Promises Made: Colombia’s Peace Deal Promised a New Era. So Why Are These Rebels Rearming?

When things go wrong, those in power often promise to make it right. But do they? This is the first in a series in which The Times is going back to the scene of major news events to see if those promises were kept.

After Colombia’s government signed a peace deal with the country’s main rebel group, ending decades of war and upheaval, both sides said it heralded a new era. But two and a half years after the militants agreed to lay down their arms, many of the promises made are not being honored, and the prospect of a true, lasting peace now seems far from certain.

This is what we found:

  • As many as 3,000 militants have resumed fighting, threatening the very foundation of the accord.

  • Many of the millions of Colombians who once lived in rebel-held territory still await the promised arrival of roads, schools and electricity. The government’s pledge to help rural areas was a big reason the rebels stood down.

  • Since the peace deal was signed, at least 500 activists and community leaders have been killed, and more than 210,000 people displaced from their homes amid the continuing violence. That undercuts a core selling point of the deal: that it would bring safety and stability.

  • Colombia’s new president, Iván Duque, a conservative who took office in August, has expressed skepticism of the accords and wants to change a commitment that was fundamental to the rebels agreeing to lay down their weapons.

Colombia’s five-decade civil war took at least 220,000 lives and devastated large swaths of the countryside. In rebel-held areas, government services disappeared and the infrastructure crumbled. Many turned to the drug economy to survive.

All sides were accused of atrocities — kidnappings, rapes and summary executions — that bred deep-seated animosities across the country and even within families. In a war so deeply personal, finding a way out posed an enormous challenge.

So when the government and the largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, reached a peace agreement in September 2016 after years of negotiation, much of the world applauded. Juan Manuel Santos, then Colombia’s president, won the Nobel Peace Prize.

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President Juan Manuel Santos, front left, with other officials and rebel leaders at a 2017 ceremony where it was announced that the FARC had handed over weapons.CreditThe New York Times

But peace deals of this scope are never easy to implement, and Colombians knew a long, daunting path was ahead of them.

The deal the two sides reached was ambitious and complex — with 578 separate stipulations — but it can be boiled down to a few core promises.

A primary goal of the FARC insurgency was improving the lives of rural Colombians. The deal calls for “universal” education in rural areas for preschool through secondary school; guaranteed access to drinking water; and heavy subsidies for development programs in former rebel territories.

The rebels, in turn, would cease all hostilities, turn in their weapons to the United Nations and return to civilian life. The FARC would be allowed to compete in elections and was guaranteed 10 seats in Congress.

What We Found

Much of the war was fought in the countryside.

The peace agreement raised hopes that the rural deprivation that fueled the conflict might finally ease. But two years after the accord was signed, a visit to the town of Juan José made clear that little has changed.

The community of 8,000 has not received even the most basic services it was promised. With no running water, residents are still forced to rely on untreated wells. No schools have been built in the surrounding villages, despite government pledges, and many children have never seen the inside of a classroom.

Displaced Colombians watching a movie at a camp in Juan José last month.CreditFederico Rios Escobar for The New York Times

While the police are now in Juan José, neither they nor the military have made it to the nearby villages, and new armed groups have moved in to fill the vacuum left by the FARC.

Emilio Archila, an adviser to the government, said many of the biggest development promises in the agreement — such as delivering water and electricity — would take more than a decade to accomplish, given the damage the countryside suffered from the conflict. “Anyone who thinks we could solve these issues in two years doesn’t understand the magnitude of the problem,” he said.

But Adam Isacson, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights group, said the government had failed to act. “The government had a window of opportunity to establish the state in lands the rebels gave up, but it didn’t take that chance,” he said. “Now there are many groups fighting for the same territory.”

Money is a major obstacle to meeting all the promises.

When the peace deal was signed, the estimate was that it would cost about $45 billion to fulfill all the promises over a period of at least 15 years. At the time, the government enjoyed revenue from a state oil company whose output was going for almost $100 a barrel. Now, prices are a third lower.

What We Found

Much of the FARC’s funding came through the drug trade. But peace did little to make farmers rethink their business model: Last year, the amount of land used for coca leaf production reached an all-time high.

Part of the problem is that the appeal of the lucrative cocaine business is as strong to the armed groups that have swept into rural areas as it once was to the FARC.

But the government also bears much of the blame.

A farmer washing chopped coca leaf  in La Hormiga, Colombia, in 2017.CreditJuan Arredondo for The New York Times

The crop-substitution program agreed to in the peace deal promised cash payments to those who uprooted their coca plants and replaced them with legal crops.

But in Juan José, residents say the payments to farmers ceased for a time after President Duque took charge. They eventually resumed at the end of the year, but the officials who were supposed to introduce the alternative crops never arrived.

So many farmers have gone back to planting coca.

What We Found

A central pillar of the accords was a promise to seek the truth of what happened during the conflict, with the goal of national reconciliation. The deal established the so-called Special Jurisdiction for Peace — tribunals to hear accounts of crimes and abuses.

Ten thousand former rebels and 2,000 members of the armed forces pledged to testify under a broad blanket of immunity: Blame could be assigned, but no jail time would be handed out, except for a few select crimes.

That part of the peace deal, however, was a tough sell for many Colombians. In October 2016, when they were given a chance to weigh in on the accord, they shocked many by voting against it in a referendum.

Mr. Santos sidestepped voters with a revised deal that he sent straight to Congress.

Colombians celebrated in September 2016 when the peace deal was reached.CreditFederico Rios Escobar for The New York Times

Now, Mr. Duque has requested an overhaul of the tribunals, calling them too lenient. Some worry he hopes to dismantle them entirely.

But the no-jail pledge was critical to getting the FARC to sign the deal. Reneging on it might well be seen as a bait and switch.

And that could be a deal breaker.

“The ability to get a lighter sentence and participate in politics is what convinced the FARC to get into politics to begin with,” said Mr. Isacson, the human rights analyst.

What We Found

Some of the promises made in the peace accords have been kept. More than 6,804 FARC fighters did initially disarm, and more than 8,994 weapons were surrendered. By 2017, the FARC had completely demobilized, except for a small dissident group.

About 23 percent of the 578 provisions in the deal have been fully carried out, according to a recent study by the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, which is monitoring the accords.

But the study projected that despite the “steady progress,” only one-third of the commitments made in the deal would be met in the agreed-upon time frame. The rest, it said, were either in a “state of minimal implementation” or had not yet even been touched.

“It’s undeniable that the government hasn’t made good on its promises, whether it’s reintegrating former fighters, agrarian development or political reforms,” said Julián Gallo Cubillos, a former FARC commander who is now a Colombian senator. “There’s been a general neglect.”

Mr. Santos shaking hands with Rodrigo Londoño, the top leader of the rebels, after signing a revised peace pact in November 2016.CreditFernando Vergara/Associated Press

One of the biggest failures has come on the security front, which government officials and rebels alike assured skeptical Colombians would be the largest dividend of the peace deal.

In many areas where the FARC has disarmed, the government has yet to arrive in force, breaking a key promise of the accords.

The resulting lawlessness and disorder in rural areas have proved deadly for Colombian activists, 252 of whom were killed last year, up from 191 in 2017, according to Colombia’s Institute of Studies for Peace and Development.

The FARC said this month that 130 of its former fighters had been killed since the signing of the peace deal. The ex-rebels have repeatedly complained that demobilizing has left them defenseless against the paramilitary gangs still roaming the countryside.

This has led to a major setback for peace: Experts estimate that as many as 3,000 militants have taken up arms again — a figure equal to more than 40 percent of those who initially demobilized. It includes new recruits.

Things have also not gone well on the political front. FARC leaders did form a party to participate in elections, but they soon learned that military victories can be easier than political ones. Unpopular for their history of kidnappings and killings, they were attacked with stones on the campaign trail, dropped out of a presidential bid and did not win a single elected seat.

The optimism that peace was around the corner thanks to the deal Mr. Santos signed has faded among people like Andrés Chica, a farmer who lives near Juan José but now fears heading into town.

“What he sold us was a dream,” said Mr. Chica.

The Takeaway: Peace deals are hard. Peace is harder.

Source: NYT

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