Five challenges for sustainable peace in Colombia

At a first glance, it may seem that Colombia is finally nearing peace and an end to its decades-old conflict, which cost the life of more than 200,000 people and left nearly 7 million displaced. With a peace process hailed by many policymakers and scholars as one of the most comprehensive of our time and with the successful conclusion of the FARC’s disarmament process three months ago, there are definitely reasons to rejoice. However, the agreement is only a first step toward peace and many challenges remain.

Here’s my take on the five biggest challenges for building sustainable peace in Colombia:


1) organized crime and the unruly forces of the illicit economy

While the conflict with the FARC may be over and the State is currently in peace negotiations with its second-biggest guerrilla, the ELN, Colombia has yet to properly tackle the growing importance of criminal organizations and the consolidation of illegal economies in the country. These criminal groups, so-called BACRIM or neo-paramilitaries (due to methods and networks inherited from demobilized paramilitary groups and their collusion with corrupt State officials and military officers), have no political ideology per se but are simply at the quest for narco-profits.

A 2016 report by the well-respected Colombian think tank FIP highlights some of the causes for organized crime’s ever-increasing stranglehold on certain regions of the country: the growing internal drug trade and consumption (so-called ‘micro-tráfico’); the new business opportunities created by the power vacuum of the now demobilized FARC, formerly one of the drug business’ biggest player; and the expansion of the illegal mining industry such as illegal gold mining.

Interestingly, the powerful incentives of large, illegal profits have generated unholy alliances between illegal armed groups and narco-organizations, as reflected by the decreased use of indiscriminate violence and armed confrontations in some regions. Narco-profits are also responsible for the desertion of FARC members, with many of them joining other groups, like the EPL guerrilla in the Catatumbo region. These short-term ‘arrangements of convenience’ between groups and the phenomenon of ‘recycled insurgency’ highlight the increasingly complex and messy security landscape.

While organized crime may not seem directly related to Colombia’s peace process, it most certainly is. The tentacles of organized crime have permeated many sectors of society, destroying social fabric along the way: these criminal groups are responsible for the rise in assassinations of social activists and human rights defenders, have been linked to many human rights abuses in the agro- and extractive industry and continue to terrorize many parts of the country (Buenaventura, a port-city on Colombia’s Pacific coast, is a tragic case in point). So long as the illicit economy continues to thrive and grow, durable peace in Colombia will not be reached.

2) the State’s adoption of a holistic approach to peacebuilding

The Colombian State has been adopting ill-suited policies in various important dimensions of its post-conflict agenda. Be it in responding to social movements and the assassinations of social leaders or tackling organized crime, this democracy’s strategies leave much to be desired.

Although nonviolent social movements are on the rise in Colombia’s ‘post-conflict’ era, the Colombian State is responding with repression and force. In what many analysts consider emblematic, 6 farmers were recently killed by the national police force, who fired in a crowd of peaceful protestors a few weeks ago in the Pacific municipality of Tumaco.

According to a 2017 FIP report, over 50% of the country’s protests reported in the press are directly linked to State policies and (in)actions (the other 50% are linked to housing/land issues, security and public goods provision, the peace process and the private sector). Despite the increasing pacific and dialogue-prone nature of protests, the report highlights the lack of adequate State policies to respond to these social grievances. 

While the State-led peace process has undoubtedly created a window of opportunity for a more active and vocal civil society, explaining, in part, the rise of social movements, many human rights defenders whom I exchange with seem to think that the State is actually trying to preemptively squash the voices of social discontent. For example, in a meeting last month, William Mendoza, president of Barrancabermeja’s food and beverage worker’s union SINALTRAINAL, claimed that it was no coincidence that, as the peace talks were being finalized, the Code of Police was changed to restrict citizens’ right to assemble and protest.

What is more, the State is failing to respond to the extermination of social leaders in rural Colombia. The current government seems more preoccupied in discussing semantics, using each assassination case to justify that paramilitarism and systematic killings by a single group no longer exist – thereby washing its hands of any political responsibility for what is going on, rather than actually exercising its monopoly of violence over the territory.

Just like its policies vis-à-vis social protests and the protection of social leaders, Colombia’s tactics against organized crime and drug trafficking seem equally inadequate and misguided. For example, public security forces have tended to target a maximum number of arrests, the capture of highly visible druglords (the so-called kingpin strategy) and forced eradication of coca cultivation instead of tackling the root causes of narco-trafficking, such as lack of economic opportunities, weak law enforcement and weak State presence in many areas of the country.

These policies have not only proven to be ineffective but also counterproductive. By giving coca growers perverse incentives to increase coca production, the State’s current coca substitution program has clearly backfired and its aggressive kingpin tactics have worsened Colombia’s security panorama: the power void and fragmentation of criminal organizations have led to an ‘atomized’ drug trafficking industry composed of much smaller narco-groups and production labs that are difficult to trace. This has resulted in rising levels of violence as groups compete for territorial control and increasing uncertainty and fear amidst local communities.

As stressed by the FIP’s 2016 report, “the [State’s] unbalanced intervention, with a strong repressive component, creates an adverse context for the consolidation of the State and the construction of peace.” In its attempts to consolidate Colombia’s democracy and strengthen the State legitimacy needed for sustainable peace, the State will need to let go of its coercive tendencies and invest in creating more inclusive, democratic and holistic forms of interactions between citizenry and public institutions.

3) the upcoming 2018 presidential elections and the risk of a right-ward turn

Another great challenge to Colombia’s peace is the looming political uncertainty, what with the 2018 elections threatening to further deepen the already existent political divisiveness and jeopardize the peace process.

As explained in the 2017 report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), opponents to the current peace process, right-wing hardliners led by former president Uribe, have succeeded in politically hijacking the peace deal, reflected by their effective “no” campaign in last year’s referendum. They did so by mobilizing their highly politically active support base, utilizing existing conflict grievances and the Catholic church’s anti-“gender” ideology, and spreading misinformation. The report claims:

“With Uribe and other leading opposition figures set against the peace agreement and portraying themselves as the saviours of democracy, and with Vice President Vargas Lleras another contender, the likelihood of an anti-agreement candidate winning the presidency is high. Full implementation of the accord would then be in jeopardy.” – ICG (2017)

Some of the fears of a future right-wing government for Colombia’s peace include the legislative modifications of some key elements of the peace agreement and the starving of important development programs (such as the reintegration program of FARC members into civil society or rural development programs). However, even if pro-agreements win the presidential elections, a strong coalition will be necessary to form the majority needed in congress.

Hence, with the future implementation of the peace agreement resting more on party politics and political allegiances rather than on Colombian citizens’ long-run vision for peace, the fate of the peace process seems to be quite fragile. Indeed, a noncompliant right-wing government or pro-agreement minority-led congress could have adverse consequences for Colombia’s peace: as hard as it was to end the conflict, civil war can easily relapse if the State’s commitment to the agreement loses credibility.

4) citizens’ political disillusion and mistrust

53 years of brutal civil war fought by a highly corrupt political elite and various armed groups, which profited from much of the violence and plundering, have left a legacy of political mistrust. This was made crystal clear in last year’s victory of the ‘no’ campaign in the peace referendum and the high proportion of abstention votes.

What little faith Colombians still have in public institutions hinges today on the fragile peace process and on timely implementation of the agreement. As highlighted by the ICG, a “swift, effective start to implementation of the accord is needed to reverse public wariness and political resistance.”

While it is easily understandable why trust between the government and the FARC must be maintained for the agreement to hold and for peace to last, it may be less clear why citizens’ trust in the peace process is so important.

As I stress in my previous blog post, genuine, long-lasting peace relies on the active participation of civil society (a core concept of any functioning democracy) and, in turn, on a minimal level of trust in the political system. Indeed, civil society will only start to appropriate the peace process if it believes its efforts have the necessary political support and democratic guarantees, such as State protection and the enforcement of the rule of law.

However, with human rights defenders and social activists facing ever-increasing risks, trust in the protective and law enforcement capacities of the State runs low. Aside from making sure the implementation of the peace process runs smoothly, the Colombian government must therefore double its efforts in protecting the lives of its citizens, particularly human rights defenders.  

5) healing the wounds of the past

The last important piece of the puzzle, without which none of the above challenges can be overcome, is the need for a real process of reconciliation, i.e. the arduous task of healing the open wounds of the past and reconstructing the social fabric.

While there is no magic recipe for reconciliation (and without wanting to delve into textbook best practices for post-conflict reconciliation, which you can find here), a few important lessons can be drawn from Colombia’s tumultuous history.

First, the Colombian government must make sure that the newly demobilized FARC are not met with another ‘political genocide’, like the FARC’s former political arm, the UP, suffered in the late 1980s at the hands of the paramilitaries. Indeed, true reconciliation cannot coexist with legally sanctioned political actors who fear for their lives, as report many demobilized FARC today.

An absolute sine qua non for peace is for justice to be dealt through formal State channels, thereby cutting the vicious spiral of reprisals, vengeance and hatred that fuels conflict as well as strengthening the much-needed public perception of State legitimacy (as stressed by point 4).

Second, reconciliation in Colombia relies on breaking with its historical record of impunity and giving due process to war crimes and human rights abuses committed in the context of the armed conflict (precisely what the 2003-2006 paramilitary peace process lacked). The well-functioning of the JEP (Justicia Especial para la Paz in Spanish), Colombia’s main apparatus in the transitional justice process, is therefore key. Any misuse of the JEP to give amnesty to criminal organizations, what is currently being discussed with the surrender of Colombia’s notorious Clan del Golfo, could lead to a slippery slope and hurt the reconciliation process.

During his September visit to the majority-Catholic country, the Pope Francis brought many important messages of peace and reconciliation, urging young Colombians to set aside hatred and vengeance and take the lead in promoting forgiveness. Hopefully these messages will continue to resonate in Colombians’ collective conscience in the years to come.


Thanks for reading! As always, do not hesitate to share this article on social media and write your comments below.

“The more demanding the path that leads to peace and understanding, the greater must be our efforts to acknowledge each another, to heal wounds, to build bridges, to strengthen relationships and support one another.” – Pope Francis in a speech to Colombian political leaders, 7 September 2017

Mural painting by Ze Carrion (‘Queremos Paz‘ – We Want Peace), community of El Guayabo

Complementary readings (in English and Spanish)

Collier, P. (2003). Breaking the conflict trap: Civil war and development policy. World Bank Publications.

Idler, A. (2012). Exploring Agreements of Convenience Made among Violent Non-State Actors. Perspectives on Terrorism6(4-5).

Garzón, J., Llorente, M., Álvarez, E., & Preciado, A. (2016). Economías criminales en clave de postconflicto. Tendencias actuales y propuestas para hacerle frente. Fundación Ideas para la Paz-FIP. Colombia.

Bulla, P., González, P., & Zapata, O. (2017) ¿Dónde, cómo, quiénes y por qué se movilizan los colombianos? Preparémonos para una protesta social amplia y menos violenta. Fundación Ideas para la Paz-FIP. Colombia.

International Crisis Group. (2017). In the Shadow of “No”: Peace after Colombia’s Plebiscite. Brussels: International Crisis Group.

Paffenholz, T. & Spurk, C. (2006). Civil Society, Civic Engagement and Peacebuilding. Washington, DC: World Bank.

Thoumi, F. E. (2003). Illegal drugs, economy, and society in the Andes. Woodrow Wilson Center Press.

Walter, B. F. (2002). Committing to peace: The successful settlement of civil wars. Princeton University Press.

6 thoughts on “Five challenges for sustainable peace in Colombia

  1. Thank you for an amazingly succinct overview with all the links to background articles. I would agree especially with your fourth point. No peace will be possible without involving all sectors of society and listening to their proposals – rural communities, women’s organisations, Indigenous groups. The government’s economic vision of major infrastructure projects, extractive industries and agro-industry not only lacks any element of popular consultation, but is determined to roll out its plans regardless of resistance. – Added to your other points this weakens ultimately the government’s stability and hence the potential peace.

    1. Thanks Britta for this comment. You’re right – I could have put more emphasis on the role of the development agenda of the state and of mining/agricultural megaprojects’ incompatibility with the development of the rural campesino. It is quite a controversial subject to get in (since it can often be perceived as dogmatic and anti-capitalist) but I think it is definitely a very important subject. I might write a future article about this here.

  2. Thanks Flo, very interesting. I was wondering if you were planning to address the possible role of foreign stakeholders, those that might have played a positive (or negative) role in bringing Colombia closer to peace.

    1. Yes, that’s a great point! The role of the US has been very contentious in Colombia, with its infamous ‘war on drugs’ and the financing of Uribe’s Plan Colombia. A lot has already been written on this topic (and I briefly touch on Plan Colombia’s legacy on the Colombian State’s anti-narcotic policies today). However, I might explore in a next blog post the role of external stakeholders for peace and stability in the future (check out: http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/04/27/does-trump-have-a-plan-for-colombia/), a subject that does not seem to have grasped much media attention yet.

    1. Thanks Juan! Humbled to receive this feedback from a Colombia expert like you. Feel free to share it with your network!

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