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IndraStra Global

An Agreement Between Question Marks — The Process Toward Peace & Security in Colombia

Image Attribute: Colombian flag photo by Bryan Pocius via Creative Commons

After several weeks of dialogue, on November 12, 2016, representatives of the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) announced a long list of changes to the initial version of the peace accord for the demobilization of the longest-standing insurgency in Latin America. With this new document, the parties sought to reach agreement on an alternative to the first version of the accord rejected by the majority of Colombian citizens who voted in the plebiscite held on October 2, 2016. It remains to be seen whether this new compromise will serve to widen the consensus surrounding the peace process and clear the route toward the dissolution of the insurgency or, rather, open the door to a new phase of political polarization and keep Colombia trapped on shaky ground created by the failure to keep the promise to end the armed conflict.

From overseas, the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Juan Manuel Santos was an important recognition of the government’s intent to find a way through the peace process after the defeat at the ballot. The executive branch initiated conversations with the political bloc headed by former President Álvaro Uribe that had opposed the initial agreement reached with the FARC. The result of this dialog was a list of close to five hundred proposals to modify the text which was discussed in Havana by the government representatives negotiating with the guerrillas. The new version of the peace accord is the result of these conversations.


The negative result of the referendum of October 2 cannot be interpreted as a rejection of peace by Colombians, but rather as a demonstration of their opposition to an agreement that many believed would bring neither peace nor justice. For a long time, Colombians have been accustomed to an enormous gap between the erudite discourse of their leaders and the reality of day-to-day life. To some extent, the rejection of the 297-page text was the result of that dissonance that characterizes the perception of the country’s citizens regarding its government and political elite. Beyond the language used by the government to promote the approval of the agreement, many of the provisions of the accord threatened to worsen the security situation and exacerbate the already difficult economic situation. Colombians perceived the gap between language and content and reacted accordingly, halting an agreement that that many had considered a

In truth, the problems that executing the initial version of the accord could have caused are many and grave. In principle, the FARC had committed to demobilizing less than 6,000 combatants, although it is estimated that the total number of guerrillas, including the clandestine “militia” organizations, is approximately 15,000. Consequently, the agreement would carry the risk that a significant part of the FARC would not be included in the demobilization and would remain active. In addition, the accord provided for the distribution of some nine million hectares (roughly twenty-two million acres) of land, which would require the expropriation of vast rural holdings and cause great conflict in those areas. Finally, according to some estimates, the cost of fulfilling the accord was in the order of thirty billion U.S. dollars spread over ten years. Such a sum seems hardly realistic at a time when the Colombian economy is constrained by the loss of income from petroleum due to the drop in international oil prices.

Apart from the conviction by Colombians that the peace agreement would create serious security problems and great economic tensions, the current situation is especially complex due to the existence of the country’s other terrorist group, the National Liberation Army (ELN). With its 2,500 armed combatants, the ELN seems ready to continue its fight against the state and is preparing positions to occupy areas abandoned by the FARC as the latter concentrates its forces to carry out the planned demobilization and disarmament. In these circumstances, the execution of the peace accord could be an opportunity for the ELN to strengthen its military capacity, to the extent it could incorporate militants and arms from the FARC. At the same time, Colombians are conscious that rejection by certain sectors of the FARC to join in the peace process could give rise to a new generation of criminal groups that could add to the threat already posed by the “criminal bands” (BACRIM), a danger to public security of a magnitude equal to that posed by the guerrillas.

This scenario undoubtedly kept many Colombians from overcoming their skepticism born from a long history of negative political experiences and prevented them from trusting in the promise of the initial version of the accord to “end the conflict and build a lasting and stable peace.” Rejection by the citizens was increased by certain highly controversial elements of the accord, such as granting the FARC, automatically and without election, ten seats in Congress between the election cycles of 2018 and 2022; establishing a system of transitional justice that many believed would mean lack of effective punishment for crimes committed during the conflict; and offering members of the insurgency economic benefits greater than the incomes of many Colombians.

In any event, how the October 2 plebiscite was carried out demonstrated that, despite its flaws, Colombia is home to a healthy democracy and solid institutions. In fact, it is worth noting that the tally of the thirteen million votes cast was made public just a few hours after polls closed. Moreover, despite the result being decided by a narrow margin of less than half a percentage point (50.2% to 49.8%), President Santos publicly accepted the defeat of the principal initiative of his presidency mere minutes after the results became known. Colombia’s head of state neither accused his opponents of fraud, nor urged his followers to protest the results, nor demanded a recount. To the contrary, he took the necessary steps to begin a dialog with the leaders of the “no” voters who had imposed themselves on the public referendum.

The way the process stands currently, the logical question is whether the changes made to the text of the agreement are sufficient to overcome the lack of confidence on the part of the “no” voters and achieve a broad consensus allowing for the compromises made between the government and the FARC to take effect. The fact is that important modifications have been made to the agreement, yet without decisive changes. As such, the text now will not be incorporated directly into the political constitution of Colombia; nonetheless, there will be added to the constitution an article which will recognize the agreement as the maximum point of reference for the development of policies related to the peace and will stipulate another series of reforms to the fundamental law. Consequently, the implementation of the text agreed to with the insurgency will bring substantial changes to the constitutional order of the country.

In the same way, in the Final Accord for the Termination of the Conflict and the Construction of a Stable and Lasting Peace, approved on November 12, 2016, in Havana, it is established that the Constitutional Court of Colombia will be able to review some of the sentences issued by the Special Tribunal for the Peace regarding the crimes of the FARC if a fundamental right is affected. The stipulated conditions to determine when a case may reach this level of judicial appeal are considerably restrictive.

On the other hand, certain demands of the “no” camp have been left by the wayside. Members of the FARC implicated in crimes against humanity will still be able to stand for elected public office. In addition, penalties for those crimes will consist of being confined to certain rural zones roughly the size of a village and will have to request permission to leave. This approach differs considerably from the position of those who demanded prison sentences for guerrilla fighters accused of serious crimes.

In these circumstances, it could be that some “no” voters will be satisfied with the modifications, but many others have asked for explanations and more changes. As such, the government has confronted a difficult dilemma: extend the current negotiation to reach a compromise that might satisfy the majority of the “no” camp or seek approval of the new text in Congress, where it would have sufficient support.

Each of these options involves substantial risks.On one hand, prolonging the negotiation would perpetuate an unstable strategic equilibrium between the government and the insurgency that could put the peace process in danger. On the other hand, the approval of a new text in Congress would not be sufficient to overcome a deficit of legitimacy for the agreement, which would make its execution enormously more difficult to carry out, given the distrust and rejection of the agreement by certain political and social sectors. The government has opted for the latter option, which seems to announce that putting into practice what was agreed to with the insurgency will face substantial obstacles.


The dangers of the current situation lie in its intrinsically unstable character. In principal, President Santos has committed himself to maintaining the ceasefire and the FARC leadership has declared its desire to continue working toward peace. Nonetheless, a series of factors give the scenario an extremely volatile nature.

If the paralysis in the peace process took too long, uncertainty about the future could push a fraction of the mid-level leadership of the FARC to stay in arms. Moreover, prolonging the ceasefire without a corresponding disarmament and demobilization of the insurgency would present other risks. The Colombian government has seen itself obliged to limit military operations in FARC areas, to avoid any incident that might break the fragile truce. In consequence, there exists the possibility that the paralysis of the military forces may grant the dissidents of the guerrilla organization-wide latitude to continue their unlawful business activities, such as drug trafficking and illegal mining, given the scant risks faced and enormous benefits to be reaped. This combination of uncertainty about the results of the peace process and participation in the illegal economy would increase incentives for a growing number of FARC militants to choose to reject the agreement and stay armed.

If various segments of the FARC opt to keep their ties to drug trafficking, the position of the Colombian government will become untenable. In such a case, even if the rogue factions of the insurgency take care not to attack Colombian public forces openly, President Santos would find himself facing growing pressure to confront those sectors of the armed group that continues to be connected to the drug trade and other criminal activities. Thus, prospects for culminating the peace process would diminish considerably.

Internal cohesion of the FARC is experiencing fissures that run ever deeper — above all in the First and Seventh Fronts, closely linked to the drug trade. The stoppage in executing the peace agreement will feed the dissension and could result in making it ever more difficult to treat the guerrilla group as a unified organization. In fact, the uncertainty regarding the peace process will reduce the number of mid-level commands willing to accept a demobilization with an unforeseeable outcome. Their option would be to continue operating outside the law, linked to criminal activities that offer them ample economic benefits.

At the same time, if the attempts to extend guarantees for the peace process fail, the energies and political capital of the Colombian executive branch will be consumed by the need to advance the execution of an accord that rejects significant sectors of society. Given these circumstances, the government, whose term ends in August 2018, would lose the ability to confront other security challenges, such as the activities of the ELN and BACRIM, or the more than likely collapse of Venezuela, which would unleash a security and refugee crisis on Colombia’s eastern border.

Meanwhile, rejection of the peace accord increases the possibility that the ELN may prolong the preliminary dialog it maintains with the government and delays the start of the official phase of the peace talks. This suspension of negotiations with the country’s second insurgency seems the inevitable consequence of the loss of credibility of Santos’s government as a negotiating partner. In this context, violence within the troubled relationship between the ELN and the FARC could intensify. For the moment, in regions like Arauca and Nariño, the ELN is resorting to terrorism to destroy clandestine FARC networks and reassert control over coca cultivation areas and other areas of strategic value. Against this backdrop, it cannot be ruled out that encounters between the two insurgencies may expand to regions where they have traditionally cooperated.


On the government side, the ambiguity in the strategic situation in Colombia has increased concerns about the lack of recourses for the security forces to maintain operations on so many open fronts, such as those against FARC dissidents, the ELN, and the BACRIM. The Colombian army is already bearing a heavy burden as a result of budget cuts driven by the economic crisis that pervades the country and by the government’s desire to reduce investment in security to maintain its level of social spending. Defense spending in the budget has fallen from 995 million dollars to 335 million between 2013 and 2016. It is unlikely that the Santos government will reverse this tendency, given that it is facing severe financial pressure due to the falling international price of oil, a source of income that has become a pillar of the Colombian state budget.

Furthermore, it is unclear what will be the effect of the rejection of the agreement with the FARC on the current efforts to transform the Colombian army. Although this process is taking place outside the realm of the negotiations with the FARC, future missions of the armed forces and their needs will be influenced by the situation that results from the peace process. In fact, a key factor will be the magnitude of dissent within the FARC and the scale of the military campaign that will be undertaken to confront it. If a significant percentage of the insurgency abandons the demobilization agreement and maintains its ties to the drug trade, the argument will be strengthened for the military forces to take on a central role in the fight to diminish these groups and consolidate the peace.

On a positive note, it should be mentioned that the rejection of the agreement reached between the FARC and the Santos government likely avoided the spate of social conflicts in the rural areas of Colombia that probably would have arisen had the planned territorial expropriations that were part of the stipulated agrarian reform taken place. From this perspective, the process of amending the peace agreement has opened an opportunity to broaden political and social support for the agreement and diminish the possibility that its agreement turns into a source of disputes. Nevertheless, given the impossibility of reaching a compromise between the government and the supporters of the “no” vote, this risk will become a permanent obstacle to the stability of the country.

On the other hand, the triumph of the “no” in the referendum and the subsequent dialog to modify the peace accord have left in place the Law of Victims and Restoration of Lands, passed by the Santos government in 2011 with the objective of facilitating people displaced by the conflict in recovering their property. Although in theory the policy claims only to restore aggrieved property rights, several of its clauses (such as shifting the burden of proof to require landowners challenged under the law to prove they acquired their property without coercion), have generated an enormous amount of legal insecurity and have created the conditions for an increase in social tensions in the rural regions of Colombia.

Such a scenario has discouraged many investors that do not want to get mixed up in endless legal disputes. Thus, a policy created to redress property rights has become a check against investment in areas such as the eastern plains, where agricultural development requires large injections of capital.

Beyond the problems related to property rights in the rural areas, it is likely that the combination of the political blow the Santos administration suffered as a result of the people’s rejection of the agreement with the FARC, and the need to concentrate its efforts on a difficult renegotiation to move the peace process forward, are keeping the government from tackling other urgent challenges.

Such is the case with the expansion of fields of coca cultivation. The government’s decision to suspend aerial eradication efforts has generated a rapid rise in coca cultivation, which by the end of 2015 had reached 159,000 hectares (393,000 acres) — with a potential production of 420 tons of cocaine. In the political environment created by the triumph of the “no” vote in the plebiscite, it will be difficult for President Santos to make a decision as controversial as the resumption of aerial spraying with glyphosate. This option seems particularly difficult to take when direct opposition by dissident elements of the FARC is considered.

Looking forward, the changes introduced in the new version of the peace accord relating to the fight against drug cultivation do not seem that they will lend a substantial advantage to the state in its effort to dismantle this illegal economy. It is true that the new text mentions aerial spraying as one of the options open to the government if efforts to promote voluntary eradication fail. Regardless, the likelihood of taking this approach seems remote when taking into account that the agreement emphasizes the need to coordinate eradication with the growers and that the growers should start benefitting from a rural development program before being obligated to eradicate their crops. Likewise, despite the agreement’s obligation that guerrillas make detailed declarations about their narcotrafficking activities, it remains to be seen how much information they will provide and what its practical value will be.

With respect to the Colombian economy, the prolonged period of low oil prices has generated a large public budget deficit. Moreover, the problems of the public fisc in Bogotá, instead of lessening, could sharpen quickly. The decline of petroleum income has forced a drastic cut in investment in exploration activities to locate new oil fields to replace the ones being depleted.As a consequence, crude reserves in Colombia are diminishing rapidly and have the potential to turn the country into a net importer of hydrocarbons in a few years. In light of the sabotage and theft of gasoline committed by the insurgency and the BACRIM, the petroleum sector as a pillar of the economy is confronting a crisis without precedent.


Among Colombia’s neighbors, the rejection of the peace accord with the FARC was a tough blow to the diplomatic strategy of Venezuelan President NicolásMaduro. From the beginning of the peace process, the Venezuelan government supported the negotiations with two objectives. On one hand, it sought to break its growing isolation in the region, and on the other hand, to strengthen the Colombian left as an instrument to gain influence over its neighbor. Nevertheless, the result of the referendum in Colombia and the open negotiation between the Colombian government and the “no” camp have left the future of the peace process dependent on a debate exclusively among Colombians, reducing the relevance of external actors such as Venezuela. A similar analysis can be drawn regarding President Rafael Correa of Ecuador. Although Quito has played a prominent role in contacts with the ELN, the rejection of the accord with the FARC is also a diplomatic reversal for Ecuador and its aspirations to be seen as an international mediator with regional influence.

As in other similar cases, observers in Europe and Latin America view Colombia in a negative light for having “rejected peace.” To the extent that public declarations abound with terms like “concern” and “disappointment” in order to express support for the continuation of the peace process, it is likely that the global left sees an opportunity to erode the image of a key ally of the United States. Nonetheless, the presence of pro-Western, free-market governments in Argentina, Brazil, and Peru, together with the continuing debacle in Venezuela, will drastically reduce the ability of left-wing governments in Latin America to isolate Colombia.

At the same time, the renegotiation of the peace agreement in Colombia has been taking place at a key moment in the United States, given that it has coincided with the ending of the Democratic administration of Barack Obama and the arrival to the presidency of Republican Donald Trump. Although within the Obama administration many have been disappointed that “peace in Colombia” will not be part of the outgoing President’s legacy, it is important now more than ever that Washington maintains its support for its ally after the decision it made in an impeccably democratic vote. Despite many shortcomings in its political and economic institutions, Colombia has shown that it is a worthy and capable ally with which the United States can work toward making the region and the world more secure, just, and prosperous.

We should not leave space for misunderstandings. The stalemate created by the rejection of the peace agreement with the FARC involves significant risks for security in Colombia. Nevertheless, there are solid reasons to argue that the threat to the stability and prosperity of Colombia would have been greater if the accord has been approved with its deficient provisions and the lack of public support for seeing it through. The challenge now is to achieve a national consensus that makes it possible to move toward the demobilization of the insurgency and the consolidation of the peace without giving rise to new confrontations and divisions. It is a road that only Colombians will be able to travel, but in which the support of the United States will be key.


Dr. Ellis and Dr. Ortiz would like to recognize the outstanding work of Michael Winn, in the translation of this article from its original Spanish.

About the Authors:

R. EVAN ELLIS is the Latin American Studies research professor at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute. Follow him on Twitter — @REvanEllis.

ROMÁN D. ORTIZ is the director of Decisive Point, a consulting firm dedicated to defense, security, and political risk. Follow him on Twitter @roman_d_ortiz.

Cite this Article:

Ellis, R. Evan; Ortiz, Román D., (2017) , Foreign Affairs Latinoamérica, Vol. 17: №1, pp. 93–100. Available at



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