Colombia’s FARC deal marks a step toward peace, but violence is far from over

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos shakes hands with FARC leader Timoleón Jiménez, while Raul Castro looks on at the signing of the cease-fire in Havana. (Credit: Presidencia El Salvador/Flickr)

The bilateral cease-fire announced Thursday by the Colombian government and the country’s largest rebel group, the FARC, marks a significant step forward in reducing violence in the country; but it doesn’t necessarily mean the five-decade-old conflict is over, and it doesn’t mean Colombia has been made any safer overnight.

The cease-fire will begin with the signing of a final peace deal in the coming weeks, and if all goes as planned, rebels will have six months to put down their arms. The deal will include the creation of temporary transition zones and camps for the estimated 7,000 rebels, as well as final ratification by the Colombian people.

Still, daunting implementation problems remain unresolved, and there is little reason to expect all conflict and violence to disappear overnight.

“Disarming the FARC won’t resolve all of Colombia’s problems,” Jorge Robledo, a leftist senator from an opposition party, told the New York Times. “Some violence will disappear, some won’t.”

One possibility is that some FARC members may not demobilize at all but join other armed or criminal groups, particularly given the lucrative options in the drug trade. One of these groups is the country’s second rebel movement, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, or ELN), which many fear could fill the void left by the FARC.

The ELN is still active and has been working to overthrow the government for more than a half-century, but the peace process with the Colombian government has not even been started. According to an analysis by Insight Crime, negotiating a meaningful deal with the more fractured and federated ELN structure will be far more difficult than with the FARC, which is vertically integrated and more disciplined.

There is also the looming risk of FARC dissidents taking up arms again, especially if any assassination attempts of FARC leaders are made as they make the transition into the country’s political scene. Most Colombians want peace, but many remain deeply skeptical and do not trust the FARC to honor its commitments. If a rebel were to be attacked or killed after this agreement, it could drive the group back to the jungle to take up arms once again.

Adding further tension to the deal, there is still debate over how and when the FARC will participate in the political process. There is still debate about whether the FARC should be able to begin organizing as a political group before, during or after disarming. The matter is particularly tense in light of recent political killings by criminal groups that oppose peacemaking with the government.

After the recent cease-fire deal, both the government and the FARC need to establish how the peace deal in its entirety will be implemented, verified and approved. None of the measures will take effect until a comprehensive deal is signed and Colombian citizens approve it.

Still, for Colombians, the peace accord is something of a miracle after 30 years of long, unsuccessful negotiations. The hope is that with continued negotiations, the government can gradually refocus its energies from the conflict toward cracking down on other forms of crime and the poverty and inequality that fuel it.

“Today is a historic day for our country after 52 years of death, bombings and pain,” said President Juan Manuel Santos. “The youth of our country have never known a single day without violence. But today we have turned this long and tragic page in our history.”

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com