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A Second Chance

Colombia's new peace deal won't deliver justice, but its failure would be catastrophic.

Graffiti asks "How many more dead, people?" in Barrancabermeja, Colombia. Agencia Prensa Rural

Less than two months after a previous deal was rejected by the electorate, the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have signed another peace accord. FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño (better known by his nom de guerre Timochenko) claimed the new agreement “put a definite end to the war so we can confront our differences in a civilized manner.”

Yet in the same week, three social-movement leaders were murdered by right-wing paramilitaries, showing the danger socialists still face in Colombia and the enormous threat that such attacks pose to the peace process.

The rejection of the initial deal in the October 2 referendum was a massive blow to President Juan Manuel Santos’s prestige and his long-running efforts to secure a peace deal with FARC after more than fifty years of conflict. In the aftermath of the vote it appeared that former president Álvaro Uribe, Santos’s former ally turned bitter rival, would reestablish control of Colombian politics and pursue a harder line against the guerrillas.

However, in spite of the setback, government and FARC negotiators managed to quickly make changes to the agreement, and it was signed in Bogotá’s Teatro Colon on November 24. While Uribe’s Democratic Center party has maintained its opposition, the new deal will be ratified by Congress, where Santos’s ruling coalition has a commanding majority. Uribe’s populistic and often truth-distorting campaign managed to derail the previous version but it appears that the new deal will pass a congressional vote on December 1.

It is a pity, then, that the new version is in many ways a worse deal.

Businessmen who funded the right-wing paramilitaries, who have crushed Colombian trade unions, displaced millions of peasants from their land, and have been responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths in the conflict, will now be shielded from prosecution. While the previous deal allowed for the redistribution of idle land from ranchers to peasants, such moves will now be illegal.

Foreign judges in the transitional justice system will not have sentencing power, only acting as advisers to Colombian judges. And the government will be able to employ the dangerous practice of aerial fumigation to combat coca cultivation. These changes make the transitional justice system less effective and more open to corruption, endanger the health of Colombians living in coca-producing areas, and fail to address Colombia’s appalling inequality and uneven distribution of farm land.

Nonetheless, this deal is still better than the return to conflict which many feared.  With thousands of FARC fighters awaiting demobilization, any delay could prove costly and lead to more breakaway groups such as FARC’s first front, who rejected the peace process and are still engaged in fighting.

Alternatively, FARC dissidents could swell the ranks of the smaller guerrilla group known as the National Liberation Army (ELN). The ELN is involved in peace talks, but they have repeatedly stalled and fighting continues on the ground.

But more worrying than the continued violence of the ELN is the spread of right-wing paramilitaries.

At the height of the conflict in the 1990s and early 2000s, the army fought alongside such groups, often entrusting them with the murder of trade unionists, left-wing activists, and anyone suspected of supporting FARC. Despite a supposed demobilization a decade ago, many paramilitaries remain in existence.

Embarrassed by the continuing brutality of their former allies, the government has often denied that they are politically motivated, claiming that they are merely “criminal bands” (BACRIM). But the paramilitaries’ violence towards the Left betrays their obvious political motivation.

These groups have long been dominant in many northern regions but they are currently attempting to expand their control over areas once held by FARC. The largest paramilitary group, “Los Urabeños,” continues to grow in power despite all the efforts of the Colombian state. The military recently captured twenty-two members of the group in transit from their center on the northern coast to the eastern plains — formerly a FARC stronghold.

Such movements do not bode well for the Left. Colombia has long been the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists. So far this year, over 70 community leaders have been murdered and over 230 have received death threats.

In the last month the level of violence has increased, seemingly due to the spread of paramilitary death squads into areas once controlled by FARC. With state forces seemingly unwilling to protect them, many peasants in the troubled department of Cauca have taken to forming unarmed watch groups in an effort to prevent further assassinations.

Most of those killed or wounded were members of the Patriotic March, a left-wing umbrella group formed in 2012. Its leader, ex-senator Piedad Córdoba, has said, “We can say that they are setting up a genocide against the Patriotic March.”

She warned that if the government did not take action, the Patriotic March would meet a similar fate to the Patriotic Union. This political party was formed in the 1980s as part of a previous peace process with FARC. After some initial successes in elections, the party was almost wiped out in attacks by paramilitaries, drug cartels, and state security forces.

Three decades on, not much has changed. Right-wing paramilitaries, backed by landowners and businessmen, continue to repress the Colombian left while the police and military are seemingly unwilling to interfere.

It is little wonder why so many FARC combatants have expressed their fear that they will not survive long after giving up their weapons.

Right-wing paramilitaries do not only threaten the lives of activists across Colombia — they threaten the peace process in its entirety. Should FARC and ELN members feel that a peace deal will put them in the sights of paramilitary guns, it is unlikely that the guerrillas will come to terms with the government, whatever deal their leaders might sign. Should workers and peasants continue to suffer such brutal oppression from paramilitaries, the odds of a renewed leftist insurgency in the future are high.

Santos must directly confront the wave of violence and the well-documented links which many politicians, police officers, and soldiers have with paramilitaries. A failure to do so could prove very costly.