Colombia's new right-wing president could destroy the fragile peace process

His stated aim to rewrite terms of the FARC peace deal may drive some former militants to take up arms again.

by Tim Hume
Jun 18 2018, 12:30pm

A day after Colombians elected the populist conservative Ivan Duque as their president, there are already concerns he'll disrupt the fragile peace process that ended 52 years of war with leftist rebels.

Duque, a 41-year-old former senator from the right-wing Democratic Center party, won 54 percent of the vote in a second-round presidential runoff Sunday, defeating former guerrilla fighter Gustavo Petro, who mustered about 42 percent.

Duque ran with the support of his longtime mentor Alvaro Uribe, an influential former president who led a hard-line military approach toward the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) while in power from 2002-2010.

In 2016, Colombia signed a contentious peace agreement with FARC, formally bringing an end to more than five decades of conflict that left 220,000 dead and 7 million displaced. But the new president says he wants to rewrite the terms of the deal ­– a stance that analysts are concerned could drive some former militants to take up arms again.

READ MORE: Inside Colombia’s rebel region as the country votes on its future

“He’s not trying to tear the whole thing up, but he’s certainly looking at measures which would undermine the FARC’s confidence in the process, and probably lead to far higher levels of dissidence,” Arthur Dhont, a senior analyst at IHS Markit, told VICE News.

Duque wants changes to some of the deal’s most controversial provisions, which many Colombians see as too lenient on the former rebels, who were infamous for their kidnappings and bombing campaigns. The deal guarantees the former rebels 10 seats in Congress, under the guise of their political party, the Revolutionary Alternative Common Force, and allows those accused of war crimes to avoid punishment.

Duque plans to change that, saying he wants to ban those convicted of serious war crimes from politics, along with those facing such charges until they have stood trial.

And, perhaps more significantly, he plans to treat the rebels’ drug trafficking as a criminal offense. FARC was heavily involved in the cocaine trade, but under the terms of the peace agreement, said Dhont, those crimes were essentially pardoned as they were treated as connected to the conflict.

“It’s seen as a crime relating to the conflict – so those accused are pardoned if they go through the transitional justice mechanism, and essentially get off scot-free,” said Dhont.

Dhont said that scrapping the protection for drug traffickers had the greatest potential to disrupt the peace process, as it could impact a wide number of mid-level former FARC commanders who had been demobilizing on the basis they would face no criminal consequences for their drug activities.

While FARC’s former leader Rodrigo Londono, known as Timochenko, has congratulated Duque and called for continued reconciliation between the former rebels and the government, Dhont said the risk would come from lower-ranked former guerrillas becoming disenfranchized and potentially taking up arms again.

Dhont said Duque would be constrained in how much he could tamper with the terms of the peace agreement, both by his likely coalition partners, who backed the deal, and by a court ruling that ruled that its terms must be respected by subsequent administrations.

But he would still have wiggle room – and popular support – for pushing for a more hardline approach toward the estimated 7,000 former militants, which could nudge a minority back toward militancy. Dhont said an estimated 1,000-1,400 rebels were already outside the peace process, and growing numbers had been abandoning demobilization camps that were at the heart of rehabilitation efforts.

“The danger is that this leads to more politically-motivated dissent – and if that happens, we will start to see more insurgent-like activity,” he said.

Duque will be sworn in on Aug. 7 for a four-year presidential term.

Cover image: Ivan Duque, candidate of the Democratic Centre party, celebrates his victory in the presidential runoff election in Bogota, Colombia, Sunday, June 17, 2018. Duque defeated Gustavo Petro, a former leftist rebel and ex-Bogota mayor. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)