Colombia's 52-Year War May Soon Be Over, But What Happens Next?

Here's what to know about Colombia's historic peace deal referendum.
Guerrillas from FARC EP meet in the early morning to get to work in Llanos del Yari, a town in an Indigenous region of southe
Guerrillas from FARC EP meet in the early morning to get to work in Llanos del Yari, a town in an Indigenous region of southern Colombia on 21 Sept. 2016.

Colombians will soon vote on a contentious and comprehensive peace deal that could end more than a half-century of conflict between the government and the FARC, a marxist rebel group. On Oct. 2, millions will head to the polls to vote Yes or No on the terms of the agreement.

The referendum is an emotional one for Colombians, who have been deeply affected by the conflict’s violence, kidnappings and destabilization of society. The fighting killed over 200,000 people and displaced 6 million people since the FARC took up arms in 1964.

The deal itself includes, among other things, the reintegration into society of an estimated 7,000 FARC fighters, wide-ranging reparations for victims of the conflict and the rebels renouncing violence ― as well as their ties to Colombia’s drug trade. Few countries have attempted such an expansive peace agreement, and there are serious questions over how it will be implemented if it passes. But if the country votes No, it may mean a renewal of the violence that has devastated the country for generations.

The WorldPost spoke with Abbey Steele, an assistant professor at the University of Amsterdam and author of a forthcoming book on Colombia’s civil war, to get an understanding of what the referendum means for the country’s future.

FARC guerrillas at their camp in El Diamante.
FARC guerrillas at their camp in El Diamante.

How close is the referendum expected to be? 

The latest polls show that it is likely to pass. The last polls that I’ve seen show that the Yes vote is at 72 percent. It’s a big change from the beginning of August that showed about 50-50.

Is there any insight into why that’s shifted?

That [August] poll was before the final agreement was reached, so the fact that it was announced may have led to more optimism from the public. It could also be that the bilateral ceasefire is now in place.

I think we’re likely to see an even bigger bump after the signing of the agreement on September 26, but there are campaigns underway from both the Yes and No sides to argue for their positions.

One aspect of those campaigns is that President Juan Manuel Santos has an extremely poor approval rating. How closely are people associating his presidency with this deal?

The No campaign is trying to associate the peace agreement with Santos and to tack it onto his lack of popularity. The Yes vote is explicitly saying this isn’t about any particular person or politician, this is about a chance for peace.

My sense is that there are some committed supporters of past President [Álvaro] Uribe, who will continue to associate the plan with Santos and not vote for it no matter what. But they’re in the small minority.

What are Colombians’ biggest criticisms of this agreement?

The main criticisms coming from the No side are twofold. One is that there’s too much impunity for FARC leaders who have engaged in war crimes or crimes against humanity, and the second component is that the FARC will be able to participate in politics.

It is true that there is an amnesty for the rank and file FARC, but it’s not for those who have confessed to or been found guilty of crimes against humanity and war crimes ― they will have to serve some kind of time in prison. The deal phrases it as forgoing their liberties, meaning they won’t be in an actual prison but they will have restricted freedoms. That’s one big criticism.

The No campaign phrases it as impunity, and the Yes side’s reaction is that it’s not exactly impunity ― they are going to be held responsible even if you don’t agree with the severity of the punishment. These are transitional justice mechanisms rather than traditional justice mechanisms.

A FARC fighter stands in line during the opening of ceremony congress at the camp where they prepare for ratifying a pea
A FARC fighter stands in line during the opening of ceremony congress at the camp where they prepare for ratifying a peace deal with the government.

In terms of political participation, the No side sort of gives the impression that the political party that the FARC forms will become very powerful in congress and have a lot of leverage over laws that will be passed at the national level. There doesn’t seem to be very much evidence of that as a plausible outcome. The FARC don’t have a lot of political support anymore, but maybe at an earlier period this would have been more of a concern.

Part of the deal includes significant reparations for victims of the conflict. Because there are so many victims and so many people who have been displaced, how feasible is that aspect of the agreement? 

This is really difficult. On the one hand there’s already a law in place that was passed in 2011 that guarantees reparations and restitution for victims. Land restitution if they have been displaced and reparations if they have had family members killed or things like that. The Colombian government has been attempting to already initiate this process for victims of any armed group, including state forces. So, in a sense, they already have experience trying to do this, but that experience has been very slow and quite mixed.

Land restitution is extremely difficult partially because it’s very hard to document people’s property before they were displaced. Often the displaced don’t have an official land title or some kind of record to show that they were the lawful owner. We also know that a strategy of some of the illegal armed groups was to have fraudulent titles made through corruption. 

FARC rebel leader Rodrigo Londono is seen on a screen during the opening of ceremony congress at the camp.
FARC rebel leader Rodrigo Londono is seen on a screen during the opening of ceremony congress at the camp.

The FARC are not the only armed group in the country, how might this deal affect other organizations that are not party to the agreement?

It’s a good question, and it’s one that Colombia has faced in the past in demobilizing previous militant groups. In 1989, M-19 demobilized. In 1991, the EPL ― which was previously a fairly prominent insurgent group ― decided to demobilize with some smaller insurgent groups as well. What we know following those demobilizations is that at least some of their members joined other existing armed groups. Some of them remained demobilized; some of them rearmed and continued to fight. Some became members of drug trafficking organizations.

It’s highly likely that at least some FARC members will join other existing armed groups to continue being combatants. It may improve the ranks, for instance, of the ELN ― which is trying to start talks with the government but it’s unlikely how those will proceed or succeed.

The FARC has been linked to control of extensive coca-producing territory, what happens to that drug trade when they demobilize? 

Certainly as long as there is a demand abroad for cocaine, it will remain a lucrative industry. As long as it’s an illegal industry that’s prohibited by some of Colombia’s allies, Colombia’s hands will be tied in terms of its ability to regulate that economy. If the government can’t regulate it, other actors will and the primary way they regulate that market is through violence. 

We shouldn’t expect that this peace agreement with the FARC will mean an end to armed groups in the country, because the drug trade is a parallel ongoing situation.

We shouldn’t expect that this peace agreement with the FARC will mean an end to armed groups in the country...

The FARC and the peace agreement has committed to eradicating coca in areas where it still has influence as part of its demobilization process, but it’s extremely easy to replant coca. In these areas that have been penetrated by settlers who grow coca, it’s very hard to come up with an alternative that will be anywhere near as lucrative. People will continue to grow it, and new actors will move in to regulate. 

What might happen if Colombia votes against the agreement? Is there a sense of an alternative or what it would look like beyond that vote?

I think the war would start again. Whether that means an immediate escalation to prior levels of violence I certainly hope not, but it would not be good.

The idea that they can renegotiate right away and get a better deal doesn’t seem very plausible. That’s sort of the argument of the No campaign ― that they won’t return to war but they’ll renegotiate and get a better deal. I don’t think that’s likely to happen. The FARC and the government have tried to come up with an agreement many times. There have been multiple attempts and they have never gotten this far before.

They got this far now because the negotiators themselves were really skilled, and had a lot of knowledge of historical attempts to negotiate. They had a lot of knowledge about what worked in other countries and they were very strategic about how to structure the talks to get things done. They developed relationships with the FARC counterparts over four years. It took a long time at the table, and I think you really can’t discount the level of trust and commitment on both sides to stay at the table and hammer out these details. It’s not an easy thing to do and it shows in Colombian history.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.