Colombia Rural Insecurity – April 20, 2020

Author: John Yager

A contested peace: killing of social leaders continues in the shadow of a failing peace agreement

            Rural security remains one of the most vital unresolved components of Colombia’s 2016 peace agreement between the state and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), intended to bring a halt to more than five decades of violent insurgency and allow for the return of governance and services in rural and peripheral areas. Unfortunately, opposition to the accord from both sides has allowed violence to surge in the years after the agreement, and rural residents have borne the brunt of this violence. President Ivan Duque’s administration has little incentive to make good on the accord’s security guarantees, after campaigning on a platform against the agreement. Meanwhile, thousands of dissident FARC guerrillas who rejected the agreement continue to conduct operations. Furthermore, the National Liberation Army (ELN), arguably the country’s most violent left-wing revolutionary armed group, was not included in the 2016 deal, leaving an unfinished peace that has improved security overall, but failed to provide stability.

            More specifically, while direct confrontation between armed groups and the state now occur in more isolated incidents, a new threat has emerged since the signing of Colombia’s peace agreement. A wave of assassinations has targeted hundreds of social leaders and human rights defenders in the countryside, as the departure of disarming factions leaves a security vacuum in rural areas vital to smuggling routes. Issues arising from this insecurity have affected peacebuilding and development efforts across the country, including in urban centers, where the flow of IDPs from rural conflict zones has contributed to rising unemployment. Furthermore, beginning in November 2019, protesters began launching regular demonstrations across major cities in opposition to Duque’s policies and delays in implementing the peace agreement. The return of commanders such as Luciano Marin (alias Ivan Marquez) has already signaled that continued delays could see a return of FARC fighters to the frontlines. Prioritizing rural security would be a major step to avoid this outcome, as well as to address a number of national issues simultaneously, ranging from establishing governance and services in areas long made inaccessible due to insurgency, to poverty and unemployment, to building a sustainable peace amid heightened security concerns in urban centers. The rapid spread of the coronavirus pandemic highlights yet another reason why stakeholders must protect peace and redirect resources toward infrastructure, public health initiatives, and alleviating widespread issues such as poverty that have caused crime rates to spike in cities. Now more than ever, the Colombian government must take meaningful steps towards addressing rural insecurity, as the risks of not doing so now greatly outweigh the political fallout Duque could suffer from his political allies and constituents who oppose the peace deal.

Political obstacles block the implementation of the peace accord

            While the 2016 peace accord included measures to address rural insecurity, major political opposition has thus far prevented its implementation due to disagreements over the accord itself. President Ivan Duque came to power in 2018 after campaigning against the 2016 peace agreement that ended the 52-year conflict with FARC. In fact, opposition to the peace process was a driving factor in the creation of his political party, the Democratic Center, which emerged in 2014 when a group of politicians split from the Social Party for National Unity. Duque’s mentor, former President Alvaro Uribe, led the founding of the offshoot, rallying so-called “Uribists” to unite in a new party dedicated to its leader’s ideals. Anger over the peace process and disapproval over ex-President Juan Manuel Santos’ negotiations with the FARC proved an effective rallying cry to mobilize supporters from various demographics, and voters narrowly rejected the referendum. Although Santos went on to win the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize despite the defeat of his deal in referendum, many believe the vigorous “Vote No” initiative, led by Duque among others, played a substantial role in the referendum’s result and provided Duque substantial popular backing.

            Duque entered office on promises that he would be correcting the “errors” of the peace agreement, something many of his constituents have applauded, believing that the peace agreement was far too lenient for the FARC.Nevertheless, Duque has agreed publicly to certain aspects of the peace accord’s parameters, and in 2018 even signed the Action Plan for the Protection of Social and Community Leaders, Human Rights Defenders, and Journalists to address the threat of increasing violence. In January 2019, Duque convened the National Security Guarantees Commission, but since then progress has slowed to a near halt. “Vote No” campaign loyalists now lead several of the agencies tasked with implementing the plan, and budgeting has not provided the agencies sufficient resources to complete their tasks. The result is a security vacuum within which some former guerrillas have disarmed and demobilized, while others continue to engage in territorial disputes over newly abandoned areas and the illicit economy. Amidst this turbulence, rural social leaders have paid the price, enabling the FARC’s rallying cries against government inaction to grow louder.

Assassination campaigns target rural social leaders

            As implementation of the peace agreement sits on the backburner, insecurity in rural areas remains a key driver of instability countrywide. This is perhaps most evident in the assassination of rural social leaders following the disarmament of approximately 6,800 FARC guerrillas in 2016. As some armed factions began to disarm and abandon territory, local indigenous and Afro-Colombian representatives, rural farmers, and social leaders sought to reclaim control and defend their lands, sparking a campaign of targeted assassinations across the Antioquia, Cauca, North Santander, Valle del Cauca, Nariño, Caqueta, Choco and Cordoba departments. Social leaders have also been targeted for speaking out against armed groups or attempting to take part in coca crop substitution programs. Social leaders have even been killed for appearing to take part in the 2016 peace agreement, as those armed groups still active have rejected the agreement’s parameters. Three armed groups have been identified as responsible for the majority of the killings; the left-wing guerrillas of the FARC, the right-wing paramilitary Clan de Golfo, and the left-wing National Liberation Army (ELN).

            International NGOs have criticized government assassination figures as too conservative, while local think tanks estimate the number as high as 282 in 2018 and 250 in 2019. In 2019, the NGO Somos Defensores reported at least 600 social leaders nationwide had received death threats. The death toll continued to climb this year as the first 27 days of 2020 recorded the assassination of 27 social leaders, according to the Colombian Institute for Development and Peace Studies. With state programs lagging to address the crisis and armed groups vying for control of the countryside and its coveted smuggling routes, there is no end in sight for the assassination campaigns. 


            Absent a concerted effort from the Duque administration, rural violence and assassinations targeting social leaders and human rights defenders will continue to destabilize the fragile peace achieved in 2016. Government neglect for rural areas was and continues to be a key grievance cited by the FARC, which has helped the group win substantial support in the countryside, recruit others to its cause, and prolong the conflict. The administration must make good on the security guarantees laid out in the 2016 peace accord through an urgent adoption of programs supporting economic investment in rural areas and protecting farmers who take part in crop substitution. It must also address decades of socio-economic inequality in order to curb support for armed insurgency.

            Four years on since the accord, the return of FARC commanders like Ivan Marquez highlights the very real threat of a large-scale resurgence of violence if peace fails. Duque and his constituents should not see implementing the agreement as victory for the FARC, but rather as a preventative measure designed to save the country as a whole from a return to the violence of decades past. Securing the countryside can defuse the rhetoric employed by active armed groups who play on rural grievances for recruitment, while at the same time begin to stabilize urban centers where an influx of IDPs has strained the capacity of infrastructure and social programs. The administration can build on the foundations laid forth in Duque’s 2018 Action Plan for the Protection of Social and Community Leaders, opening dialogue with human rights groups, civil society leaders, and the affected rural communities to incorporate a more inclusive and robust plan of action. With rapid and decisive action, restoring stability to rural areas can bring about a real and lasting change to Colombia’s social landscape.