Colombia: Don’t they want peace?

This blog post, by Dr Jan Pospisil, PSRP researcher based at the Law School, University of Edinburgh, analyses the political context in which the referendum on the peace agreement in between the Colombian government and the FARC-EP. This is the fourth of a series of blog posts related to the Colombian Peace Process.

The negative vote on the peace deal between the Colombian government and the FARC-EP guerrilla has been met internationally with shock and disbelief. Contrary to all opinion polls before the referendum, a small majority rejected the 300-page agreement negotiated during a long, painful, four-year process. Low turnout, exacerbated by inclement weather due to hurricane ‘Matthew’ was cited as one of the reasons. Statistical doubts have been raised. Others speculated that there was lack of consideration for the FARC’s victims. However, this latter point is proved incorrect when looking at a regional break-down of the referendum results: in regions with a greater numbers of FARC victims, the peace deal usually was accepted by a wide margin.

Such a regional break-down, however, also reveals the repercussions between the still fragile Colombian political settlement and the FARC peace deal. The ‘no’ vote is particularly strong in regions where the traditional rural elite have their strongholds. The national voice of these elite factions can be found in ex-president Alvaro Uribe, whose campaigning success is demonstrated by the results on his home soil, Antioquia. Here, the no-votes dominated by the rather wide margin of 60 per cent.

A commonly underestimated factor in the FARC peace process is its close interlinkage with existing fault lines within the Colombian political settlement, in particular among the dominating economic elites. The Colombian industrial chamber ANDI, which represents the internationally oriented business factions in Bogota, supported the peace deal, and was a key factor in swaying the neo-conservative party of President Juan Manual Santos, the Partido de la U, in favour of the peace endeavour. In contrast, the old rural elites campaigned against peace negotiations from the beginning, with ex-president Alvaro Uribe as their champion.

The reasons for this divide are several: it is about the distribution of national and regional power, about ideological differences, where strong anti-communist sentiments among rural elites come into play, but not the least also about manifest economic interests. A peace deal with FARC creates not only economic winners, but also economic losers, particularly in rural areas. A main factor in this respect still is the illicit sector that has undergone significant changes within the last 15 years, particularly after Uribe struck a peace deal with the right-wing AUC paramilitaries during his presidency. However, the AUC only partially dissolved and some factions transformed into paramilitary gangs, which who soon were labelled as ‘Bacrim’ (acronym for Bandas Criminales, criminal gangs). They now dominate drug production and drug trade in regions not under the control of the dissident FARC frentes. Bacrim, and their structural allies within the regional and national establishment, naturally have no interest in a peace deal whatsoever, as the current situation serves their interests far better than any peaceful alternative.

Alvaro Uribe is representative of these elites. His connections to the drug cartels and paramilitaries have been documented and are well-known. His father had strong family ties to the Ochoa family, a main player within the Medellin cartel. In 1991, Uribe was himself classified as a key narco-trafficking figure by US agencies. Thus, given the existing power of mobilisation of the conglomerates of rural elites, drug producers and traders, and right-wing politicians, it is not surprising that the rejection of the peace deal was highest in those regions that are still controlled by those groups. This is particularly true for parts of the rural areas under strong paramilitary/Bacrim-influence, and for those parts of the cities with strong gang violence (as in wide parts of Medellin, but also in parts of Cali and Bogota). A closer look at the local results in the Valle de Cauca region, which as a whole voted in favour of the peace deal, demonstrates this clearly. As is evident in the map below, municipalities with a strong presence of Bacrim – which is also an indicator of a high influence of the rural elite – voted against the peace deal, whereas other municipalities in the region voted in favour.


Revealing comparison: Long-term BACRIM presence in Valle del Cauca, according to a FES report, and the results of the plebiscite in the same region, according to the Cali daily El Pais.

It has to be taken into account that for many Colombians this vote was not a vote for or against peace. The number of combatants of non-state armed groups is still thought to be significantly more than 10,000 (including the Bacrim) – and this number does not count FARC members. Wide areas of Colombia are, and will remain – notwithstanding the peace deal – under significant influence of such groups. As such, the promise of peace in Colombia from a peace deal with FARC was exaggerated, and in a sense, a flawed promise. As people tend to vote in terms of their short term interests, the result of the referendum is not surprising.

The FARC peace process – up until now, at least – has been unsuccessful in altering the Colombian political settlement in order to solve, or decide, the long-standing antagonism between the dominant elite factions, and indeed this is the task ahead. This cannot be solved via renewed negotiations with the FARC or an improved deal – the problem that needs to be addressed is the ‘real deal’, not with the FARC, but within Colombia’s broader political settlement. Notwithstanding the question whether a referendum makes sense in such circumstances, the ‘no’ vote nevertheless reveals a painful lesson: inclusive peace means first and foremost to include those who are against peace.

About the Author: Dr Jan Pospisil is a Post-Doctoral Researcher with Political Settlements Research Programme at the University of Edinburgh. His research interests are international security- and development policy, resilience, state legitimacy, state fragility and statebuilding, peace processes and theories of International Relations (See more about Jan’s work here and particularly his research about the ELN – ‘Ser Eleno’: Insurgent identity formation in the ELN).

Photo: March Against FARC – by xmascarol – Creative Commons