Colombia Further Polarized by President’s Action on Transitional Justice Law

A protest in Bogota against the actions of President Iván Duque on the peace agreement and the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) on March 13, 2019. (Daniel Garzon Herazo/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

In the last few weeks, Colombia has witnessed the most significant attempt by the administration of President Iván Duque to alter the peace agreement with the demobilized guerrilla group, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). On March 11, Duque vetoed some of the central articles of the law that regulates the main body of the transitional justice system: the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, known as JEP in Spanish. The JEP had been approved by fast track during the previous administration, and the Constitutional Court of Colombia approved it in November 2018. Its implementation only needed the president’s signature.

The announcement of the veto sent the bill back to Congress, where both the House and the Senate have to vote on Duque’s objections. On the evening of April 8, the House delivered a massive defeat to the president, voting against his objections 110-40. The bill now goes to the Senate, and if necessary, it will return to the Constitutional Court.

Although the JEP has been operating since 2017, when former president Juan Manuel Santos gave life to the tribunal through a presidential decree, the veto sent a worrisome message regarding the wavering commitment of this administration to the route established in the peace agreement.

Duque’s decision to try to undo key parts of the transitional justice system has polarized Colombia once again around the peace process. Making use, for the first time, of a statute that guarantees rights for the opposition, members of a small coalition of parties—that included members of Congress from the FARC—gave a public and very effective rebuttal to Duque’s objection. The April 8 vote against Duque’s veto also showed that the president does not have a strong coalition in the legislature, and that many of the parties who supported his candidacy in the second round will not necessarily join his Centro Democrático party in undoing the peace agreement.

This does not mean that the implementation of the peace process will necessarily fare better from now on. A particularly worrisome aspect is the process of reintegrating FARC ex-combatants. The FARC has pushed for a collective reintegration of its rank and file into Colombian society, which was to be anchored in geographical centers where the combatants gathered to lay down their weapons, now called Espacios Territoriales de Capacitación y Reincorporación (ETCR). This process, however, has faced many problems, starting with the fact that these zones lack services and access roads, making them unsuitable for long-term economic development projects. Moreover, according to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ report to the Security Council in December 2018, six territorial areas have satisfactory conditions, twelve have less than satisfactory conditions or face moderate levels of risk, and six have been assessed as inadequate. As of the end of 2018, funds had been disbursed for only seven of the collective projects and all 29 individual projects, benefiting only 335 former combatants of a total of 12,000.

The Colombian authorities in charge of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration—the Agencia para la Reincorporación y la Normalización (ARN)—have pushed for reincorporation on an individual basis. Colombia had demobilized over 60,000 combatants before the process with the FARC began through the individual route, and the ARN argues that this approach would solve the multiple technical issues that the collective process has faced. The FARC leadership has rejected the individual approach because they envision a transition in which they would now have political control over the regions they used to dominate militarily. They believe that this will only happen if they have a significant presence in these territories, which would enable them to work closely with the communities. Thus, the development of economic projects in the ETCR is central to their idea of how the regions of Colombia will look post-conflict. Many FARC members interviewed for this piece argued that the reluctance of the Colombian state to endorse the collective reincorporation is in fact a strategy to weaken their political reincorporation.  

The difficulties with collective reincorporation have resulted in around 50 percent of FARC ex-combatants leaving the ETCRs. There is little official information on where these men and women go as they freely move around the country and no organization has tracked their whereabouts. Insight Crime has estimated that around 2,500 ex-combatants have abandoned the peace process altogether—around 15 percent of the total—while the rest might have moved to encampments in less remote areas, returning at will/need to the ETCR. Others have gone back to their families or migrated to urban areas in search of employment and new lives.

This fragile reincorporation process is facing a looming challenge: the leases of ETCRs will end on August 15, 2019, which is also when FARC ex-combatants will receive their last monthly stipend. With dissidence among the FARC growing, and central leaders of the group—such as Ivan Márquez and Hernan Velazquez, known as El Paisa—showing public ambivalence for continuing with the peace process, the government’s decision on the terms and manner in which ex-combatants are reintegrated will have a significant impact on the peace process.

Critics of the Duque administration point to additional signs that the government is not fulfilling its responsibilities to the peace process. Members of Congress and the president of the JEP denounced the National Development Plan, which determines the state’s budget, as it does not earmark the resources needed for a full implementation of the Havana agreement. Even further, many believe that Duque has endorsed a revisionist perspective of history. He appointed Darío Acevedo, who in the past stated that there has never been an armed conflict in Colombia, as the head of the National Center for Historical Memory. This argument, originally pushed by former president Alvaro Uribe, aims to frame the violence in this country as a non-political struggle between the state and “narco-terrorist groups”; a vision that directly contradicts the foundations of the agreement with the FARC. When the government made Acevedo’s appointment official, in the midst of a public opinion storm, three victims’ groups announced they would withdraw the documentation they had given the Center for safekeeping.

These circumstances become further complicated by the split of the once-unified international community. While European countries and the UN, among others, expressed their clear support for the JEP, the US Ambassador to Colombia declared his unilateral support for Duque’s veto, and the press reports he was trying to pressure members of Congress to vote in favor of the president’s objections.

It is hard to understate the influence the US has in Colombian politics, and their decision—supported by the Duque administration—to keep the FARC on the list of terrorist organizations had already created problems for the implementation of the peace process, as no US-funded organization could directly deal with ex-combatants. US President Donald Trump’s recent dismissive comments about President Duque are a clear signal that, for the US, drug trafficking remains the essential issue on the bi-lateral agenda. This, unfortunately, will become one more incentive for the current administration to disregard the commitments established by the Havana agreement on illicit crop substitution.

The Senate is due to vote on the president’s objections to the JEP by the end of April. Early analysis shows that the government is unlikely to have the votes it needs to uphold the veto, which might end this episode. That the defenders of the process might win this battle does not mean they have won the war. To do that they will need the support of the international community more than ever.

Renata Segura is the Associate Director of the Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum of the Social Science Research Council.