Sabotaging Peace

Colombia's peace deal is being threatened by a surge of right-wing violence.

Colombia's national police. Policia Nacional de los Colombianos / Flickr

The implementation of the peace deal between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has been everything but a success for the country.

Not only did voters reject the original peace agreement, there has also been a significant increase in violence targeting left-wing activists and community leaders. Since the ratification of the final accord on November 29-30, 2016, right-wing paramilitaries and local drug gangs have assassinated twenty-four social leaders, and sixteen since the beginning of this year alone. A new wave of violence has even reached the streets of the country’s capital Bogotá, where recent bomb attacks targeting protesters and the police force try to undermine the legitimacy and validity of the peace process.

Colombia is a country with a long history of systematically oppressing and violently killing left-wing campaigners, feminist activists, racial minorities, and members of the LGBT+ community. And while President Santos has broken ties with his past as a minister of defense (or “señor de la guerra”) under the notoriously hard-right Alvaro Uribe presidency and is seeking to shape a postwar Colombia, the increased killings of social leaders in zones formerly under FARC’s control puts the state’s capacity and willingness to protect its most marginalized citizens into question.

The right-wing political camp, led by former president Uribe, and the paramilitary groups are actively attempting to fill the power and security vacuum left behind in areas formerly controlled by the now-demobilized and disarmed FARC rebels. At the heart of the killings are the interests of Uribe and his narco-capitalist friends of large landowners and cattle ranchers to not only undermine the peace treaty as such, but also to expand their territorial reach in the race for cheap and resource-rich land and in the country’s multi-billion-dollar drug trade.

The narco-capitalists as well as landed and agro-industrial factions of Colombia’s elite fear that many of the displaced peasants might return to claim back their land (as the peace deal envisages). During the five decades of war, the Colombian state, in cooperation with paramilitary groups, forcefully and violently dispossessed rural land in protection of class interests to benefit landed oligarchs, agro-industrialists, and extractive multinational companies. Elite dependence on the drug incomes, on a further militarization of the country, and on the expansion of Colombia’s extractive-based economic growth model are the main drivers behind the continuous cycle of primitive accumulation in rural parts of the country.

In the face of this, many grassroots activists, peasant organizers, social workers, and left-wing politicians who actively work towards a real and durable peace to achieve political representation, economic reparations, justice, and social reconciliation for the victims of war face the highest threat of violence in years.

As the FARC rebels disarm and demobilize, this new wave of violence is particularly spreading in formerly FARC-held areas, which includes over 240 towns and municipalities across Colombia. Most of these are in zones where indigenous groups, Afro-Colombian communities, and peasants have largely shouldered the burden of the fifty-three-year-long war. For example, along the Cacarica river basin in the geo-economically strategic Urabá and the Chocó regions in northwestern Colombia, observers have denounced the arrival of at least three hundred new paramilitary fighters.

The public forces face the great challenge of going from fighting an enemy to actually controlling the territory. The state’s incapacity or unwillingness to do so is one of the reasons why the war lasted for over five decades. However, to overcome the incapability of the state and to bring an end to the tensions goes beyond the agreed peace treaty. Much of it depends on winning the political battle for socio-economic changes in Colombia.

For example, many FARC rebels (and farmers) relied and continue to rely on the militarized incomes of the drug industry. They fear life in economic marginalization. While the demobilized fighters have the right to claim a monthly stipend of approximately US $200, many of them prefer to continue working in the illicit industries. The paramilitary groups that are now seeking to fill the power gap and to largely control the lucrative drug trade have already started to recruit former FARC rebels and peasants, offering monthly salaries of 1.8 million pesos (US $620).

This sum, which is more than double the size of the minimum wage, reveals some of the weaknesses of Colombia’s licit economy. For an under- or uneducated worker, entering Colombia’s flexibilized and highly growth-elastic labor market means an insecure and low-paid job in the service industry — that is, if there is a job in the formal sector.

Colombia has the second-highest unemployment rate of Latin America, only surpassed by Costa Rica. Furthermore, the minimum wage in Colombia is one of the lowest in Latin America, with living costs higher than the regional average. Much of this is a result of the traditionally neoliberal-minded Colombian governments, incapable and unwilling to create economic policies for a sustainable and inclusive industrial growth.

To overcome the cycle of poverty, dependence on drug income, and violence, there is little time left to pressure the government to swiftly and thoroughly implement the peace agreement. Grassroots activists’ calls for real peace, including reconciliation, justice, and truth need to be supported.

Social leaders in the marginalized zones — the true actors fighting for such a conclusive process — need to be protected, or anything that might be put into practice will be too little, too late. Especially for regions where right-wing paramilitary violence is on the rise.

But the current peace treaty is not enough. Colombia needs a complete and thorough revision of its neoliberal economic growth model. This includes an active state policy to increase economic activities in manufacturing sectors, the creation of decent and well-paid jobs in the licit economy, and a significant increase of the minimum wage.

Without that, any attempts to break out of the vicious cycle of underdevelopment, drugs, and violence are likely to remain unsuccessful.