In the early hours of August 29, Iván Márquez, a former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) commander and the group’s lead peace negotiator in Havana, joined two other former commanders of the guerrilla group in announcing they would be taking up arms once again, nearly three years after the historic signing of the peace accords with the Colombian government. Their decision is a wake-up call to the majority of Colombians and the international community who want peace: now is the critical moment to redouble efforts to ensure the full implementation of the peace accords.
This renewed call to arms is a reaction to the lack of political will to implement all aspects of the peace accord and a troubling rise in violence over the last year—both armed-group actions and a horrific wave of attacks on social leaders—that have undermined the transformative promises of the accord, like comprehensive rural reform, coca substitution, and political space for the peaceful opposition.
In particular, the Colombian government’s shortcomings in fully supporting the reintegration of ex-combatants, along with regular attacks on crucial truth and justice initiatives, have done little to bolster the faith that the FARC’s leadership and rank-and-file could place in the accords. The killing and disappearance of a reported 126 demobilized fighters have also fueled the argument by several FARC leaders that disarmament has only left them vulnerable to a campaign of violence. Also contributing to a recent rise in tensions was a new transition phase for the 24 reintegration zones where ex-FARC combatants are supposed to receive job training and other support to better transition back into civilian life: 13 reintegration zones are now supposed to be made permanent, with another 11 relocated. Compounding the situation, the United States government has recently failed to voice public support for the peace process, a dangerous signal to Colombia that U.S. support is waning.
This is not the end of the fragile peace process in Colombia, it’s a wake-up call.
However, a lasting peace is still within Colombia’s grasp. Crucially, the FARC political party has reaffirmed its commitment to peace and criticized the defectors’ announcement. It is also unclear how many of the over 13,000 demobilized fighters will respond to the hardline defectors’ calls to rearm.
While alias “Iván Márquez” commanded strong support within the FARC, it remains to be seen how many ex-combatants he will actually be able to rally. Notably, while Márquez has been missing from public view in Colombia for a year (and even failed to appear before Colombia’s transitional justice system when called to do so), throughout that absence he was not able to inspire many defections. Recent data compiled by the Bogotá-based Ideas for Peace Foundation find only 8 percent of demobilized FARC members currently unaccounted for—and not all of them, the Foundation emphasizes, have actually re-armed. Most ex-guerrillas have started new lives since the declaration of a final ceasefire three years ago. If this “new guerrilla” group grows, it will most likely do so by recruiting people with no past in the FARC.
Márquez and the other FARC leaders who issued the call for the new offensive are betraying the commitments they made to the Colombian people and the international community. They are also playing into the hands of the most ardent critics of Colombia’s peace process: in particular, the political movement around former President Álvaro Uribe and his allies, most of whom would not object to a return to war.
This is not the moment to return to past policies of war and military solutions to complex problems...
This is not the end of the fragile peace process in Colombia, it’s a wake-up call. The Colombian government needs to move urgently to protect and honor the demobilized combatants who remain committed to the accord and the political process. Their protection represents the assurance that those committed to working towards peace under the frame of legality will not be neglected by the state. Authorities should also show that they are serious about implementing other key components of the peace deal, including the transitional justice system (JEP, by its Spanish initials). A return to war will tragically disrupt efforts to uncover the truth of what happened during the conflict.
It is also urgent that the government implement stronger protection mechanisms for the human rights defenders, land rights activists, and Afro-Colombian and indigenous leaders suffering devastating violence since the signing of the peace deal. Many attacks and assassinations are being carried out by armed groups and other shadowy actors who have long repressed efforts by community leaders to denounce and fight back against inequality in Colombia. So long as this violence against human rights and social leaders continues unabated, Colombia’s peace deal will remain unconsolidated.
The announcement by Márquez and the other FARC leaders should in no way obscure the historic accomplishments the accord afforded Colombia in the past three years. This period brought the lowest levels of violence Colombia had experienced since the mid-1970s, though indicators started going the wrong way in the past year as accord implementation lagged. This is not the moment to return to past policies of war and military solutions to complex problems, but a moment for Colombia and the international community to prioritize and escalate efforts to implement the accord in its entirety.