Was a peace agreement ever possible in a country as complicated as Colombia?
Fighting for peace
Extermination of a people
Her implication was that the post-conflict scenario would fail, rather than that it wouldn’t even get off the ground. The humanitarian catastrophe in Guajira emphasises how resource extraction can be as damaging as conflict. The incompatibility between capitalist growth and social justice is most apparent in the Guajira, yet it affects all Colombia.
March of the displaced
The anti-peace brigade: just say ‘No’
The No campaign argued that the accords allowed guerrillas guilty of human rights violations to walk free. ‘There is a statute of Rome which impedes the Colombian state from granting impunity to those responsible for atrocities and crimes of lesser humanity,’ Hoyos told us. ‘This is a fundamental aspect of why we ask for punishments of deprivation of liberty which are proportional to the crimes committed by the FARC.’
The flipside to Hoyos’ claims is that the CD has been decidedly less vocal over other armed groups linked to senior figures within the party. As president, Uribe signed a 2003 demobilisation agreement with Colombia’s largest paramilitary organisation, the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC). The AUC committed massacres, displaced communities and was involved in the drugs trade. The demobilisation process enacted under Uribe saw thousands of men return to civil society unpunished for crimes they had committed.
The AUC committed massacres, displaced communities and was involved in the drugs trade.
Yet the extent to which paramilitary organisations did actually disband is disputed. Many observers believe these groups reformed under different guises. This situates them outside the political sphere and gives credence to claims that the paramilitary issue had been resolved. Violence committed by those groups – rebranded as Bacrim (criminal bands) – could now be classified as ‘criminal’ rather than ‘political’, suggesting state progress towards conflict resolution.
The Santos administration has tended to sidestep questions relating to the continued presence of paramilitaries in Colombia. Yet political violence remains prevalent in the country. Between 2011 and 2015, over 500 community and social leaders, activists, unionists and journalists were murdered. Groups such as the Black Eagles and the Urabeños have orchestrated terror campaigns in regions rich in natural resources or prone to guerrilla activity. These killings continued throughout the peace negotiations.
Work in unity
Like Acevedo, Camilo Vargas was from Apartadó, one of the most violent zones in the entire country. ‘The only crime we committed as the Patriotic Union was being a party of the left and of the opposition,’ he said. ‘And they massacred us.’
For Vargas, the peace process represented a continuation of the UP’s social agenda. ‘Now we are fighting for true change in Colombia, rather than for those who are against the peace process, like Mr. Álvaro Uribe,’ he said. ‘The far right is trying to rid Colombia of what little remains of the left. The Patriotic Union, we were always trying to help people, trying to follow a democratic path. So they said we were guerrillas.’
The new beginning?While most Colombians we spoke to were broadly supportive of the peace process, nobody was under any illusions of the size of the task ahead. International media painted a picture of a nation about to enter a new era of prosperity and stability. It wasn’t hard to imagine the president sizing up how that Nobel Prize would look on his mantelpiece. The impact of the No vote’s success will only become known in the fullness of time.
Yet for peace to truly arrive, now or in the future, a massive shift in how the country deals in politics would have to take place. Regardless of whether the accords can be redrafted to be more palatable to the electorate, the state will have to address structural issues of inequality and poverty in order to truly move the country forward.
The commodity of violence that trains many young people in the act of killing – available to the highest bidder – already threatened to continue bloodletting in the new era. What would have been the relevance of peace to communities whose children are dying of the most basic and preventable causes? A social restructuring from misery to dignified living conditions was of the utmost urgency even before the No vote. That has not changed if anything is to be salvaged from the plebiscite disaster.
With the United States overseeing the peace transition of its informal client state, how did Washington’s future vision for Colombia’s untapped natural riches sit with the need to bridge the social chasm? Peace depended on humans taking precedence over capital, perhaps for the first time in national history. Peace depended on humans taking precedence over capital, perhaps for the first time in national history.Based on modern trends, this was always an unlikely proposition.
From the beginning, the odds were stacked against the peace process. The Colombians we spoke to knew this. Yet it was dynamics of capital and power that most concerned them, with nobody believing that the people themselves would sabotage the deal. The No vote represents a crisis not just on a national level, but on a regional one as well, in which populist right-wing rhetoric has once again dominated political discourse and found a receptive audience.
But for the children dying in the Guajira, or the indigenous communities being torn apart by resource extraction in Cauca, peace was unlikely to herald the new dawn promised by Santos. The rest of the country now accompanies them into an uncertain future. Colombia’s long conflict rumbles on.
Travel support for this article was provided by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.