By a small margin, Colombians rejected the peace agreement recently signed between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The agreement reached in Havana in August and subjected to a referendum on October 2nd came after four years of negotiations between the two entities. The deal was supposed to end the activities of the six decades old guerrilla group and integrate it into civilian and political life.
The rejection came as a shock to many in Colombia and particularly to President Juan Manuel Santos who expected to establish his legacy as the president who brought perpetual peace to his long-suffering country.
Much has been said about the terms of the agreement and what it entailed and there is no need to repeat here the arguments for and against it.
What is clear from the results of the referendum is that the Colombian people are not yet willing to trust the FARC, which makes a lot of sense since the FARC has been the primary source of violence the country has experienced since the mid-1960’s.
The FARC started as a guerrilla movement inspired by the Castro revolution in Cuba. Later it evolved into a drug cartel, which enabled the group to increase and multiply its criminal and murderous operations. As the Colombian government began to fight the guerrillas with the help of the American Plan Colombia, the military might of the FARC began to recede. The FARC found a great ally in the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who viewed the FARC as an asymmetric force capable of defending his regime and as a subversive instrument to expand his revolution to other countries in the region.
Thus, the FARC took part in the rebellion that toppled the government of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada in Bolivia. Likewise, the group assisted the guerilla organization known as Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) in Peru and trained the pro-Chavez Paraguayan Popular Army (EPP) in the kidnapping and murder of the daughter of a former Paraguayan president. The FARC also worked closely with the insurgent Mexican militia, Ricardo Flores Magon.
Throughout its history, FARC criminal activities have included extortion, drug trafficking, and money laundering. Hundreds of thousands of Colombians died, and millions were displaced. The FARC showed no compassion for its victims and often the group killed and tortured with cruelty.
The FARC came to the negotiating table because the Colombian government was defeating it on the battlefield. Some Colombians were willing to forgive the FARC for the sake of peace. Others could neither forgive nor trust the FARC.
President Santos finds himself now in a situation of embarrassment comparable to the one former British Prime Minister David Cameron experienced after a referendum in Britain resulted in a vote to exit the European Union. However, the worst thing Mr. Santos could do now would be to take this personally or attack the Colombian people for their decision.
The result of this referendum could be an excellent opportunity to test the real intentions of the FARC. If the FARC reacts angrily and returns to its guerilla activities just because the peace agreement was not approved or takes retaliatory action against Colombians, it will prove itself to be an unworthy partner for peace. If, on the other hand, the FARC is sincere about peace, it should behave as if the peace agreement had been approved, which could provide hope to Colombians that peace with the FARC is possible.
Indeed, days before the referendum, FARC leaders apologized to the Colombian people but that obviously was not enough. To show good will now, the FARC must hold a cease-fire and begin to abandon the battle camps and the 28 concentration zones and then it should hand over its weapons to the United Nations. By the same token, it would be sagacious for the FARC to abandon its drug trafficking activities unilaterally and immediately begin the dismantlement of coca growth and replace it with another type of crop.
Interestingly enough, many of those political leaders who rejected the deal do not rule out the possibility of a new deal. However, they rightly want a better deal.
The government of Colombia is in a position with sufficient military power to get a better bargain. For Colombia, the transaction must be the deal of the victorious.
The result of the referendum is an example to those with a more naive view, such as the U.S. envoy to the peace talks in Colombia, Bernard Aronson, that Colombians do not share his opinion that the FARC is like “the stars that have burned out years ago — but still you can see their light for many years afterward.” The FARC is still armed and still has members that could carry out harmful and criminal activities.
Colombians have also shown that although they wish to have peace, they do not want peace at any price. Thanks to the Colombian people, the FARC now is on the defensive. This position stands in sharp contrast with the deal signed between world powers and Iran where the United States showed eagerness to sign a deal despite the leverage that crippling sanctions gave to American negotiators. Iran took full advantage of such American eagerness to reach a deal. Colombians are in no rush to accept any deal. Therefore, it would be a mistake for Santos not to take advantage of the card he received from his people.
In the next round of negotiations, the Colombian government should demand that the FARC reveal its’ partners in drug trafficking and require a total break off of ties with them. FARC’s partners are believed to be the Sinaloa Cartel and the Cartel de los Soles (which is a cartel integrated with Venezuelan officers). Likewise, the FARC must be required to disclose information about the location of its labs as well as information about their trafficking routes. Last but not least, there must be full disclosure of FARC’s finances and assets to make sure money will not be used to restart insurgent activities. Rather, FARC money should be used to compensate it’s victims. FARC assets are estimated at 11 billion dollars. The group claims it has no money. Currently, the agreement is not explicit about the return of their illegal assets.
One day before the referendum, the FARC announced that it would initiate the delivery of assets and pay compensation money to their victims. The FARC should proceed to do that now, unconditionally.
For the Government, there is also an opportunity to place the former president Alvaro Uribe’s demand that FARC leaders and those accused of crimes not be allowed to run for office. That request makes sense as nobody wants to see people with blood on their hands running for office.
By the same token, providing the FARC with seats in Congress without having won them in elections is unconstitutional and unacceptable. The fact that many of those who opposed the agreement insisted in respecting the Constitution was a remarkable display of civility. By the same token, rewarding an armed group with a privilege no political party possesses is a travesty.
Likewise, some factions within the FARC have refused to be bound by the agreements. The next round of negotiations must demand that every single FARC member lay down his or her weapons and abide by the same terms.
On his part, President Santos may be wise in holding the cease-fire and carrying out some of the land reforms that constituted part of the agreement. Such reforms could be a good step regardless of the provisions of the accords.
Colombian negotiators must exploit the opportunity the Colombian people have given them and close all the military, financial and political loopholes making sure the FARC never again terrorizes the Colombian people or encourages subversive activities in the region.
Published by Center for Security Policy on October 4th, 2016