In 1964, in response to an attack by the Colombian military against left-wing insurgents, a group of guerillas formed into a unified bloc that would soon become the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The FARC and another leftist group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), would go on to battle the Colombian government and right-wing paramilitaries in a conflict that has taken hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced millions. But, after more than 50 years, Colombia ratified a peace treaty in November 2016 with the FARC that demobilized thousands of fighters and brought the largest anti-government force into the political process. A few weeks ago, Colombia initiated a ceasefire with the largest remaining group, the ELN, to negotiate a similar treaty. The significance of these accomplishments cannot be understated, given the high human cost of the conflict. There remain, however, significant barriers to solidifying the permanence of agreements with anti-government factions and ensuring a cessation of violence in Colombia.
A significant hindrance to the current treaty with the FARC is members who refuse to disarm. Thousands have agreed to the treaty, but there are dissident elements continuing to fight and engage in criminal activities. The government is fighting back, recently killing one of the top remaining commanders. The longer these holdouts continue, the more likely the public—having already voted down a version of the treaty once—will lose faith and scuttle the settlement. The ELN will present a similar challenge, especially considering that the group reportedly utilizes a looser command structure.
Criminal elements, long a part of the Colombian landscape, also represent a two-fold threat to peace. First, there is considerable evidence that criminals are attempting to gain protection from prosecution by claiming to be political actors. Names of criminals were found on membership lists provided by the FARC. In another notable case, a major drug trafficker captured by Colombian authorities is trying to claim FARC membership in order to prevent his extradition to the United States, which FARC members were protected from in the treaty. By co-opting the process, criminals threaten to delegitimize the treaty and future agreements.
The second threat posed by criminal elements involves attempts by groups to force their way into territory once held by the FARC and the ELN. Though ostensibly political actors, both groups were heavily involved in the production and trafficking of narcotics. By largely disarming, there is a vacuum that criminals will exploit. Despite the FARC treaty, there is already some evidence that displacement due to conflict has increased in portions of Colombia, largely due to the actions of criminal groups. Lucrative production regions and trafficking routes will continue to attract violence throughout the country.
A final potential threat lies with various paramilitary organizations in Colombia. Many right-wing paramilitary groups under the umbrella United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) demobilized in the early 2000s as part of a deal with the government. Not as significant as they once were, many paramilitary groups still continue to operate and engage in violence. Their own use of violence represents a significant threat to peace. It also risks provoking a backlash and the reformation of armed groups to counter the paramilitaries, which would only escalate the overall level of violence.
Dissidents, criminals, and paramilitaries all pose a significant threat to the future of peace in Colombia. Despite progress in reducing homicides from the sky-high rates that started in the 1980s and held to the early 2000s, Colombia is still among the top 20 most violent countries in the world. A continuation of violence after these politically sensitive treaties could delegitimize the process in the eyes of the public. Some evidence suggests that those most affected by FARC violence were, perhaps unsurprisingly, the most supportive of the peace treaty. Should those populations continue to be victimized, all support for both the FARC treaty and future treaties may collapse, making it even more difficult for the government to find ways to exit violent conflicts.
The Colombian government has struggled for years to eliminate violent actors in the country. The peace treaties represent a significant step forward and these gains must be solidified. There is no indication that the government intends to rest on its laurels. Continuing to counter violent actors needs to remain a top priority. In particular, security operations should focus on the areas that were once hotbeds of FARC and ELN activity. If those populations are simply victimized by criminal elements or other paramilitaries, any popular support for further negotiations will wither.
The failure of these treaties would leave Colombia in a state of continued chronic conflict with few options for resolution. The length of the conflict already suggests that there is no purely military solution. Without peace treaties as an option, there is no incentive for these groups to ever stop fighting. Colombia has a chance to reduce the number of violent actors that have caused so much harm to it citizens and the government must do everything it can to ensure that it capitalizes on this opportunity.