The landmark 2016 peace deal was expected to reduce Colombia’s humanitarian needs. And yet 5.1 million Colombians – more than 10 percent of the population – required assistance in February, up from 4.2 million in 2018, not to mention more than one million Venezuelans.
Most Colombians in need are among the country’s 8.1 million internally displaced persons, the largest IDP population in the world. That number has risen significantly since the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known as the FARC, reached a deal to end the western hemisphere’s longest-running armed conflict.
Clashes between armed groups are the primary cause of growing displacement in Colombia. Even as the FARC has demobilised, other groups have proliferated and grown stronger, spreading violence as they fight for control of drug trafficking routes and illegal mining activities.
Fuelling this armed violence is the lack of rural development, says Gerard Gomez, country head of the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA. In order to achieve peace, he told The New Humanitarian, “you can’t just silence guns, you also have to silence inequality”.
The poorest and least developed rural regions of Colombia, where the state has little to no presence, are also the ones where most coca is found and where armed groups take advantage of poverty to recruit youngsters who lack other opportunities.
The peace deal’s most immediate goals have been accomplished. The FARC gave up their weapons, handing them over to a UN verification mission, in six months. And the group has transformed into a political party that has the right to 10 congressional seats for two consecutive terms.
But the deal’s most profound goal, establishing state authority over large, lawless parts of the country, hasn’t been achieved. Crucial issues like rural reform are either being implemented slowly or not at all. And the transitional justice system, considered pivotal for Colombia’s longer-term rehabilitation, is under attack from politicians opposed to the accord.
“The final deal hasn’t been able to materialise its other objective, that of deactivating the root causes of the armed conflict,” Carlos Alfonso Negret, the Colombian government’s human rights ombudsman, told The New Humanitarian.
This briefing explores the stumbling blocks toward meeting that and other key objectives.
Why has the number of armed groups increased?
Colombia’s armed groups thrive on drug trafficking, a business they control. Many have links with drug cartels in Mexico, like the Sinaloa. With cocaine production at an all-time high, they can afford to purchase more weapons and pay for new recruits.
When the FARC demobilised, the government failed to fill the void. An assortment of different illegal entities stepped in, including the EPL and the ELN – two Marxist guerrilla groups as old as the FARC, although much smaller – and the BACRIM, or criminal gangs.
The newest armed groups in Colombia are the dissidents – former FARC members who never agreed with the peace deal, or who became disillusioned with its implementation.
Last year, clashes between the ELN and the EPL displaced 12,600 people in Norte de Santander, a region on the border with Venezuela. Fighting between two dissident groups in Tumaco, a municipality on Colombia’s southern Pacific coast, displaced up to 1,600 people on 23 January, 2019.
Gomez says armed groups are terrorising the population in new ways, threatening to kill people who leave certain areas and planting landmines near civilian homes – things the FARC never did.
Unlike the FARC, they have also started threatening humanitarians. UN vests are no longer the security shields they once were, making it harder to help those in need. “Restricted humanitarian access and confinement conditions [for civilians threatened in certain areas] have increased,” Gomez said.
Armed groups are also contaminating water sources through illegal mining and attacks on oil lines. Communities exposed to contaminated water sources struggle, as the lack of potable water makes them fall sick and they can’t water their crops or fish.
Why are coca farmers in a bind?
The peace deal launched a substitution programme for illegal crops – the first government attempt to treat cocaine production as a problem of development, not just of criminality. Yet the government has been slow to roll out the programme, and armed groups threaten coca farmer leaders who advocate for it.
Community leaders report threats in the form of calls, text messages, and even pamphlets with pictures of dismembered bodies. The attorney general’s office says that since the peace deal was signed, more than 400 community leaders have been killed – most of them crop substitution advocates gunned down by men on motorcycles.
Under the substitution scheme, coca farmers voluntarily uproot their crop in exchange for a monthly stipend of about $300 per family and other benefits like technical assistance to help them grow and sell legal produce.
Close to 100,000 coca-growing families agreed to take part in the programme. But the government is behind on keeping up its side of the bargain. For example, in Putumayo, a department in southern Colombia, not a single family has received technical assistance, even though more than 10,000 hectares of coca has been uprooted.
Throughout the country, families who have signed on to the programme also report delays in receiving the monthly stipend; less than 10 percent of families have received all the programme’s promised benefits, with bureaucracy and government red tape largely to blame.
With their coca crops gone, they are finding it hard to put food on the table. And to bring legal crops to market, coca farmers need roads, which are largely non-existent in regions where coca is present.
Kyle Johnson, a researcher at the International Crisis Group, said that the perception that the programme is a failure would not only drive farmers back to planting coca but also make them less likely to sign up to future similar efforts.
“If crop substitution fails to give campesinos a sustainable livelihood in the areas where they live, most, if not all, will go back to growing coca,” he said. “Not only will campesinos go back to growing coca but they will do so for a longer period of time than normal.”
The government is also pursuing an aggressive coca eradication initiative, sending the armed forces into coca plantations to forcefully uproot crops. This approach yields quicker initial results, but sees high replanting rates of 30-40 percent.
For now, the government is not signing new substitution contracts as it reevaluates the programme. Coca-growing families who wish to voluntarily uproot their crops will likely see the army take their coca before they can find an alternative way to make a living.
How is the transitional justice system threatened?
At the negotiating table in Havana, where the peace deal was hammered out, the most contentious issue was justice.
The FARC would not have demobilised if they had to face Colombia’s ordinary justice system, which would mete out harsh punishments for the crimes its members committed during more than 50 years of conflict.
“They are in a reintegration process, they’ve given up their weapons, and now they will start to feel that they have no guarantees and that it is therefore better to join the dissidents.”
As a signatory to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, Colombia is obliged to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity, including kidnapping, rape, and torture – many of which the FARC committed.
Negotiators squared this circle by creating the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, or JEP. Those who voluntarily submit a case and whose testimonies are found to be truthful are sentenced to eight years of some form of freedom deprivation, including house arrest. If they don’t tell the truth, they get a maximum of 20 years in prison, regardless of the gravity of crime committed. Members of Colombia’s armed forces, as well as the FARC, may be tried by the JEP.
Most Colombians disapprove of more lenient terms for the FARC. Political forces opposed to the peace deal – including President Iván Duque’s Democratic Centre Party – are determined to modify or even eliminate the JEP. Duque recently refused to sign a bill governing its operation, delaying the law’s passage for about a year and effectively hindering the processes of the fledgling tribunal.
“The main problem here is the uncertainty this will generate among the 13,000 former FARC militants,” said Congresswoman Juanita Goebertus, one of the architects of the JEP. “They are in a reintegration process, they’ve given up their weapons, and now they will start to feel that they have no guarantees and that it is therefore better to join the dissidents.”
Are former FARC fighters reintegrating?
Reintegration is worryingly slow. If it doesn’t speed up, the concern is that more former FARC members could soon join the armed dissident groups.
To aid ex-fighters’ transition back into society, government-funded farming projects were designed to give them the opportunity to earn a living in the 24 areas where former FARC members had settled to be demobilised.
To date, farming projects were established in only seven of those areas, largely because of the limited land available.
In the other 17 areas, former FARC members use a small government stipend to set up farming projects, but most have no education or knowledge of how to make them productive. Johnson, from ICG, fears projects in these zones are not sustainable. “You don’t want to bet the overall success of the reintegration process on those,” he said.
Both the government stipends and the contracts to keep the transition zones open for the FARC will expire in August. It is unclear if the government will renew them. If it doesn’t, the ex-fighters will lose their livelihoods and their homes for the past two years. The UN has warned that keeping the transition zones open is crucial for the FARC’s successful reintegration.
What is being done to address rural poverty?
The peace deal’s chapter on rural reform is the farthest away from being implemented. It sought to reverse underdevelopment and land inequality in rural Colombia – two deep roots of the country’s armed conflict.
Laws to implement most of this part of the agreement were never passed. As a result, most of its components depend on the will of the government in power. Duque’s intentions are unclear, but many of his party colleagues are wealthy landowners opposed to rural reforms.
Meanwhile, farming communities in conflict-stricken areas are still waiting for the government to follow through on commitments to build roads, instal water and sanitation services, and improve education and healthcare facilities.
Most of Colombia’s peasant farmers don’t own their own land, with 90 percent of them living in conditions of poverty or vulnerability and 61 percent of them having no adequate place to live.
Limited access to land leads to food insecurity and malnourishment. Without rural development, Gomez said, humanitarian needs in Colombia are only likely to get worse.