The Good, The Bad, and The FARC: Lessons in Peace, Terror, and the Will of the People

After nearly four years of negotiations, and 52 years of brutal fighting, the Colombian government reached a “peace deal” with guerrilla and terror organization the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader Timoleon Jimenez signed an agreement, the ratification of which was promptly rejected by 50.2% of Colombian voters. In this peace deal, and the outcome of the grossly under-cast ratification vote, literally everyone loses.

What You Need to Know

This is not the first time a government has tried to strike a peace deal with a violent militant organization, after trying, and failing, to eradicate it through conventional warfare.  In 2014, the government of the Philippines reached a comprehensive “peace deal” with the violent militant Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). MILF has a history of kidnappings, beheadings, bombings, and alleged ties to terror group Jemaah Islamiyah. Pakistan and Afghanistan have signed “peace agreements” with the Taliban.

Yet, the situation with the FARC is unique. FARC is responsible for the longest-run armed insurgency in the western hemisphere. The group  got its start in 1964 as the armed wing of the Communist Party, inspired by the Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara the famed Argentino. It is considered by some to be the “last of the great guerilla movements”, a characterization which carries some romantic sensibility to be sure, but has bred a Marxist and Maoist-esque culture of terror for generations of civilians in the region.

FARC is special because it has survived as this movement, but was by no means unique to its “cause.” The 1960s and 1970s of Latin America saw a movement in near every country, save Costa Rica, of guerilla style leftist militancy that operated through bank robberies, hijackings, assassinations, kidnappings and attacks in various forms on civilian, political, and military targets. Nicaragua had (and still has, politically) the Sandinistas, Brazil had MR8, the Tupamaros were in Uruguay, the Armed Forces of National Liberation were problematic in Venezuela, and Argentina had the Montoneros and the People’s Revolutionary Army, to name a few.  

FARC has lacked the military and popular support necessary to overthrow the Colombian government and violence has been in a downward trend since 2002. However, with their primary source of income being the lucrative illicit drug trade, FARC is still a problem.

Why Did Peace Fail?

            A peace deal in this instance is a monumental achievement whether or not it passes popular ratification. It is understandable that a conflict that has defined the lives of many Colombians for over 50 years is complex and contentious when it comes to the emotions of the people. This BBC article does a great job of visually breaking down the voting. Groups in areas heavily affected by the violence of FARC voted for the agreement. Groups from regions where the violence was not present on a daily basis felt that there were too many long-term concessions given to FARC in the agreement.

            Under the agreement, FARC would have been granted 10 guaranteed seats in Colombian Congress in both the 2018 and 2022 elections. Leniency would be shown in sentencing through the special tribunal set up to deal with FARC post-agreement to FARC leaders and members who confessed to their crimes. For some Colombian citizens, the finer points of the agreement were too lenient; they found rewarding a terror-insurgent group for one act of good behavior to be unacceptable. Despite popular rejection of the deal, the negotiation process has demonstrated that there are many ways to weigh peace.

For further reading on the controversial points of agreement.

Questions We Are Left With

            Is FARC a terror organization? Though we lack a definition of terrorism that is recognized by international law, many scholars (? International institutions?) agree that, based on FARC’s tendency to targets civilians to achieve a political agenda, it is a terror group. They have employed assassinations, kidnappings, attacks with shrapnel-filled gas canisters, homemade landmines and mortar shells that have terrorized the countryside and civilian communities throughout the nation.

Does an agreement with major concession justify the potential for peace? How much should a government give? FARC targeted military, political, and civilian elements of Colombian society. The Colombian government of Santos has chosen an approach that chooses to engage the group in the political process, and rehabilitate fighters. Rehabilitation is essential in de-radicalization.

Listen to one of our favorite Ted Talks that deals with FARC and rehabilitation, with a great twist.

Former President Uribe, who fought FARC for his entire career, has vocally disagreed with the points of the agreement. For the Colombian population that voted on the ratification, the majority agreed with Uribe. On the 7th of October, President Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. Even if the agreement wasn’t ratified, there is a global public support for efforts towards peace.

What remains to be seen will be the circumstances under which a new agreement can be reached, and the concessions the Colombian people will be willing to make to their terrorizers for a chance at peace.