Colombia has been engaged in internal armed conflict since the early 1960s, with the impact of the fighting taking a tremendous toll on the country politically, economically, and socially. The decades-long armed struggle between left wing terrorist groups, right wing paramilitaries, and the government has left more than 215,000 Colombians dead and five million displaced, the most of any other active conflict in the world.[1] A strong military offensive from 2000 to 2012 against all of the violent non-state actors, with significant support from the United States, has diminished the opposition groups’ capabilities.[2]

In October 2012, the Colombian government began peace negotiations with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC), the country’s largest and historically most powerful armed group.[3] Since the start of these negotiations, the FARC, the Colombian government, and the international community have expressed optimism about the talks and the outlook for Colombia’s future.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos noted that the most recent negotiations between the government and the left-leaning insurgent organization are the “furthest we have ever come in trying to end the war.”[4] Negotiators have agreed on three of the five issues that divide the two groups, with agreements on reparations and transitional justice outstanding. Many see Santos’ recent victory in Colombia’s presidential election as a positive sign for the prospects for peace.[5] While his victory helped the peace talks remain afloat, a number of difficult hurdles remain to any implementation of a peace agreement between the government and the FARC.

This article highlights the three most difficult hurdles that remain in an effort to assess the longevity of any agreement reached in Havana: overcoming the history of mistrust between the government and the FARC, convincing the Colombian public to back the final agreement, and implementing an agreement within the FARC’s organizational structure. Given these hurdles and despite the recent electoral success of President Santos, the Colombian government will have a difficult time eliminating the FARC and the long term threat posed by the group.

A History of Mistrust
In past negotiations, the government has been able to find common ground with the FARC. In 1984, during the negotiations that occurred under President Belisario Betancur, both sides maintained a cease-fire throughout the negotiations and the government reached an agreement with the FARC that promised agrarian reform and allowed the group to form a political party, the Patriotic Union.[6] When the next president was elected in 1986, however, the agreements generated through the negotiations process were all but ignored and as many as 3,000 members of the FARC’s political party were killed following the political transition.[7] The government, which had promised to protect the new political party, did little to stop the violence as members were killed, often by right wing paramilitary groups that had been known to work with the military.[8] In 2011, the Colombian government even admitted to ordering the assassination of Patriotic Union senator Manuel Cepeda, who was killed in 1994.[9]

Given this history of broken promises following a change in political leadership and retaliation against the FARC’s attempt at political legitimacy, the strong showing of Oscar Ivan Zuluaga (a critic of the peace process) in the May 25, 2014, presidential elections and in the subsequent runoff has significant implications for the peace process.[10]

After narrowly beating Santos in the first round of the 2014 Colombian presidential election, polls indicated a narrow victory was possible for Zuluaga in the runoff.[11] These results reflected the fact that support for President Santos had been declining recently as he has faced increasing criticism since his term began in 2010, particularly on the issue of peace talks with the FARC. Former President Álvaro Uribe, who oversaw the military offensive against the FARC under Plan Colombia,[12] has been one of the strongest voices against President Santos. He has criticized the president for easing off militarily and granting the FARC, whom he had worked so hard to defeat militarily, political power through the peace talks.[13]

While Santos has not gone so far as to accept the FARC’s multiple calls for a cease-fire, he has stated that given the opportunity, he would think twice about killing the FARC’s commander, Rodrigo Londoño, viewing it as a move that could intensify the violence and draw the FARC away from the negotiating table.[14] Although such a move could derail the peace talks, Santos’ public proclamation of such intentions has been unpopular, and similar comments have sparked doubt both in Santos’ leadership and the likelihood that successful negotiations could bring an end to the conflict with the FARC.

These are doubts upon which Zuluaga capitalized during the campaign, making a tough line on potential peace talks a key part of the runoff campaign.[15] Such criticism forced Santos to explicitly state that he would not allow war crimes committed by FARC members to go unpunished.[16] Santos finds himself in a difficult position politically, as any attempt to ward off the criticisms from the right may be met by criticisms from the left that he is unable to be fully trusted, as was shown in a recent article written by Ivan Marquez, a member of the FARC’s Secretariat.[17]

In the end, even though Santos was able to secure the presidency, overcoming the historical mistrust between the government and the FARC will be difficult. Zuluaga’s surprisingly strong campaign and narrow defeat is a reflection of a fair amount of angst over the peace talks, which may not fade over time.[18] Indeed, Santos’ opponents are painting his victory as the product of his corruption and voter intimidation by the FARC.[19] While many have seen the victory of Santos as the Colombian public’s endorsement of the peace process, the narrow victory sends a message of caution regarding the future of any peace agreement.

Convincing the Colombian Public
Even if the talks reach conclusion, the Colombian people will play a critical role in the fate of the FARC as well as the future stability of the country. In October 2013, Colombia’s Congress passed a bill requiring that any peace deal between the government and the FARC be put to a referendum and voted on by the public.[20] This means that even if the FARC and the government are able to agree upon terms acceptable to both parties, the agreement may ultimately fail if the public opposes them.

Unfortunately, the Colombian people have plenty of reason to disapprove. The conflict, which has involved other left wing terrorist groups such as the National Liberation Army (ELN), right wing paramilitaries such as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), and drug cartels, has claimed more than 215,000 lives, the vast majority of which are thought to have been civilians.[21] It has resulted in one of the world’s largest internal displacements, with nearly five million Colombians having fled their homes only to face challenges ranging from future employment to threats of violence.[22]

Although the FARC started as a group committed to peasant rights, over time it moved away from a strong initial focus on ideology and began to exploit the very people it set out to protect.[23] The group turned to narcotics trafficking for income, committed hundreds of massacres, and drove people from their lands. The half-century conflict between the FARC, other left wing terrorist organizations, paramilitaries, and the government has affected the lives of all Colombians and there are few who would like to see the perpetrators of violence obtaining even more political influence than the talks have already given them.

Polling data from March 2014 collected in Colombia reflects the uncertainty that the Colombian people have towards the FARC and the peace process. Although the Colombian people want peace, they are skeptical about the negotiations. This poll showed that 34% of Colombians believe that the best way to solve the conflict with the FARC is through a military defeat, with only 30% believing in the negotiations and 29% behind promoting the demobilization of members (the other 6% were unsure).[24] A total of 58% of Colombians believe that the government’s current approach will not bring the conflict to an end.[25] Another sticking point is how the FARC fighters will be treated once an agreement is reached, with 78% of Colombians disagreeing with the idea that former FARC terrorists be allowed to serve in political roles without first serving time in jail.[26]

For their part, the FARC has come out in strong opposition to the national referendum on the results of the negotiations, even halting the talks when the bill was proposed.[27] The FARC has instead proposed that the agreements made through the peace process be ratified by a constituent assembly, which would consist of representatives of different groups such as the guerrillas, peasants, retired soldiers, indigenous Colombians, and victims of the conflict.[28] Perhaps the group feels that the public will not pass the referendum given the toll that the FARC’s actions have taken on the country in the last 50 years, which is why it would prefer an assembly. An assembly might be under more pressure to ratify the results of the negotiations.

That said, even though Colombians in general do not support the FARC, the farmers who traditionally have made up the core of the FARC’s support are upset with the government as well. Given that they are living in poverty, they will support the group that enables them to live peacefully and to make a living off the land. In their view, the FARC has protected them from government forces that have worked to eradicate the coca crops upon which both the FARC’s and the farmers’ livelihoods depend.[29]

Simply eradicating the coca crops will not be enough to stop the cocaine trade, and taking away farmers’ ability to earn a living in this way serves only to increase support for armed groups that protect the coca farmers.[30] When the FARC became violent against the coca farmers that it had once protected, the government was able to offer a better alternative: protection against the FARC and agrarian reform that allowed the farmers to earn a legal living.[31] These policies spurred a shift in the farmers’ support away from the FARC and in favor of the government.

Colombia may see another shift away from governmental support as thousands of farmers across Colombia recently protested the government’s lack of progress on agricultural policies introduced last August.[32] Should the peace talks fail, the FARC might be able to regain the confidence of the rural farmers who are losing their faith in the government. Knowing that the farmers are upset with the government and that the referendum that comes out of the peace talks may not pass a popular vote gives the FARC reason to back out of the peace talks altogether. In other words, the Colombian public plays a key role in any eventual peace deal and it is uncertain how they will vote.

Implementing the Agreement within the FARC
Even assuming that the first two hurdles can be overcome, the question then becomes what the impact of a peace agreement would have on overall FARC operations. On this front, there are two issues that call into question the efficacy of any agreement between the FARC and the Colombian government. First, while the FARC’s ideological commitment to the drug trade is uncertain, what is clear is that the group’s involvement in the drug trade has increased over time.[33] Although the group originally opposed the drug trade on ideological terms, initially only imposing their own taxes on large growers of illicit crops, by the mid-1980s they had begun growing, processing, and trafficking cocaine because of the financial opportunities it afforded.[34] Because of the profitability of the drug trade and the FARC’s deep involvement, there are vested organizational interests in the drug trade that may be difficult to end through negotiations. Second, it is unclear whether the central command of the FARC can implement an agreement within its constituent parts.

The FARC has sat down with the government on official terms in three separate sets of negotiations during the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, with the last round of talks resulting in the concession of a large area of land to the FARC, which the group used to consolidate its cocaine production operations.[35] In addition, various fronts have been known to partner with drug cartels in their areas of operation to be able to sustain operations.[36] The FARC’s reach into the drug trade extends outside Colombia’s borders in Mexico and beyond.[37]

As recently as April 2013, after the peace talks began, an alleged member of the FARC was arrested in Algeria for trying to trade cocaine for weapons with members of a group linked to al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb.[38] There also have been allegations that the terrorist group Lebanese Hizb Allah is a beneficiary and participant in the FARC’s drug activities.[39] This expansion of relationships makes the cessation of the drug trade (and the associated conflict over the trade), whether under the FARC name or a different banner, difficult to envisage.

Even setting aside FARC’s involvement in the lucrative drug market, an agreement within the organization may be hard to implement because of the differing levels of buy-in by various FARC commanders. Because the group is decentralized and divided into fronts of around 200 fighters each, it is difficult to relay information throughout the network.[40] In September 2013, a senior Colombian official reported that the FARC only had real control of 15 out of 67 fronts.[41]

Given this potential lack of organizational control, it is possible that any agreement may result in a fracturing of the organization and a continuation of violence. An example of this is what happened in Northern Ireland following the progress of the peace talks between the Provisional Irish Republican Army (among others) and the British and Irish governments. The Real Irish Republican Army formed in response to the peace talks and began planning and executing acts of violence and remains in existence today.

In addition to the potential for the FARC to produce splinter groups in the result of top-down demobilization, there are other armed groups still active in Colombia that must be addressed by the government as well. Regardless of the results of the government’s negotiations with the FARC, the Colombian government must also consider the other armed groups acting in Colombia, to include the left wing terrorist group the ELN, the various cocaine trafficking cartels, and the former paramilitary members who have joined new armed groups such as the Aguilas Negras (Black Eagles).[42] The government took a step in this direction, announcing a few days before the runoff election that it had started preliminary discussions with the ELN.[43]

Looking Past the Hurdles
Given the political climate and the high social disapproval of the FARC, there is a chance that the peace talks may fail to reach a conclusion that is acceptable to both groups, or that any agreement between the government and the FARC may not be passed in the public referendum. Unfortunately, a failure of the peace talks will result in the continuation of one of the world’s longest running civil conflicts.

If the conflict does continue, the FARC is a shadow of its former self and the military has already pushed it to the point of peace talks; a breakdown in the negotiations would allow the government to resume a persistent military campaign against the FARC. While such a campaign would continue to reduce the FARC’s operational force, unless the Colombian government provides relief to the underlying grievances fueling the FARC’s base, they may find it difficult to fully eliminate the threat posed by the FARC in the future.

Abigail Jeffers is a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point.

Daniel Milton, Ph.D., is a Research Associate at the Combating Terrorism Center and Assistant Professor in the Department of Social Sciences at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point.

The views presented are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, or any of its subordinate commands.

[1] “Estadisticas del conflict armado en Colombia,” Centro Nacional de Memoria Historica, 2012; “Colombia Displacement,” Reuters, August 29, 2013.

[2] Dana Priest, “Covert Action in Colombia,” Washington Post, December 21, 2013.

[3] “FARC,” Insight Crime, undated.

[4] “The Politics of Peace,” Economist, May 17, 2014.

[5] Katalina Vásquez Guzmán, “‘Este es el momento de la paz,’ dijo Santos,” Pagina 12, June 2014.

[6] Camilo González Posso, “Negotiations with the FARC: 1982-2002,” Conciliation Resources, 2004.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Colombia’s FARC Rebels Face History in Considering Return to Politics,” Public Radio International, September 3, 2013.

[9] Constanza Vieira, “RIGHTS-COLOMBIA: Government Apologises for Senator’s Murder,” Inter Press Service, August 10, 2013.

[10] William Neuman, “Peace-Talk Critic Takes Lead in Colombia Presidential Vote,” New York Times, May 25, 2014.

[11] “The Prospects for Peace,” Economist, May 26, 2014.

[12] Plan Colombia was the U.S. aid package that provided military support for counternarcotics and counterterrorism in Colombia.

[13] Juan Forero and Marina Villeneuve, “Colombian Ex-President Sounds Off on his Successor’s Peace Talks with FARC Rebels,” Washington Post, October 5, 2013.

[14] “Santos lo pensaría dos veces antes de atacar a ‘Timochenko,’”, April 11, 2014. For an example of the FARC’s call for a cease-fire, see “Electoral Ceasefire,” FARC-EPEACE.ORG, May 18, 2014.

[15] Adriaan Alsema, “Zuluaga Makes Suspending FARC Peace Talks Central Point in Race to 2nd Round,” Colombia Reports, May 26, 2014. Despite the initial tough line, there have been some signs of Zuluaga’s willingness to continue talks. See Julia Symmes Cobb and Peter Murphy, “Colombia’s Zuluaga Softens on FARC Peace Talks Ahead of Run-off Vote,” Reuters, May 29, 2014.

[16] In one recent interview, Santos said quite bluntly: “I would never accept general impunity for the guerrillas!” See Juliane von Mittelstaedt and Helene Zuber, “Colombian President Santos: ‘Waging War Is More Popular than Negotiating,’” Spiegel Online, May 21, 2014; Adriaan Alsema, “Santos Assures Colombian Military That FARC Will Not be Granted Impunity,” Colombia Reports, November 27, 2013.

[17] In this article, Marquez claims that President Santos told military leaders and fellow politicians over a phone conference that they could not let up the offensive against the FARC until the peace agreements were signed. See Ivan Marquez, “Juan Manuel Santos habla de paz vomitando fuego,”, May 26, 2014.

[18] Indeed, some analysts have called for caution in interpreting these election results as a resounding mandate. There are still elements of the Colombian Congress, including former President Uribe, who are completely opposed to the talks. See Jim Wyss, “Santos Predicts ‘Beginning of a New Colombia’ After Victory,” Miami Herald, June 15, 2014.

[19] Frank Bajak and Libardo Cardona, “Pressure on Santos to Reach Peace for Colombia,” News and Observer, June 16, 2014.

[20] Daniel Freeman, “Colombia’s Congress Approves Referendum to Seal Eventual Peace Deal with FARC,” Colombia News, October 24, 2013.

[21] “Colombian Conflict has Killed 220,000 in 55 years, Commission Finds,” Associated Press, Guardian, July 26, 2013.

[22] “Safe Haven: Sheltering Displaced Persons from Sexual and Gender-Based Violence. Case Study: Colombia,” Human Rights Center & UNHCR, May 2013; Diana Diaz Rodriguez and Liva Mota, “Colombia’s Indigenous Pushed to Find Safety in Cities,” UNHCR, October 18, 2012; Obinna Anyadike, “Colombia’s Internally Displaced People Caught in Corridor of Instability,” Guardian, August 12, 2013.

[23] “World Report 2013,” Human Rights Watch, 2013.

[24] “Polimétrica: La Encuestra Elecciones 2014,” Cifras & Conceptos, March 2014.

[25] Ibid.

[26] “Uribe’s New Platform,” Economist, March 11, 2014.

[27] Helen Murphy and Peter Murphy, “Colombia Peace Talks Suspended After FARC Call for Pause,” Reuters, August 23, 2013.

[28] “Press Conference End of 18th Round,” Peace Delegation of the FARC-EP, December 20, 2013.

[29] Ricardo Vargas, “The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Illicit Drug Trade,” Transnational Institute, June 7, 1999.

[30] Vanda Brown, Shooting up Counterinsurgency and the War on Drugs (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2010).

[31] Lyda Fernanda Forero, “Colombia and Free Trade Agreements: Between Mobilisation and Conflict,” Transnational Institute, June 3, 2014.

[32] “Colombian Farmers Protest Against Government’s ‘Broken Promises,’” BBC, August 28, 2014.

[33] Helen Murphy and Luis Jaime Acosta, “FARC Controls 60 Percent of Drug Trade – Colombia’s Police Chief,” Reuters, April 22, 2013. See the “FARCLANDIA” section in Frank Cilluffo, “The Threat Posed from the Convergence of Organized Crime, Drug Trafficking, and Terrorism,” statement given to the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, December 13, 2000.

[34] “Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army,” Mapping Militant Organizations, Stanford University, August 13, 2012.

[35] Juan Carlos Hidalgo, “Peace Talks with the FARC: A Good Idea?” Cato Institute, August 28, 2012.

[36] “The FARC at their Worst Moment in History,” Ministry of National Defense – Republic of Colombia, undated.

[37] “Colombia Rebels Linked to Mexico Drug Cartels,” New York Times, October 7, 2008.

[38] James Bargent, “Arrests Point to FARC Ties to Al Qaeda in North Africa,” Insight Crime, April 8, 2013.

[39] Jo Becker, “Beirut Bank Seen as a Hub of Hezbollah’s Financing,” New York Times, December 13, 2011.

[40] Douglas Farah, “Terrorist Groups in Latin America: The Changing Landscape,” testimony to the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade in the U.S. House of Representatives, February 4, 2014; Bilal Y. Saab and Alexandra W. Taylor, “Criminality and Armed Groups: A Comparative Study of FARC and Paramilitary Groups in Colombia,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 32:6 (2009): p. 460.

[41] Ibid.

[42] “Colombia Ready to Negotiation with the ELN,” al-Jazira, August 29, 2013; Olle Ohlsen Pettersson, “Neo-paramilitaries Declare War against FARC, ELN in Northeastern Colombia,” Colombia Reports, August 6, 2012; “‘Aguilas Negras’ amenazan a poblacion en zona de influencia de FARC,”, January 23, 2014.

[43] Helen Murphy and Peter Murphy, “Colombia Government in Preliminary Peace Talks with ELN Rebels,” Reuters, June 10, 2014.

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