Colombians Reject Peace Deal as FARC Atrocities Loom Large

Future in question as government and FARC deal with fallout of failed referendum
October 5, 2016 Updated: October 5, 2016

Uncertainty hangs over Colombia after voters rejected a peace agreement four years in the making that was designed to end 52 years of conflict between the government and the FARC rebel group.

Now the clock is ticking to renegotiate a deal amenable to the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the government, and the “No” campaign before a new government takes power in mid-2018.

But for the peace process to move forward, Colombians who have been victims of violence and robbery at the hands of the FARC must forgive the perpetrators.

And in Colombia, it appears that is not yet the case.

Transitional Justice

My family was directly affected [for] several years because of FARC,” said Esteban Navarro, 29, of Bogota, in an email interview.

“We were extorted and forced to pay many times and great amounts of money in order to maintain our business. It’s as simple as, you pay, or your safety may be compromised,” he said.

Lower-ranking members of the FARC would have been granted amnesty for crimes like these under the peace accord.

But many Colombians don’t want to give FARC members a free pass.

“If the rebels committed to the transitional justice process, the rebels would get away with certain crimes including drug trafficking and murder,” said Stratfor Latin America analyst Reggie Thompson.

“A great deal of the Colombian people weren’t on board with that.”

And the FARC would not have signed the deal without guarantees of avoiding jail time, he said.

However, perpetrators of more serious crimes, including sexual violence and other war crimes, were not protected by the deal, according to Virginia Bouvier, senior adviser at the United States Institute of Peace.

 A voter casts her ballot on the referendum in Bogota, Colombia, on Oct. 2. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
A voter casts her ballot on the referendum in Bogota, Colombia, on Oct. 2. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Those responsible for gross human rights violations who confess and cooperate would have spent between five and eight years under “effective restraint of liberty” but face no jail time, according to a Human Rights Watch report.

Critics of the accord who demanded jail time for rebels had unrealistic expectations, according to Gustavo Alvira Gomez, peace and post-conflict adviser at Fundación Compartir.

It would be wholly impracticable, if not impossible, to try, prosecute, and imprison the more than 17,000 persons that make up the FARC’s network in ordinary jails,” said Gomez.

Although punishing FARC members for crimes may not be feasible, it’s difficult to accept that view when someone you know was a victim of the conflict.

“Colombians have a great yearning for peace. The war has been devastating. But there is also a yearning for justice,” said Arturo Munoz, a senior political scientist at RAND who worked for the CIA for almost 30 years.

It will be difficult for FARC members to credibly commit to peace and laying down their arms if there is no assurance that they won’t face jail time.

“This is always a sticking point in negotiations. The FARC rebels do not want to be subjected to the legal system because they know they will be put in jail,” Munoz added.

These kinds of transitional justice processes are common in post conflict societies, such as El Salvador and post-apartheid South Africa, where even serious human rights violators were granted amnesty.

Content of Agreement

Under the agreement, the FARC agreed to hand over its arms to the United Nations, which is the primary guarantor of the disarmament process.  

In exchange, the Colombian government would provide security guarantees to former rebels and integrate the FARC into the political process, as a legitimate political party, with 10 seats guaranteed in Congress for the next two terms.

Regular Colombians were not the only ones hesitant about accepting the agreement.

Many rebels profited from the illegal drug trade that funded the FARC and that could put them at odds with the FARC leadership’s pursuit of peace.

“Lower-level members could potentially break off from the FARC and continue to profit from illicit businesses,” said Thompson.

Political Backfire

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos holds his ballot in the referendum on a peace deal in Bogota, Colombia, Oct. 2.(Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos holds his ballot in the referendum on a peace deal in Bogota, Colombia, Oct. 2.(Mario Tama/Getty Images)

President Juan Manuel Santos didn’t need to put the agreement to referendum but doing so gave it political legitimacy, noted Thompson.

“In order [for the deal] to survive an upcoming administration, the government needed the support of the public,” Thompson said.

Given that the public want tougher measures against the FARC, creating a deal that the rebel group will accept looks difficult, said Thompson.

Meanwhile, former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has taken a hard line against the FARC, arguing that fewer concessions should be made to the group.

Part of dynamic of the vote was inherently political, said Christine Balling, senior fellow for Latin American affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council.

“Certainly there was also a political element here in that some people were voting in support of former President Uribe and not against peace,” said Balling.

Despite the backlash and uncertainty following the “No” vote, and the government’s lack of an alternative plan, Balling remains optimistic, describing the vote as a triumph for those hurt by violence perpetrated by the FARC, she said.

“The message to the government was that the Colombian people want peace but they want a better deal. And the people have spoken.”