Colombia FARC Deal tees up Peace or War Plebiscite

August 30, 2016

With Colombia’s epic peace deal signed into effect last week, a big question hangs over the country: Will the roughly 7,000 guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) not only be willing but also able to demobilize and re-enter civilian life after decades of fighting in the jungle? National opinion on this issue will largely drive whether the 297-page agreement wins national endorsement in an October referendum.

The Farc’s top commander, Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri, known by his nom de guerre, Timochenko, said at a restaurant in Havana, close to where the four years of grinding negotiations took place: “Yes. One of the precepts of the life of guerrilla fighters is that they adapt to every terrain. We are willing to leave the weapons aside, no one can have any doubt about that, but with need of physical and judicial guarantees.”

The Farc have acquired judicial guarantees because of their war crimes and crimes against humanity such as forced displacements and recruitment of minors. Under a transitional justice agreement, those who confess early to serious crimes will be punished with up to eight years of restricted liberties and reparations to victims. Those who stay silent face up to 20 years in jail.

The rebels demand physical guarantees because they are worried they will be murdered once they surrender their weapons. They are haunted by what many guerrillas believe was an extermination campaign by rightwing death squads in the 1980s of more than 4,000 members of the Patriotic Union, a leftwing party born out of failed peace negotiations. “We need guarantees we are not going to get killed, as happened before,” said Timochenko.

Notwithstanding such fears, senior commander Jaime Alberto Parra, known as Mauricio Jaramillo, who leads the Farc’s largest bloc with some 3,500 troops in central and southern Colombia, said they are convinced most of their forces support the peace accord. But, sipping black coffee at a Farc-controlled farm, the man commonly known as El Médico acknowledges some demobilised rebels may metamorphosise into drug gangs.

A number of Jaramillo’s own troops have already said they will not subscribe to a peace deal. “Still, I don’t think more than 100 have been co-opted by drug-traffickers so far,” he said. Having financed themselves from extortion and drug trafficking for years, such activity is now supposed suddenly to cease.

Furthermore, disarmament may diminish the commanders’ capacity to give orders and impose the conditions of the peace deal. Although a degree of the old communist party discipline will be maintained, it is conflict that sustains the chain of command and the Farc’s revenue generation from illegal activities. The risk of splinter rebels joining criminal groups is underlined by how readily demilitarised paramilitaries became drug gangs under the government of former President Alvaro Uribe.

It is still unclear, even for these commanders, how the Farc will sustain themselves financially in peacetime. Although they talk of “productive farmland projects” and how they will remain united – “I’ll do what the organization demands of me” is a common mantra – they seem to lack a clear plan for their upcoming civilian life.

Upon stepping out of wild, hidden enclaves scattered around Colombia’s mountains and jungles the young rank-and-flank rebels – most joined the Farc when teenagers – known as la guerrillerada, will face discrimination and the unfamiliar trappings of modern life.

The government and some in the private sector seek to secure them training and jobs. But the rebels, who are mainly sons and daughters of farmers and have never lived in towns or cities, would like mostly to remain in the countryside – although some talk of their ambition to pursue university studies. “I’ll go wherever my camaradas tell me to go,” they usually echo, referring to their commanders.

Most seem to think they will end up living as communities under the fatherly-like figures of their leaders. Colombia’s challenge is how to assimilate them into a society requiring self-reliance instead of dependence on the guaranteed food and healthcare provided in the guerrilla camps, where they also have strong interpersonal relationships.

For those planning on securing political office, mainly the senior leaders, it remains unknown how they will be received outside their traditional areas of influence once they start to proselytize. Observers think they may launch a broad front of protests, marches, and strikes, under their new political party. And that the party will possibly be called the Frente Amplio de Reconciliación Colombia… or Farc. In many areas this could prove deeply provocative and trigger a violent reaction.

“There will be a combination of talking to people and taking to the streets to protest if there is a need,” said Timochenko. “We want to be able to explain what we think, we want people to be able to listen to us, to be able know us, to be able to see us.”

A definitive ceasefire started on Monday. But there is still a big hurdle to jump. The peace accords will be submitted to a national plebiscite for Colombians to approve or reject. And the Farc themselves will gather representatives in southern Colombia to put the agreement before a vote and dissolve themselves as an irregular army.

Uribe, who secured the demilitarization of the rightwing paramilitary groups – which also were financed by extortion and drug trafficking – leads  a campaign against the peace deal’s approval. He has said that a ‘no’ vote will re-open the door for negotiators to discuss transitional justice (he believes Farc leaders deserve tougher punishments) and their participation in politics (which he opposes). Many who dislike his chosen successor, President Juan Manuel Santos – who made the peace talks the main pillar of his administration – are rallying behind him. Polls are offering different forecasts on the referendum scheduled for October 2.

Some believe Uribe is trying to make the referendum a plebiscite against Santos’ rule: and his approval levels are relatively low. Although the peace agreement may have given those a boost, Santos has to soon push through an unpopular tax reform to finance post-conflict costs amid a slowing economy, which could dent his popularity.

However, it seems unlikely the Farc would agree to re-negotiate their entry into electoral politics and the possibility of being locked up in jail. Security experts assert that, most likely, the guerrillas would return to fight the state, probably with a focus on hit-and-run terrorist-like attacks.

Here, there is a precedent. The last peace effort collapsed in 2002 after the kidnapping of a senator. The Farc used the three-year ceasefire in a demilitarized zone the size of Switzerland to regroup and rearm. Soon after, the guerrillas were lobbing mortar bombs in Bogotá.

Adding to the challenges, the smaller National Liberation Army, with roughly 1,500 men and operating along the porous border with unstable Venezuela, is not making peace. Although the Farc have called on the ELN to start peace talks, the ELN have not given up their kidnappings. But upon feeling the boot of Latin America’s largest armed forces, freed from their focus on the Farc, analysts believe the ELN might soon change their mind.

The Farc themselves decided to sit down and negotiate after being weakened by an all-out, US-backed offensive. Moreover, allies such as the late Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Cuba’s President Raúl Castro pushed them to negotiate while Cuba was seeking rapprochement with the US, an ally of Colombia.

Negotiators have worked on avoiding a scenario similar to the end of Central American civil wars, where peace deals fuelled violent gang crime. They have agreed on a comprehensive, “definitive” accord that includes agrarian reform, democratic political involvement, tackling drug trafficking, reparations for victims, and transitional justice aimed, among other things, at avoiding a repetition of atrocities. However, as a senior security advisor in Cuba warns: “After a peace agreement there will still be threats, violence, drug trafficking, there is no magical solution to solve it all. But better a bad peace than a good war.”