Six Steps to Starting Over After a Civil War
How do you dismantle the animosities of a half-century war and create peace in a country known for its absence?
When Colombia last experienced peace, the Berlin Wall was getting its first upgrade and the United States was still mourning JFK’s assassination. It was the early 1960s and the Cold War was in full swing. In Colombia, an American-backed government was fighting a slew of leftist insurgencies, including one from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a guerilla group of just 50 soldiers. That conflict, launched in the rural areas between Bogotá and Medellín, would go on to last half a century, killing at least 220,000 people and displacing more than 7 million.
Fast-forward to August 2016. After three failed negotiations, Latin America’s third most-populous country has finally announced a peace deal with FARC, now its largest guerilla outfit, that ends the only and oldest armed conflict in the Americas. The agreement has been lauded as a “milestone for peace,” and championed by everyone from Barack Obama to Pope Francis. Colombia’s government calls it a “new chapter of our history” (link in Spanish).
But the devil is in the details. This next chapter is the one that comesbefore peace—what the government and the guerrilla group refer to as a “transition phase.” So how do you dismantle the animosities of a 50-year civil war and create peace in a country known for its absence? Here’s a helpful guide.
Step 1: Get the public on board
On Oct. 2, the peace deal will get its first test, when Colombians vote to approve or reject it in a public referendum. President Juan Manuel Santos, who promised the public vote in 2013, is fighting pushback from former president Álvaro Uribe, who is leading an anti-deal contingent.
Santos and Uribe have history. The latter was president from 2002 to 2010, during which time he launched a long and bloody campaign against FARC, with Santos—then defense minister—as his ally. Uribe backed Santos in the 2010 election, which Santos won, but the two broke ties when Santos initiated peace talks with FARC. Uribe created his own party, whose candidate in the 2014 election lost to Santos by a narrow margin.
If the October plebiscite is Colombia’s version of Brexit vote, then Uribe is playing the part of Nigel Farage. His camp claims that the government is handing the country over to the guerrillas, who should be punished for atrocities committed during the conflict. The Economist calls parts of Uribe’s worldview a “a travesty,” but he is successfully capitalizing on the population’s suspicions of the guerrilla group, the peace treaty, and the president. Santos’s popularity stood at just 25% in March, though it rose to 32% (link in Spanish) after the deal was reached.
Step 2: Destroy a bunch of weapons
Over the next few months, Colombia needs to execute a significant weapons-collections program, using 31 transition zones to gather the guns and uniforms of some 7,000 guerrilla fighters.
Fighters will reach the transition zones through special routes, and will be issued new identification documents once there. Unarmed United Nations workers will confiscate weapons, registering the model and serial number of each one. Military members, police officers, and most civilians are restricted from the transition areas without explicit authorization.
The ceasefire also calls for weapons to be melted down and turned into monuments dedicated to peace—one in Colombia, one in Cuba, and one at UN headquarters in New York.
Step 3: Make room for FARC in politics
Created in 1964 during the height of the Cold War, FARC was founded as a military arm of the Colombian Communist Party. The group was inspired by Marxist-Leninist principles, and influenced by Simon Bolívar and Mao Tse-tung. It defended the redistribution of wealth, and saw American interference in Colombia as a form of imperialism. FARC was funded by Cuba during the Cold War and backed by Venezuela during the 2000s.
The group was initially well-regarded, but lost popularity as it started to engage in violence. Today, five decades of kidnappings, assassinations, and bombings have turned the public against the guerilla group, which currently holds an approval rating of just 2%. That could be awkward now that the deal calls for FARC to receive at least 10 seats in both houses of Congress until 2026.
FARC, too, has cause for concern. Similar peace talks in the 1980s led to the creation of a FARC-led political party, the Patriotic Union, which did well in the 1986 and 1988 elections. But the party’s prospects were cut short after right-wing paramilitary groups killed at least 3,000 of its members and allies. Many in FARC today fear a repetition of that massacre, an angst made worse by the requirement that they disarm.
Step 4: About that cocaine….
FARC has always been of two minds: On one side is a political and social movement with a steady diet of armed resistance, on the other an experienced criminal organization with a tidy cocaine business. The USand the EU both list the group as a terrorist organization.
With the peace deal, all that changes. FARC must give up its 60% share of the Colombian cocaine trade, which brings in about $200 million a year. (The Colombian government pegs this (link in Spanish) at a hyperbolic $3.5 billion). The group will also have to abandon a wide range of dubious business practices in the territories it controls, including the extortion of foreign energy companies and the illegal extraction of gold, coltan, and tungsten.
Colombia’s government will also have to keep an eye on the significant power vacuum created by the sudden disappearance of a major crime group. Coca farmers who paid FARC for protection are particularly vulnerable to the overtures of other guerrilla or paramilitary groups.
Step 5: Keep an eye on the second-largest guerrilla group
When it comes to rebel outfits, FARC isn’t the only game in town. The government must now turn its energy to Colombia’s second-largest guerrilla group, the small and scrappy National Liberation Army (ELN).
FARC and ELN share similar histories: Both were founded in 1964 and inspired by leftist ideals. Both saw membership peaks in the late 1990s—18,000 and 5,000 members, respectively—and lost popularity during the 2000s. But ELN has always hewed closer to Catholicism (many of its early members were priests) and came late to employing violent tactics.
Excluded from the 2012 FARC talks, ELN only started negotiating with the Colombian government in March, just weeks after it kidnapped a local politician and an army sergeant. The group is still refusing to free its hostages, and on Sept. 3 blew up an important oil pipeline close to the Venezuelan border.
Step 6: Fix up FARC’s old haunts
Not everything on Colombia’s to-do list will be possible in the next year, or even the next decade. The government must expand state control over areas controlled by FARC—currently present in 25 of 32 provinces—a process that could cost up to $90 billion over the next 10 years.
Finally, there is the delicate work of locating and disarming landmines.FARC has provided maps of approximate locations, but it will take years to find all of them. Afghanistan is currently the only country that surpasses Colombia in landmine-related deaths.
If laying down arms is half the battle, it’s still only a fraction of the war. Over the coming decades, Colombia will have to un-wreak the havoc caused by a half-century of civil unrest. Having finally declared peace, the country’s next goal will be nothing short of making it a reality.