In late November 2016, the Colombian government ratified a historic peace deal with the guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), after four years of negotiations, and several major setbacks. It was hoped that this momentous agreement would signal the end of over fifty years of violence in Colombia, and would act as a starting point for a new era in the country.
Colombia’s history has been characterised by political violence and upheaval since its independence in the 19th century, but the past 52 years have witnessed particularly severe fighting. The FARC, established in 1964, was one of several leftist guerrilla groups formed in the 1950s and 1960s, and its main objective was to overthrow the government and install a Marxist regime. The Colombian government began to hit back against the group soon after its inception, and initiated a lengthy conflict that has come to involve not only these two factions, but also paramilitary groups, drug cartels, and civilians.
Since the beginning of the conflict in 1964, it is estimated that 220,000 people have been killed and nearly 7 million forced to flee their homes. According to the United Nations, this is the highest number of internally displaced people in the world. Many of these people went missing—kidnapping for ransom was a common tactic employed by guerrilla groups, crime syndicates and paramilitary troops—large numbers of whom were never found.
By the 1990s, the FARC had become associated with the Colombian drug trade, and the group has since been repeatedly accused of committing war crimes and acts of terrorism. The actions of these guerrillas led to the formation of right-wing paramilitary groups, who are said to be linked to the Colombian government. Both guerrillas and paramilitaries have been involved in serious criminal activity, such as kidnappings, bombings, murders, and hijackings. Although the military might of the FARC has waned in the last decade, the scars inflicted on Colombian families since the 1960s are still raw.
It would seem then that the peace deal is a positive step in the struggle to end the conflict. However, the deal stipulates that FARC rebels must demilitarise, hand over their weapons to the United Nations, and leave their occupied territories. By 31 May, over 6000 guerrillas are expected to have complied. This has created its own problems, as these formerly FARC-controlled lands are now up for grabs.
Armed groups have begun filling these power vacuums, and their struggle for land and resources has impacted upon local civilians. Out of the 242 regions where the FARC were in power, at least 90 have now been occupied by other, smaller armed groups. 116 human rights activists, members of left-wing political groups and community leaders were killed in 2016, with 23 murders alone taking place in the 3 months since the signing of the peace deal. The United Nations Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights observed 389 aggressions against human rights activists and social leaders in the last year.
The regions where violence is escalating are already facing corruption, weak state presence, poverty, marginalisation and unemployment, which is facilitating the development of illegal activities, like drug trafficking and gold mining. The increase in human rights abuses is only exacerbating this situation, and communities are fearful of a return to the violence and terror of the 1980s and 1990s. There are also concerns for the fates of the former FARC rebels themselves. In 1984, thousands of members of the leftist Patriotic Union party were massacred during an attempt to make peace, and some worry that history will repeat itself.
It is now up to the Colombian government and the United Nations to ensure that peace is secured, and that over 50 years of bloodshed and horror are brought to an end.
This post was written by Jess Edington, who is studying an MA in International relations at the University of Birmingham and is the STAND UK Correspondent for North and South America.