• The San Juan Daily Star

Five years after peace deal, Colombia is running out of time, experts say

Sandra Cortés with her children at her home in La Paz, Colombia, Sept. 1, 2021. Towns like La Paz remain under the control of armed groups five years after Colombia’s government signed a peace treaty with the largest of them.

By Julie Turkewitz

On a coca farm hidden in the jungle, a half-dozen day laborers slip out of hammocks and head to work, harvesting the shiny green leaves that will become cocaine.

In the nearby village of La Paz, chalky white cocaine base serves as currency, used to buy bread or beans. And in the community pavilion, propaganda on the wall pays homage to an insurgency that, in villages like this one, never ended.

Scenes like these were supposed to be a thing of the past in Colombia.

Five years ago, the government signed a peace deal with the largest group of rebels waging war, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, signaling the end of a conflict that had raged for a half-century and left more than 220,000 people dead.

The rebels agreed to put down their arms, while the government promised to fold long-neglected rural communities into the Colombian state, offering jobs, roads, schools and a chance at a better life. By addressing poverty and inequality, the peace pact was supposed to extinguish the dissatisfaction that had fueled the war.

But a third of the way into the deal’s 15-year time frame, much of that help has still not reached the Colombian countryside. Armed groups still control villages like La Paz.

And, experts warn, Colombia’s window to achieve the lasting peace envisioned in the accord may be closing.

“They spoke of benefits,” said Jhon Jiménez, 32, a coca farmer. “It was a lie.”

Colombia’s 2016 peace pact was among the most comprehensive in modern history, earning global applause and a Nobel Peace Prize for Juan Manuel Santos, then president. The United States, which had spent billions of dollars supporting the Colombian government during the conflict, was among its biggest supporters.

Since then, more than 13,000 FARC fighters have laid down their arms. Many are integrating into society. The deal also established an ambitious transitional justice court that is investigating war crimes and indicting major players.

After five years, many scholars consider a peace agreement a success if the signatories have not returned to battle. By those terms, the treaty is a success: While dissident factions remain, such as in La Paz, FARC as an institution has not rearmed.

But many scholars and security experts warn that the transformation of the long-neglected countryside — the heart of the deal — is perilously stalled. By failing to gain the trust of rural people, experts say, the government is allowing violent groups, old and new, to move in and perpetuate new cycles of violence.

“There are too many things that have not been done,” said Sergio Jaramillo, a top negotiator for the government in 2016.

President Iván Duque, a conservative who since his election in 2018 has been in the uncomfortable position of implementing a deal opposed by his party, called the criticism unfounded.

“There is not a slow implementation whatsoever,” he said in an interview. “We have been not only implementing, but the issues that we have been implementing are going to be decisive for the evolution of the accords.”

To secure poor farmers’ rights to land, his office has granted thousands of them land titles, he said, and approved more than a dozen regional development plans.

But Duque’s party is allied with powerful landholders who have the most to lose if land ownership rules are rewritten, and many critics accuse him of slow-walking the effort.

According to the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, which monitors the deal’s progress, just 4% of the accord’s rural reform measures are complete. As of June, an additional 83% either had just started, or had not been started at all.

At the same time, security has worsened in many rural areas, as criminal groups battle for territory previously held by the demobilized FARC.

Mass killings, mass displacements and the murders of social leaders are all up since 2016, according to the United Nations, making it increasingly difficult for the state to move in.

Colombia will hold an election next year, and by law a president cannot run for reelection. So it will fall to Duque’s successor to try to build peace on the back of the current distrust and insecurity.

Despite these concerns, several experts said they still saw reason for cautious optimism.

“Implementation is going to be consistently more and more difficult because of growing insecurity,” said Kyle Johnson, a founder of Conflict Responses, a nonprofit in Colombia focused on peace and security issues, “but not impossible.”

Many hours from La Paz, a village called Las Colinas offers a glimpse of what the future could look like.

Built following the peace accord, Las Colinas is home to hundreds of former FARC fighters now leading civilian lives. Thanks to government and international funding, they have 270 homes, a school, a meeting house, a health clinic, a library and a computer lab.

They have also formed several cooperatives, and on a recent day construction was underway for a supermarket, a produce collection center, a processed food plant and a restaurant.

More than 60 children have been born here since 2016.

Success is far from certain. It’s unclear if any of these businesses will be profitable, or how long government and donor funds will last.

And the village president, Feliciano Flórez — still best known by his nom de guerre, Leider Méndez — said that they live in fear. Since the deal was signed, at least 286 former combatants have been killed, according to the United Nations — many by armed groups, some for supporting the peace deal.

But Flórez, 27, sitting on his porch with his toddler on his lap, encouraged Colombians not to lose faith in the peace promised by the accord.

“We’re committed,” he said. “But I believe it’s a job we all have to do together.”

“The thing is,” he added, “there is no other way.”

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