- Image 1 of 2
- Image 2 of 2
BOGOTA, Colombia – When rebel commander Rodrigo Londono signed a peace deal committing his troops to laying down their weapons, it was heralded as the best chance in decades to end Latin America's oldest and bloodiest armed conflict.
But as war-weary Colombia marks the first anniversary of the peace accord's signing on Friday, the hopeful mood has dimmed.
While the guerrillas' guns have been silenced, implementation of the historic deal is flagging, according to several outside observers supporting the peace process. Lawmakers are still racing against the clock to meet a deadline for passing key elements of the accord, and violence in areas once dominated by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, is once again on the rise amid a record surge in cocaine production.
Meanwhile, many of the 8,000 guerrillas who disarmed in June appear to have grown disillusioned, with about 55 percent having left the rural camps where they were expected to make the transition back to civilian life, according to the United Nations. While the government contends many are just breaking free from the once total control of their former commanders, many fear they could be joining criminal gangs or a dissident FARC movement that has about 1,000 fighters nationwide.
"This is exactly what you don't want in a peace process," said Dag Nylander, a former Norwegian diplomat who was the chief international mediator of the four-year talks. "If Colombia doesn't act now, the peace process is not going to be the example for the rest of the world that both sides said it would be."
As during the war, security remains the chief concern. Although Colombia's homicide rate nationally is hovering near a four-decade low, murders in former FARC enclaves jumped 14 percent in the first half of 2017 compared to the same period a year ago, according to a recent study by Bogota-based Ideas for Peace Foundation.
The driver of violence is a deepening turf war for the valuable drug routes once controlled by the FARC. Since 2013, the year after peace talks began in Cuba, cocaine production in Colombia has more than tripled to potentially 710 metric tons last year, according to U.S. estimates.
Nowhere is the volatile mix of drugs, retreating rebels and traditional state neglect as intensely felt as in the Pacific Ocean port of Tumaco, an embarkation point for much of the cocaine heading to Central America and then by land to the U.S. The city is disputed among criminal gangs and a dissident FARC movement — all of which are recruiting former rebels whose only marketable skill is wielding a gun. Also active in the area is the much-smaller National Liberation Army, which has initiated peace talks of its own with the government.
Last month, seven protesting, coca-growing farmers in Tumaco were killed in clashes with police sent in to forcibly eradicate the drug crops. The government blamed the incident on the dissident FARC rebels, who it said ordered the farmers to confront security forces while their drug crops were being harvested. But others say the slow roll-out of the crop-substitution plan in the accord is fueling tensions.
Nationwide at least 61 leftist activists, many of them leaders of communities dependent on the coca trade, have been killed so far this year, according to the United Nations. That's up from 52 murders during the same period in 2016. Some are the result of land disputes that have revived without the FARC around to impose control.
The fragile peace on the ground mirrors equally treacherous political realities. On Dec. 1, Congress' special fast-track authority to implement the accord expires, with several key piece of legislation still pending. Foremost among them is a bill setting up the special peace tribunals where former rebels as well as members of the security forces are to be judged for their war crimes.
"Without the transitional justice element in place, the whole peace agreement could collapse," said Nylander, who blames the political dynamic ahead of wide-open presidential elections six months away for lawmakers dragging their feet. "It seems like several political actors and institutions, including Congress, are running away from their commitments because of the 2018 elections."
President Juan Manuel Santos, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end Colombia's conflict, said the cold reception isn't surprising. Decades of fighting has left 8 million victims, including some 250,000 people killed. The accord was rejected in a nationwide referendum last year, forcing Santos to take the unpopular step of ramming a modified version through Congress.
"The best peace agreements are the ones that leave people on both sides unsatisfied," Santos told journalists on Thursday. "But some people want to sign the agreement's death certificate already without considering that peace-building takes time and that in less than a year of actual implementation, Colombia is ahead of other peace agreements."
The president said he's optimistic his peace coalition in congress will hold together long enough to bulletproof the core of the agreement from any serious meddling should a more conservative government take power next year, as many analysts expect.
The outlook is less certain for hundreds of other ambitious peacebuilding measures, everything from agrarian reform to a rethinking of the health and education systems, contained in the 310-page agreement. According to the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame University, 17 percent of the 558 stipulations in the accord have been fully implemented, with activity on another 55 percent yet to even begin.
Bernard Aronson, who served as President Barack Obama's special envoy to the talks, said that even if Colombia misses the historic opportunity to integrate its lawless countryside with the more prosperous cities "the war is over and nobody thinks it will restart again."
"The agreement didn't turn Colombia into a paradise," said Aronson, who in a private capacity has visited Colombia several times since the accord was signed to meet with FARC leaders, government negotiators and visit rebel camps. ""But given the high expectations, it's inevitable that there is some frustration."
Follow Alba Tobella on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/albatobella
Follow Joshua Goodman on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/APjoshgoodman