Colombia's Peace Deal:  Rocky Road to Implementation as Targeted Killings Persist

Colombia's Peace Deal: Rocky Road to Implementation as Targeted Killings Persist

Talk of peace and post-conflict has been plentiful in Colombia since the revised peace deal between Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - Ejército del Pueblo (FARC-EP) and the Colombian government was signed in November 2016. After more than 50 years of armed conflict and more than 8 million registered victims, this is perhaps the closest Colombia has come to achieving peace.

However, what exactly do we mean by 'peace' and 'post-conflict'? Is it the absence of armed violence between belligerent forces? When exactly does 'conflict' end and 'peace' begin? Does it come in chronological order? Is it a mutually exclusive state? The complexity that arises when trying to answer these questions speaks to the challenges that lie ahead for achieving a comprehensive peace in Colombia.

As sociologist Johan Galtung argues, since the nature of the violence-peace phenomenon goes beyond the infliction of physical violence, avenues towards peace must also consider less visible and more structural and ideological manifestations of violence. In Colombia, the systematic targeted killing of social activists and members of the political left has been pervasive. Largely remaining in impunity, this phenomenon has been one of the driving forces behind Colombia's precarious human rights situation and a major spoiler of previous peace attempts with insurgent groups.

Putting an end to targeted killings is at the core of the peace deal. Yet, eight months into its implementation, the pattern has persisted. 173 murderers have been reported in the past 16 months and 39 since the deal was signed. This calls into question the capacity of the Colombian State to deliver on its end of the bargain. It not only illustrates the risks that FARC combatants will face on their transition to civilian life, but also the implications that post-agreement political violence could have on the prospect of peace in Colombia.

Colombia's Long History of Targeted Killing

Colombia is often referred to as Latin America's most longstanding democracy. Unlike most of its neighbors, it has not experienced a fierce military dictatorship. The robustness and inclusiveness of its democracy is, however, far from immaculate, as promises of pluralism have been reduced to restrained political participation and outright persecution.

Reform efforts have been associated with communism, armed insurgency, and more recently, terrorism, giving way to a logic of criminalization that has served to justify human rights abuses committed against political dissidents. The emergence of right-wing paramilitaries Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) was precisely a by-product of this reasoning. Targeting FARC combatants and suspected supporters, paramilitaries were responsible for the majority of the 1982 massacres perpetrated in Colombia between 1985 and 2012.

Although para-militarism was officially condemned by the Colombian State, no decisive action was taken to dismantle the groups. Enjoying the implicit collaboration of State officials, regional elites and broad sectors of the general public, paramilitary violence was widely overlooked and implicitly tolerated.

Events such as the slaughter of political party Unión Patriótica (UP), recognized in 2014 as a crime against humanity, are precisely why the recent targeting of activists is so unsettling. Resulting from the pluralist efforts of the attempted peace process of the early 1980s, the party was composed of members of the Communist Party and FARC spokespersons. As with today's peace accord, the Colombian State then recognized the historical marginalization and persecution that the left had been subjected to and encouraged its representatives to participate in electoral politics. Drug lords, paramilitary groups, and State Security forces, nonetheless, killed more than 3500 UP affiliates, including two Presidential candidates, eleven mayors, and eight members of Congress in what has been recognized as an act of 'political extermination' by the Colombian State and international courts.

The patterns of paramilitarism remain till the day. BACRIM groups (short for bandas criminales or “criminal gangs”), paramilitary reminiscences from AUC's demobilization in the early 2000s, are suspected to be behind the recent wave of assassinations. The limited information regarding their incentives and operational structures, nonetheless, makes it difficult to fully understand the dynamics fueling the attacks.

Post-agreement Colombia: Challenges Ahead

Colombia's peace deal goes beyond a mere disarmament and demobilization effort. It presents a roadmap for transforming the country's structural inequalities, laying the foundation for building a comprehensive peace.

Considering the country's record of political violence, the agreement creates instruments to guarantee the dismantling of BACRIM groups and the provision of safety guarantees for former FARC combatants, as well as for all individuals and organizations, regardless of where they lie on the political spectrum. Yet, the rate of assassinations reveals how dramatically the agreement is failing to meet expectations. Its still unclear how the mechanisms operate on the ground and how they are responding, if indeed they are, to the wave of killings.

President Juan Manuel Santos and his administration have insisted on toning down the conversation by claiming that these are isolated rather than systematic events. They have failed to take timely and forceful measures to guarantee the safety of activists and have denied the existence of a new generation of para-militarism. There seems to be a smokescreen obscuring the fact that although there might be genuine efforts to end targeted killings, the administration is lacking the political, strategic, and territorial capacity to control the phenomenon.

The state of affairs forces us to take a closer look at what is happening beneath the surface when it comes to the agreement's implementation. Despite advancements in demobilization, disarmament, and transitional justice, Colombia is once again faced with how challenging it is to dismantle ideologies and narratives that have legitimized and perpetuated armed conflict.

The similarity of today's inaction to the "look the other way" syndrome that characterized Colombia's past four decades of political violence is unnerving. It is still unclear if the State will have the capacity to protect FARC combatants once they leave the demobilization camps and participate in electoral politics.

The peace deal sought to bury the era when those with "dangerous" political ideas could not exercise their right to speak freely without being silenced. It has, indeed, introduced tentative steps towards tolerance and depolarization. Yet, it is still uncertain if the hope of having a democracy that is strengthened, rather than threatened, by alternative political views will become a reality anytime soon. 

Image "Colombia Fighting for Peace" Courtesy Leon Hernandez ⚡️ / CC BY 2.0

About the Author

Laura Cuéllar has been part of the Strategic Projects division at Bogotá's Center of Memory Peace and Reconciliation since late 2016. Prior to this she served as Associate Editor at Harvard University's Journal of Middle Eastern Politics and Policy and as Analyst at the Spanish NGO Ayuda en Acción. Laura holds a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy from Tufts University's Fletcher School and a B.A in History from Universidad de los Andes. She is passionate about understanding the drivers of armed conflict and paving avenues for their positive transformation. Her interests lie at the intersection of armed conflict, development, international law and human security.

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