Colombia in 2017: History Made, Future Uncertain
by Niall Harkin
The 2016 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos for his influential role in securing the FARC peace deal. This disarmament process presided over by the United Nations has now seen over 7,000 guerrillas surrender arms following a vow from their leaders to end war and strive for peace. The road to peace in the last 12 months has been tense at times, the height of the tension coming during the first peace deal referendum in October 2016. The Colombian people rejected the initial proposals, which were viewed to be unjustifiable given the alleged overly generous political concessions and amnesties for perpetrators of war crimes, hate and violence to be included as part of the agreement. The result was clear: five decades of violence and bitterness could not be swept under the carpet.
2017 may be remembered as one of the memorable years in the history of Colombia. The achievements of the peace deal and the excitement being generated by the upcoming visit of Pope Francis to the country in September are causes for national pride and optimism. It is likely the visit of the Holy Father has come about only as a result of the successful peace talks, as Pope Francis himself has spoken out regarding the dialogue on several occasions and is known to have followed political developments in Bogota closely over the last few years.
Colombia may now be on the road to peace, but the country still faces a period of tension and uncertainty. Events happening at home and abroad have the potential to make the political journey over the next few years a bumpy one. A recent report by a leading Colombian newspaper stated that deaths caused by political violence had fallen by 80% since 2010, seeking to draw links with the FARC peace process in its analysis. To an outsider looking in however, Colombia still bears the hallmarks of a violent society, including one of the worldâs highest homicide rates, second only to Venezuela on the South American continent. Only now with the removal of FARC as a perceived main cause of violence may it become more apparent to the international community that there are other key groups responsible crime on a large scale in the country.
Far-left insurgents such as the ELN are continuing the âstruggleâ, particularly in rural strongholds in the north of the country, close to the border with Venezuela. EjÃ©rcito de LiberaciÃ³n Nacional (National Liberation Army) have been around since the 1960s, though in terms of international attention they have often been in FARCâs shadow given their similar ideology and smaller numbers. The ELN specifically have been responsible for many of the recent violent clashes in the countryside with police and army, as well as the high-profile kidnap and subsequent release of two Dutch journalists in June. The ELN are also continuing to target oil pipelines and infrastructure. The impact of these incidents inevitably fits into larger concerns about the oil industry in the country in the near future, as falling oil prices have hit the Colombian economy and speculation about potential new oil sources is part of the current national conversation.
Far-right paramilitaries are also still a presence to be concerned with in Colombia in 2017. The contemporary threat is Las Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (Gaitanista Self-Defence Force). The AGC is now the largest right wing group, though widely varying estimates put membership at anywhere between 3-7,000 members, meaning their current capabilities are a subject of speculation for security forces. Naturally, groups such as the AGC see themselves as direct ideological opposition to the Marxists of the ELN. Their actions however, are equally unpopular, violent and unjustifiable. Recent statements and actions show that the organisation is capable of carrying out atrocities including the deliberate targeting of left-leaning social leaders and human rights activists in the country. Many internal and external political voices have warned that the far-right is now the greatest obstacle to peace in Colombia; Santosâ Government has been widely criticised for not doing enough to tackle the surge of the far-right. As one might suspect, the incentives for such rhetoric violence by these paramilitaries is not really about the pipedream of political revolution, rather it is about territorial control and financial gain. Communities in both the counColomtryside and in the cities are terrorised by paramilitaries and cartels alike.
The reason for this is ultimately the drug trade, Colombiaâs elephant in the room. Colombia is the worldâs leading cocaine producer and production is growing rapidly every year. The aforementioned areas of paramilitary strongholds such as Norte de Santander close to the Venezuelan border have seen their production almost double over 12 months . It has been suggested that the explosion of coca cultivation is in fact related to the FARC peace deal itself, as many farmers have been nudged by FARC to increase their yield in the hope that they will receive greater incentives to cease cultivation by way of government subsidies in the long run. Ordinary farmers growing the coca are trying to earn a simple living and are not dangerous criminals themselves, they are just manipulated by others who are. This situation is occurring in parallel with the activities of paramilitaries and cartels operating in these areas, who are doing everything they can to create chaos lawlessness in these regions in an ongoing game of âcat and mouseâ with police and the army.
It is imperative that Colombia does more to win its war on drugs, this will be emphasised by the international pressure it is going to face as the fruits of increased cultivation surge the global illegal drugs market. Pressure will be expected particularly from the United States, which has invested significant financial and political capital in Colombia in the last two decades and is a key destination for the export of the narcotics. Colombia needs good US relations as a priority, alongside international support from other states and NGOs in this period of uncertainty. How much more can be done in the drugs war however, is a less than straightforward answer, as tougher action will inevitably lead to more violence under the current approach.
Colombiaâs domestic problems mean that although it has come a long way from the failed state that existed during the 1990s, politicians cannot be complacent about the future of the state in a post-FARC world. Cautious optimism about a lasting peace and increased socio-economic prosperity will require more order and less chaos. That means tackling endemic corruption at all levels of government, perhaps also employing a more heavy-handed approach against emerging criminal trends such as illegal gold mining before they get out of control as has happened with drug cultivation. Some aspects unfortunately, are ultimately out of their hands, such as the situation in Venezuela.
Venezuela has been a failed state for some time now and in the summer of 2017 the world watches on as the country tragically collapses in on itself. Comparing Venezuela and Colombia as near neighbours with differing long-term prognoses is a hotbed of jingoistic political anachronisms and does not quite address the point from a Colombian perspective. The chaos from beyond the 1,400-mile Venezuelan border is having significant socio-political and economic consequences in Colombia. Political leaders from the border regions of Arauca, Norte de Santander and La Guajira in Colombia have gone on record in the last few weeks, stating that the country cannot cope with the current state of affairs. Reports estimate that after watershed incidents as many as 40,000 cross the border every day to and from Venezuela. Even during calmer periods the number remains over 10,000. The regional leaders state that local infrastructures such as hospitals are buckling under demand, the labour market is being squeezed and people are sleeping on the streets in some urban centres. Figures for crimes such as trafficking and prostitution have also seen a steep increase.
The border itself is becoming less safe, the instability means organised crime gangs and paramilitaries such as the ELN are freer to operate within the context of overstretched security forces. Additional less anticipated problems have also arisen because of the chaos on the border, such as the reintroduction in June of foot and mouth disease (FMD) to Colombian livestock, ending several years of FMD-free status. Officials are certain the transmission has come from Venezuela yet the outbreaks have been quarantined in central Colombia. There have also been numerous accounts from security forces where they have apprehended smugglersâ trucks brimming with infected, rancid or low quality meat from over the border. The national government has taken the measure of installing 250 checkpoints across the border region in an effort to combat smuggling and other crime, but this will prove expensive and time consuming. The current state of affairs is summed up quite well by the recent withdrawal of services by major Colombian airline Avianca to all destinations in Venezuela. Aviancaâs announcement at the end of July becomes effective from mid-August, with an emphasis on poor infrastructure and substandard aviation security measures as the reasons for the withdrawal. The rampant corruption and the currency collapsing go without mention.
An end to the crisis in Venezuela is not yet in sight for Colombian policymakers, the consequences must be added to the list of domestic challenges for the foreseeable future. This further reiterates the need for strong leadership, international cooperation and careful planning if Colombia is to achieve the peace and prosperity which is so often talked about in this ânewâ Colombia of 2017.