimed the lives of approximately 200,000 people. That’s almost 55 people per day over that ten-year period. The end of this violence birthed the civil war that continued until December 2016, when the peace accords were officially ratified between FARC and the Government. After several failed attempts, an agreement was reached and ratified in parliament, ending what has been the longest running conflict in the Western Hemisphere.

However, just because these two main groups[iii] have reached a peace agreement, does not mean that the killings have suddenly stopped and that peace reigns within Colombia. A country that has been at war with itself for so long is bound to have scars that will take more than a signed document to heal.

The war itself had many victims:

  • it displaced almost 8 million people, the highest number of Internally Displaced Peoples (IDP) in the world[iv];
  • more than 220,000 people were killed, 81% of them were civilians, 45,000 of them were minors[v]. This almost 60-year war took 20,000 more lives than the ten-year La Violencia;
  • land mines have injured 11,000 people since 1990, and will likely continue to do so until they are all found and disarmed[vi]. This is the second-highest number of land mines on Earth, after Afghanistan;
  • 16,000 minors were recruited to fight with paramilitary and guerrilla groups[vii];
  • over 25,000 people have been forcibly disappeared, including 8,000 minors;
  • 9% of the total Colombian population has been a direct victim of the war.

There were two reported potential catalysts for The Violence. The first being the Conservatives returning to power in 1946, with officials inciting peasant-on-peasant violence by encouraging Conservative supporters to seize the land of Liberal-supporting people[viii]. This would be akin to the government deciding that your neighbour could take your house because of who you vote for.

The assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, the Liberal presidential candidate in 1949, is also likely a cause. This led to massive riots in Bogota – known as El Bogotazo (literally “the violent Bogota riots”) – which lasted 10 hours and killed 5,000 people. The instructions for making Molotov Cocktails – a type of firebomb made with alcohol bottles and rags – were allegedly broadcast by Radio Estación Últimas.

Offices, cars, and buses were set alight, and mobs of people swarmed the streets armed with whatever they could find including bricks, machetes, and firearms. The crowd mobbed the police station and, although the police were ordered not to fire upon the crowd by the major in charge, Benicio Arce Vera, he was trampled by the people and arms and ammunition were stolen by the rioters.

The Cold War was in high gear, and US-backed anti-communist activities in Colombia did nothing to help the fragile nation. Liberal and communist militants got together and re-organized into FARC[ix], the new armed wing of the Communist party, in 1964. They claimed to fight for the rights of, and social justice for, the people of Colombia[x].  They were supposedly supported by Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela[xi], as well as Cuba and the Soviet Union until 1991, which marked the end of the Cold War. FARC’s ranks grew to more than 20,000 armed fighters by the late 1990s[xii].

The Colombian Government claimed to be fighting for essentially the same values, with the backing of the United States, who were staunchly anti-communist at the time. The fear-mongering of Joseph McCarthy’s House of Un-American Activities Committee[xiii] was barely behind them, and they were right in the middle of the Vietnam War. The Government was also supported by Brazil, Spain, Mexico, France, Canada, Italy, and the UK. In other words, most of Western Europe, including all the major players in North America.

In addition to these main groups, there were other paramilitary and guerrilla groups – from both sides of the political spectrum – who were vying for control of the beleaguered nation. These groups have been accused of terrorist and drug trafficking activities, as well as murdering members of the left-wing Patriotic Union (UP) political party, co-founded by FARC.

All parties engaged in this conflict have been criticized for a variety of human rights violations[xiv], including systematic executions, forced displacement, child recruitment, and sexual violence.

Between the 60s and the 80s, Americans began to establish smuggling lines for marijuana and cocaine out of Colombia and into the United States. The most famous Colombian drug lord, of course, being Pablo Escobar, said to have been responsible for supplying 80% of the cocaine in the United States. The destabilized area made it much easier for smuggling outfits to operate in-country. The US also spent $3 billion in Colombia, 75% of which was military aid[xv].

The funds from the drug trade funded both left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups[xvi]. The groups also resorted to kidnapping and ransoming people for financing, which led to a loss of support from the very people they purported to be fighting for[xvii]. This isn’t surprising considering that these groups took advantage of the populace to try and finance themselves.

The left-wing groups were outlawed, with President Álvaro Uribe’s administration applying more military pressure on them and FARC. By this time, some of the right-wing paramilitaries had ceased to function, including the AUC (United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia). Millions of Colombians held demonstrations against FARC and other outlawed groups in February 2008.

The public outcry, as well as increased Government pressure, led to many members of these left-wing groups demobilizing since 2002. The Peace Process officially began in 2012, taking four years to finally come to a consensus on a six-point plan[xviii] for peace and reconciliation.  With the approved peace accords, the UP has reformed as a political party. The Colombian President, Juan Manuel Santos, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016 for his efforts at establishing peace in Colombia.

The “last march”[xix] of FARC began in February, with the group disarming and demobilizing. The more than 6,000 troops will head for UN-organized camps, leaving the battlefield for what will be the first time in some of their lifetimes. For the most part, it has been a largely peaceful process of disarmament since the beginning of 2017.

However, the hole left by FARC could lead to other guerrilla groups continuing to commit violence on the people of Colombia. There is dissent among some elements within FARC, with some members defecting to other rebel blocs who do not agree with the peace accords. Most notably, Los Urabeños and the National Liberation Army (ELN) have been active in territories formerly occupied by FARC, pursuing criminal activities such as drug-trafficking and kidnapping.

There has been a spike in killings since the start of this year involving people of civilian groups, including indigenous and social leaders, lands-rights activists, and human rights defenders. Naturally, this casts a shadow on a future without political killings.

Despite this, the ELN are reportedly entering peace talks in March 2017, so despite the unsteadiness, there is still hope for a peaceful Colombia in this generation’s lifetime. In addition to this, the Colombian Government is also making reparations payments to the displaced victims of the conflict, beginning to heal the wounds caused by such an extended conflict.

[i] Danielle Renwick and Claire Felter for Council on Foreign Relations, “Colombia’s Civil Conflict”, January 11 2017.

[ii] Sibylla Brodzinsky for The Guardian, “Farc peace deal: rebels and Colombian government sign accord to end war”, August 25 2016.

[iii] United Nations Regional Information Centre for Western Europe, “The guerrilla groups in Colombia”, unknown publishing date.

[iv] Nick Miroff for The Washington Post, “The staggering toll of Colombia’s war with FARC rebels, explained in numbers”, August 24 2016.

[v] Laura Dixon for The Atlantic, “The Psychological Trauma of a Multi-Generation War”, December 1 2016.

[vi] Telesur, “FARC to Start ‘Humanitarian’ Removal of Landmines in Colombia”, March 23 2015.

[vii] James King for Vocativ, “The Human Toll of Colombia’s 51-Year War”, September 24 2015.

[viii]  Grace Livingstone, foreword by Jenny Pearce, “Inside Colombia: Drugs, Democracy, and War” (Pg. 42), Rutgers University Press, 2004.

[ix] Mario A. Murillo and Jesús Rey Avirama, “Colombia and the United States: war, unrest, and destabilization” (Pg. 57), Seven Stories Press, 2004.

[x] BBC News, “Who are the Farc?”, November 24 2016.

[xi] BBC News, “Colombian Farc rebels’ link to Venezuela detailed”, May 10 2011.

[xii] Chris Kraul for the LA Times, “The battles began in 1964: Here’s a look at Colombia’s war with the FARC rebels”, August 30 2016.

[xiii] George Washington University, The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project,House of Un-American Activities Committee”, accessed March 25, 2017.

[xiv] Human Rights Watch, “Colombia: Events of 2015”, January 27 2016.

[xv] Doug Stokes for Canadian Dimension (Vol. 39, No. 4), “America’s Other War: Terrorizing Colombia” (Pg. 26), July 1, 2005.

[xvi] Institute for Studies on Conflict and Humanitarian Action (IECAH), “Colombia, from the war on drugs to the war against terrorism”, May 11 2010.

[xvii] Lilian Yaffe, University of Miami, “Armed Conflict in Colombia: analysis of the economic, social and institutional causes of violent opposition”, October 3 2011.

[xviii] BBC News, “Colombia conflict victims join Farc peace talks in Cuba”, August 17 2014.

[xix] Christopher Woody for Business Insider Australia, “The last march: Colombia’s most notorious rebel group is starting to disarm, but obstacles to peace still loom”, February 5 2017.



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