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If there is hope in Colombia, then there can be hope everywhere

There's an opening for progress in Bogotá, but it could close soon.

Dimitris Christopoulos
30 June 2017
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A woman reacts during the broadcast of the handing over of weapons of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) at the municipality of Mesetas, in Bogota, capital of Colombia, on 27 June 2017. Jhon Paz/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved.

"If there is hope in Colombia, then there can be hope everywhere". It is with these words that a taxi driver in Bogotá greeted me a few days ago. Indeed, in a rather challenging year for human rights across the globe, the peace process in Colombia appeared as an unexpected development bringing hope. Its implementation, however, is far from an easy task.

Following my visit to Colombia I can see three possible scenarios for the immediate future. The optimistic one is close to what the FARC leadership is fighting for and what many would expect: transition to a democratic order, which would entail the transformation of FARC into a political party. Yet, this scenario is stumbling over time. How easy is it to heal a half-century of wounds within one summer? On the other hand, time is pressing: the forthcoming presidential elections are likely to bring about an ally of former president Uribe to the country’s leadership, and then the peace agreement will, most probably, vanish in the haze.

The second scenario is not very romantic, but is certainly better than the third. Nothing is more definitive than the temporary. In this context, the transitional camps – where 7,000 rebels are currently settled and disarming – could gradually develop into permanent facilities under the protection of the state and the new United Nations Mission in Colombia. Let’s not forget that the 1 June 2017 scheduled abandonment has been pushed back. Since they are not obliged to abandon their camps, the former 'guerrilleros' will set up their own agricultural communities across Colombia. And one should not be surprised if in the near future the 'zones veredales' evolve into popular sites for academics, journalists, and adventurous travellers to visit.

The paramilitary threat

The third scenario is unpleasant. Unfortunately though, it has a powerful ally on its side: historical precedents not only in Colombia, but also across the world, where the aim of the state is the political and possibly even the natural elimination of the (now unarmed) internal enemy. The Achilles heel of the current peace process is the dynamic reconsolidation, right after the armistice, of paramilitary organisations. As we speak, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia has recorded 60 assassinations and more than 400 attacks on human rights defenders/activists and community leaders.

The Achilles heel of the current peace process is the reconsolidation of paramilitary organisations.

Colombia's government and president, Juan Manuel Santos, who so far have had the initiative to promote the peace process, seem to be trapped. On the one hand, the outcome of last October’s referendum limited the popular legitimacy of the peace process. On the other, in FARC’s absence, paramilitary organisations, which never ceased to operate in Colombia, seem to reemerge. Ultimately, parts of the 'deep' Colombian state never ceased to work with armed groups that are currently posing the major threat to the peace process. As Luis Ernesto Gomez, the deputy interior minister, told me: "There is no longer a centralised brain to run the paramilitaries as it used to be, and therefore the use of the term 'paramilitarismo' is no longer accurate. These are groups of common criminal organised crime”.

The government in Bogotá does not want to admit the existence of paramilitaries: this would testify to the state's blatant failure to hold and exert a monopoly on organised violence. Nevertheless – regardless of how one calls them – these groups do not merely pursue garden-variety criminal activities. They have a clearly defined socio-political aim: to neutralise and eliminate dissidents in order to control the territory.

Today, the best service Colombian elites can offer to their people is to turn against the monster they've been feeding for so many years. Otherwise, at some point, not too far from now, it will inevitably turn against them. Fighting against neo-paramilitarism in Colombia is not a simple human rights issue. It is a global security challenge.

A fragile line to follow

The peace agreement provides a system of transitional justice still in its infancy. Striking a balance between amnesty and accountability, memory and forgiveness is not an easy one.

Yet, even if the peace process is not derailed completely, we still have a long way to go in Colombia: the armed conflict between the state and FARC has been just one of the sources of violence in the country. Paramilitarism, drug trafficking, uncontrolled plantations and other illegal corporate activities from multinationals – combined with the survival of semi-feudal structures of agricultural economy – have always been there, regardless of the armed conflict. They may have intertwined with and exacerbated the conflict, but have existed, developed, and persisted independently.

Finally, the negotiations with other active guerrilla groups, such as the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) in Quito, although completely forgotten, are going to be key in moving towards peace.  The ceasefire with FARC has brought to the surface all other internal sources of violence. Ending the armed conflict is not enough, as such, to bring sustainable peace in Colombia. 

Nonetheless, the taxi driver had his point: if, in such extreme circumstances, there is hope in a country which has become the universal stereotypical synonym of civil violence, corruption, systematic human rights violations, and crimes against humanity, hope can exist everywhere in the world.

A group of human rights activist in Medellin, once the most violent city in the world, have united under the following slogan: "Que la paz no nos cueste la vida" (peace shouldn't cost us our lives). Indeed, in Colombia where a war culture is consolidated, it is worth reminding ourselves that peace should not cost human lives.

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