Reason for Hope: Reflections on the Colombia Peace Process
As I considered what topic to focus on for my last blog, I wanted to choose something a bit more personal than my previous entries. The idea came, unexpectedly, on a weekend trip a couple weeks ago to Gettysburg, PA, with the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. At dinner on Saturday night, I sat at the table with our bus driver, Carlos. The conversation drifted to politics, and Carlos brought up the example of Colombia as a reason to be optimistic—his parents immigrated had immigrated from Colombia to the United States, and compared to the stories he had heard from his grandparents from when they were growing up, today’s Colombia was far safer. I was surprised by his optimism, but through our conversation, I realized that my more pessimistic outlook was based on the context in which I was considering the peace process. Rather than looking at Colombian history from the past 50 years and using that as a reference point, I’ve compared the partially implemented peace deal to an impossible ideal. I have also relied primarily on the English-language press for my sources, prioritizing issues that may not be the most salient to people living in Colombia today. Both of these concerns—failing to look at the historical context and using a limited variety of sources—have influenced how I have told the story of the Colombian peace process.
When placed in the proper historical context with an emphasis on security, today’s Colombia begins to look more hopeful than the narrative that I have painted over the last several months. To understand why, we need to review what led up to the present moment in Colombian history. The FARC rebel group originated in a 10-year period of Colombian history known as La Violencia (The Violence), during which over 200,000 people died amid an armed conflict between the Liberal and Conservative parties. When, in 1958, the two parties ended the conflict and agreed to a system of rotating power called the Frente Nacional (National Front), not everyone was pleased with the arrangement. Some guerrillas decided to resist the government, including a Marxist group that would later name themselves the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Along with the 19th of April Movement (M-19), the National Liberation Army (ELN), and other revolutionary groups, FARC engaged in a 50-year insurgency against the national government. The war cost the lives of another 220,000 people, 80% of them civilians.
Compared to the violence that the country suffered between the late 1940s and the early 2000s, today’s Colombia is far more secure. In 2017, President Juan Manuel Santos announced that the country had marked the lowest homicide rate in 42 years. At 24 violent deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, Colombia’s murder rate remains far higher than the world average of 5.3. Still, using a historical context, this is a major improvement from the rates in excess of 70 intentional homicides per 100,000 that Colombia reached in the late 1990s. Colombia today is no longer engaged in a war with FARC. The major drug cartels—Medellín and Cali—have been disbanded. The language of failed states no longer applies to the country. On most dimensions of security, the outlook for Colombia is positive.