“Notes from the field” is a series of articles written by South America editor Christian Medina Ramirez, on location, about the ongoing Colombian peace process. Read the first one here.
I remember two great periods of violence in my life in Colombia. The first I don’t recall well, I was too young. Nevertheless, I’ve managed to piece foggy memories with stories told by my parents and older family members. During the late 80’s and early 90’s the rise of drug cartels, like the infamous Cartel de Medellin led by Pablo Escobar, unleashed an unprecedented high level of violence in the country. My dad was five minutes away from being blown up by a bomb after leaving a parking lot in timely fashion. Several of my family members almost fell at the bombing of El Espectador, the only newspaper at the time denouncing the intermingling between politics and drug lords.
The second period of violence was related to the civil war with leftist guerrillas. At the height of the conflict, around the year 2000, the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC) were closing in on Bogotá. Kidnappings, mass killings and terrorist attacks on the population were a common occurrence during this time. Going out at night, let alone driving outside of the city, was unthinkable. A timely counter-insurgency strategy funded by the US pushed the insurgents away from Bogotá. A sting of successive military defeats severely weakened the FARC and led them to the negotiating table two years ago.
A recent agreement within the framework of peace negotiations between the FARC, the largest insurgent group, and the Colombian government seems to signal the beginning of the end of the conflict. There is a wide spread belief that a settlement on transitional justice mechanisms was the key to untangling the conflict and finally achieving peace. However, this is a very simplistic understanding of power and violence in the Colombian context.
In late September of 2015, President Juan Manuel Santos (2014- ) and FARC top commander Rodrigo Londoño Echeveri (alias: Timochenko) agreed on transitional justice mechanisms that will be applied during the post-conflict. The agreement is top notch, to say the least. It takes some of the latest research and lessons from previous post-conflict scenarios and applies them to the Colombian case. For example, the Truth and Reconciliation commission recognizes that both sides of the armed conflict committed various war crimes and human rights violations. It views conflict and violence as a societal wide failure, instead of placing blame on one group or the other. It portrays a very nuanced view of victims, which include phenomena like child soldiers and internally displaced persons. It also celebrates forms of resistance to violence, which is key to begin the healing process in post-conflict societies.
Many Colombians are unhappy with the agreement, still distrustful of FARC intentions, many influential members of the populace are arguing for more stringent punishments for the FARC. Under the scheme, there will be an amnesty for rank-and-file soldiers, while a special panel of international judges will try both top FARC commanders and government officials. Top officials who collaborate with judges and the Truth and Reconciliation commission will be able to serve alternative sentences, doing community work for several years instead of hard jail time.
However, the brilliance of the agreement lies in that it is prevents victor’s justice. The agreement is very appealing and reasonable agreement to the FARC command. A one sided agreement would have been rejected swiftly. Despite recent military setbacks, the FARC counts with about 6,000 soldiers, a powerful arsenal and an almost limitless source of funding through the drug trade. If the FARC wanted, they could keep fighting on for several years. Instead this agreement guarantees the FARC’s commitment to building a post-conflict society. The stock image of the peace process has been the presence of Timochenko in Havana, shaking hands with Juan Manuel Santos. This is in stark contrast to the previous peace attempt carried out by ex-president Andres Pastrana (1998-2002), where FARC leadership didn’t show up to the negotiating table and took advantage from the government’s good will to enhance their military positions.
Even though the agreement is a very good one, and peace will most likely be signed in Havana before the end of next year, many of the security issues besieging the nation today will remain unresolved. Many remote places in the country have no state presence at all and are often under the defacto control of illegal actors. The FARC might become fractionalized, particularly those brigades most involved in the drug trade. If peace is to be signed, it is likely these factions will remain active, profiting from their coca fields and drug routes. Other actors involved in the drug trade, like the Rastrojos, Los Urabeños and La Oficina de Envigado still remain active. A recent Human Rights Watch report exposed a deplorably high number of drug related murders in Buenaventura, a port city on the pacific coast and the main export point for North America bound cocaine. Furthermore, if proper demobilization, reintegration and rehabilitation schemes are not put in place for rank-and-file soldiers (the next point to be discussed in the Havana negotiating table), criminal cartels might see their ranks reinvigorated by former guerrilla fighters. This has already been the case with former paramilitary soldiers, who returned to criminal activities after a hasty peace agreement signed with ex-president Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010).
Free from pursuing the FARC, it is expected that the Colombian Armed Forces will start encroaching on the drug trade. However, ghosts from the 1980’s drug war against Pablo Escobar remain. Mexico’s war against drug cartels might also serve as evidence of what is to come. I dare not predict a return to the levels of violence seen in the eighties, not because it is unlikely, but because I do not have the heart to make such a claim.
The 60-year-old conflict has raged on as we continued with our existence, always in the back of our minds, sometimes hitting close to home, and sometimes affecting some poor souls in the far away countryside. The recent agreement with the FARC is to be celebrated. It is evidence of how far we’ve come as a country. It addresses a series of injustices committed by all actors in the conflict and it comes close to ending the civil war. However, Colombians are far from knowing real peace, not until drug trafficking is addressed.
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Christian Medina Ramirez is a Master of Arts candidate at the Norman Patterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, Ottawa. He was born in Bogotá, Colombia, and did his undergraduate degree in Politics and Philosophy at the University of Hong Kong and the University of Waterloo, Canada.
Photo Credit: Kelly O’Connor