Gringo Roundtable on the Colombia-FARC Peace Deal

I’ve been getting a lot of questions about the Colombia’s peace agreement with the FARC when the war officially ended on Aug. 28.

But I haven’t lived in Colombia in almost five years, so most of what I say is gathered from the news. One fact I always point out is exactly how unpopular the FARC is among the people. And there is a very real possibility that voters will reject the government-negotiated peace agreement in a pending referendum because it doesn’t punish the guerrillas enough.

To get a better handle on things, I contacted some gringo friends in Colombia to sound off on how they think the Colombia-FARC saga will take shape. See analysis from Adriaan Alsema, Richard McColl, Kevin Howlett, Mark Kennedy and Christopher Kavanagh below.

I sent the following suggested questions.

Is the referendum going to pass?

How many of the FARC won’t demobilize? How many turn into drug gangs? What does the short- and medium-term macro-criminal situation look like?

For the ones who do demobilize, will there be mass reprisals and assassinations of FARC leaders by military, police, paramilitaries, drug gangs and others out for revenge?

Looking beyond their mandatory minimum terms in Congress, what is the FARC’s future in politics?

When will Colombia truly stabilize peace with what is now the FARC and its leftover remnants?

What question have I not asked?

Below are each one’s commentary.


Adriaan Alsema

Adriaan Alsema is editor of Colombia Reports, Colombia’s most reliable news outlet in English.

A “No” vote would reject the deal but not undo a formally signed ceasefire. The FARC has indicated they want to end the rebellion either way.

A “No” vote would require the renegotiation of some points, mostly concerning war criminals’ future in politics and prison. A bigger consequence will be a political crisis as Humberto de la Calle will resign and President Juan Manuel Santos would be in an impossible position. And a possible panic among FARC’s rank-and-file guerrillas.

Demobilization offers a monthly stipend from the government, but it’s so small I don’t see how it’s much of an incentive. A vast majority of the FARC are expected to demobilize partly because of the deal’s leniency. I think only a small minority will keep their guns and move into drugs.

But this depends on how smooth the transition is made. If it’s not orderly and individual guerrillas end up being targeted, others will freak out and could rearm out of self defense.

Territory control is the biggest issue. If the military does not move into the areas currently controlled by the FARC, there will be instant lawlessness. Other groups may move in and prevent the state from taking control. That would be an extremely explosive situation. So the demobilization needs to be coordinated so that when the FARC abandons, the military needs to move in within a matter of days. This cannot happen over months.

We have to stop talking about the FARC as a homogenous entity. If you go beyond the leadership, you got a whole bunch of children, people who joined because they were threatened to be killed or displaced by paramilitaries, teenagers from rural areas who literally had no opportunity other than joining the FARC and a few students who wanted to change the world.

FARC does not actively participate in drug trafficking everywhere in the country. They just charge the real narcos extortion payments. If they remove protection, there may not be as much of a disruption because the narcos can protect themselves. It’s just extortion they pay to the FARC. But there will be volatility in the areas where the FARC is actively producing and transporting cocaine, such as Tumaco in Nariño, north Antioquia and the Choco part of the Uruba region.

Mass reprisals against demobilized guerrillas are a big fear. If you look at the AUC demobilization between 2003 and 2006, at least 3,000 people were assassinated in just two years afterwards. They were a liability for the criminals they protected. Many FARC guerrillas will become a liability for the drug lords paying them protection money. These guerrillas have detailed information on who is in the drug trade and their operations.

There could be politically motivated revenge, but if you look at the AUC the majority of the killings were done to tie up loose ends. On the other hand, the peace deal provided protection measures deemed adequate by the FARC leadership.

The FARC are guaranteed five seats in Congress and five seats in the lower House of Representatives for eight years. The FARC has only 3% approval nationwide, but I don’t think they’ll be finished after their guaranteed terms in Congress. Right now emotions are high and the wounds are fresh. The conditions of the current deal are going to be felt in 30 years. In Uruguay and Brazil this happened decades ago.

Regardless of what happens with the FARC, what will happen is a normalizing in Colombian politics. Colombia’s left has been incessantly demonized and linked to terrorism. That has prevented legitimate left-wing forces from developing as a political movement. So Colombia may look like Brazil someday with Lula and Dilma. I think the main beneficiary will be the democratic left in Colombia, as opposed to the chavista left.

I am Dutch, and the Netherlands was occupied by Nazis from 1940 to 1945. It wasn’t until the 1990s that popular culture recovered and movies and books were being created which weren’t about the war. We couldn’t get over the war until we beat the Germans in the semifinals of the Eurocup in 1988. So to answer your unasked question, think about that.

Richard McColl

Richard McColl is a journalist-author-hotelier in Colombia. Check out his kick-ass podcast Colombia Calling, where he will be featuring an episode from the FARC’s base next week.

While all eyes may be on the vote, it’s key to remember that the Government requires only 13 percent of the total to achieve their goal of pushing through the accords. My personal concern is not the referendum itself but the following 180 days and beyond.

FARC guerrillas will begin to demobilize after Oct. 2 and move to concentration zones around the country, where they will start the disarming process and presumably, in the eyes of the government, be ready for civilian life six months later. They will receive a subsidy for two years, but what happens when this source of income comes to an end?

Colombia has to construct an economy capable of generating adequate incomes for those who demobilize, firstly from the FARC and then presumably from the armed forces as there has to be some sort of military reform. It’s a crucial question. If incomes are not created, those who have demobilized face the tempting prospect of returning to arms to earn their money. This is potentially worse than the actual armed conflict in Colombia since there will be no formal chain of command or control as there is now.

The majority of the guerrillas are from the countryside. Can we assume that most of them will want to return to the countryside and an agricultural existence? Will agriculture and small-scale cattle farming be economically viable to generate decent incomes? If they are small-scale farmers, their ability to negotiate with major industry players will be limited. Are the mechanisms in place to permit a commercialization of their products at reasonable prices?

Is the Colombian state truly invested in helping them organize cooperatives so that there are channels for the distribution of their products? Will money come to build the roads and highways so these people can transport their products? Will there be the technological assistance to spur innovation?

It’s a huge challenge for the government and the Banco de la Republica.

Kevin Howlett

Kevin Howlett is a lobbyist and political analyst based in Colombia and the UK. See his website, Colombia Politics.

President Santos will implement the agreement regardless of the outcome of the vote. Plenty of his supporters have been making the case that a referendum is unnecessary. They argue he has a right and constitutional duty to push ahead. It is almost inconceivable that Santos would let the public get in the way of something on which he has spent the entirety of his political capital.

The question will be turnout. Uribistas will vote “No” en masse. There are plenty who are skeptical of the agreements and not prepared to vote “Yes.” How many of these will not go? Santos was so concerned about turnout he amended the constitution to reduce the threshold to 13%.

Votes in Colombia are also subject to mind-boggling levels of corruption. Vote-buying is systemic. As perverse as it is to pay people to vote in a referendum on peace, the “electoral machine” will be a factor.

In any case, the vote should pass. The peace agreement will go ahead. Then the difficult part begins.

How many will demobilize but remain in the drug trade? The FARC are the biggest exporter of cocaine in the world. The routes remain open and production is on the increase again (at a similar level to pre-Plan Colombia). Criminal gangs are prepared for the agreement, they have already reacted and alliances are forming.

There is evidence now that certain fronts of the FARC are working closely with the neo-paramilitary groups – not just in drug trafficking but other criminal trades such as contraband, extortion, etc.

The government is desperate to protect the demobilized FARC from reprisals. The “concentration zones” and the resources the government has promised should ensure they are relatively safe. But if the Colombian state fails on this, it will have failed on one of its key promises in the peace agreement.

The FARC already have a voice in politics. Every election since and including Pastrana’s in 1998 has been decided on how the candidate would respond to the threat of the FARC. As soon as they formally enter politics the FARC will become less and less relevant. Who cares about Marxist-Leninist doctrine, and who would vote for romantic revolutionaries? The polls suggest very few Colombians have any political sympathy with the FARC. More supporters can be found on university campuses in Northern Europe.

However, money is key in Colombian politics. The FARC have major financial clout from their drug money. Will they lend their resources to a hard-left candidate in the next presidential elections? It isn’t difficult to see how they could shield themselves behind a more acceptable face.

Mark Kennedy

Mark Kennedy is a freelance journalist based in Bogota. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkKennedy721.

Three opinion polls have varied wildly on the referendum. One predicted “Yes,” one predicted “No” and one was a statistical tie. People are more optimistic than I am that the “Yes” vote will win out because undecided voters are unlikely to vote “no,” they say. I personally believe that the “Yes” vote will win, but not by an overwhelming majority.

But if the “No” side should win, all bets are off as to what happens next. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos engaged in some scare-mongering when he said that the FARC rebels would return to “an urban war, which is much more destructive than a rural war” if the peace agreement fails.

The FARC’s 1st Front, also known as the ‘Armando Rios’ Front, which operates in Colombia’s eastern Llanos plains, came out in July and said they would not demobilize. They vowed to continue their insurgency against the government, and urged guerrilla fighters in other regions who felt the same way to desert their current posts and come join them. The FARC’s supreme command subsequently expelled the 200- strong renegade unit, and said they could no longer use the organization’s name. As the splinter group is no longer a part of the FARC, they fall outside the bilateral ceasefire in place, meaning they are fair game for the Colombian military. And that is exactly what happened in early August. The Air Force carried out air strikes against the group in Guaviare province, destroying 104 jungle labs used to process raw coca leaves into cocaine paste.

A refusal to demobilize makes splinter groups vulnerable to air strikes and other military operations. But for the 1st Front and other groups, the millions of dollars they make from drug trafficking, illegal mining, extortion and “taxes” levied on coca farmers make it worth the risk.

Some analysts predict that as much as 30 percent of the FARC’s estimated 7,000 fighters will ignore orders to disarm and continue dealing in the lucrative criminal industries. Without the ideological veneer of Marxism, these groups may rebrand themselves as a new autonomous leftist rebel group and assume another name. Some could join the smaller ELN guerrillas, while others may choose to work for neo-paramilitary drug gangs with no ideological slant, such as the Rastrojos or the Urabeños. Time will tell what happens, but with as many as 2,100 renegade FARC members running around, there is likely to be a little bit of all three scenarios taking place.

There is a legitimate fear among FARC fighters who lay down their arms and reintegrate into Colombian society that they will become targets by people who want to settle scores. Hundreds of members of a FARC-connected political party called the Patriotic Union were assassinated between the late 1980s to the mid-1990s in an extermination campaign carried about by the paramilitaries and elements of the Colombian army. The wholesale slaughter of left-wing activists, intellectuals, UP politicians and their supporters left the FARC more radicalized than ever.

The disarmament zones spread out across the country will be monitored by the UN, and there’s been talk of the weapons being held by a neutral country, the inference being that the FARC could get their guns back if enough of them start getting killed. A number of death threats against ex-FARC members have already been made, many from right-wing neo-paramilitary groups like the Aguilas Negras.

The FARC political party will likely mirror the ruling PSUV party in Venezuela. They are ideologically bound to the Soviet Union-style economic model, which will no doubt be laughed at by everyone in congress spare a few left-wing allies. If Colombian public opinion of the guerrilla group is any indication on how its candidates will do in elections, they are unlikely to see anyone else go to congress other than the allotted 10 seats, as the group long ago lost legitimacy with the ordinary people.

FARC-related violence has dropped off to near zero since the bilateral ceasefire was declared, but the smaller ELN guerrillas are still active and launching attacks against energy infrastructure and security forces. They bombed Caño Limon oil pipeline, Colombia’s longest, just this past weekend.

While foreign investment in the oil and gas sector is likely to remain as complicated as it has been pre-peace agreement, most analysts feel that so-called “post-conflict” Colombia investment will increase in the short and medium term, especially in mining and agriculture.

I think one thing that many foreigners have trouble comprehending is why so many Colombians are so passionately opposed to the peace deal and plan on voting against it.

Uribe’s opposition has more to do with self-preservation than an imaginary specter of communism haunting Colombia. As part of the agreement, a truth commission will be established which will investigate the killings, forced displacement and other human rights abuses committed by all sides of the conflict. Uribe knows this. He knows that he might well be linked to some of the most atrocious crimes that took place while he was president, and that he could very well face some serious jail time like your friend Alberto Fujimori in Peru.

But the more reasonable wing of the “No” camp point out that many FARC leaders will not spend a single day in prison despite having committed war crimes. Instead, they will be subjected to a vaguely-defined “limited freedom” where they will be confined to a certain area or community. Fighters and commanders who confess their crimes and cooperate with prosecutors will not be locked up. And for many Colombians, this is tantamount to immunity for the crimes they’ve committed, and it’s hard to argue against this point. It’s not just Colombia’s conservatives who are against the agreement, but also NGOs such as Human Rights Watch.

Other organizations seem to agree. The International Criminal Court, for example, has not ruled out intervening if the Colombian government is unwilling or unable to prosecute heinous acts.

Others oppose the deal because the FARC – by many accounts the world’s largest drug trafficking organization – has always denied having made hundreds of millions of dollars. They keep saying that all those millions were spent on the war, and that they don’t have the money to compensate their victims. The Santos government didn’t push the guerrillas on this point. Foreign aid will not cover the estimated billions of dollars to repair, rebuild, compensate victims and investigate the crimes. The shortfall will fall on the Colombian taxpayer. Imagine how unfair and underhanded this sounds to the taxi driver, accountant or fruit vendor who has to pay for post-conflict reconstruction while the guerrillas keep their millions in drug money stashed away somewhere.

Christopher Kavanagh

Christopher Kavanagh, a.k.a. “The Mick,” subject of Mad Outta Me Head: Addiction and Underworld from Ireland to Colombia. Christopher has lived in Colombia without exiting the country since 1986. That’s gotta count for something.

Uribe has many followers, and what he’s doing is understandable. The conditions are too lenient. The referendum very well could fail. Many people I’m talking to are saying “No.” My students are the rich ones, and in Bogota these are the people who liked Mockus and Santos. They don’t like Uribe, and they say the agreement is too lenient on the comandantes of the FARC.

Another thing I’ve noticed is the people who talk bad about the peace process are the ones the war never touched, and that’s not good. The victims I know, the ones who were forced to move to Bogota from the countryside by the FARC, just want the war to stop.

The vote is being portrayed as if it’s for peace. The people are very skeptical about all this. Nobody reads around here so they have no idea about the conditions. They’re making it look like “Yes” is for peace and “No” is for no peace. So it’s a wrong kind of a vote.

There will be all kinds of killer gangs that don’t mobilize. Splinter groups are not going to hang up their guns.

Colombia has been a country at war since it independence. The fighters have changed but the people are basically the same. Colombia is great for killing Colombians, you know.

Look at these people. I saw a guy yesterday with two babies, one in his arm and the other barely walking, spitting at a bus driver and kicking the door. Anger and peace issues won’t be resolved by this referendum or the disappearance of the FARC. There’s something in their blood that pits Colombia against Colombia.



  1. I first travelled to Colombia in 1999, I’m married to a Colombiana (7 years), and I lived in Colombia for 6 months. Here’s my opinion.

    As for what work will the demobilized fighters perform, one of the selling points of the plan is that the economy will experience a wonderful peace dividend. Let’s see if that’s true now. Colombia has 3 great exports: Coffee, Cocaine, and Colombianas. The three Cs. I say “sex tourism”. There’s your peace dividend. I’m not talking underage. I’m talking the big girls. Yum, yum.

    Adriaan Alsema’s contribution reminds me of when Austin Powers’ father says “There are only two things I can’t stand in this world. People who are intolerant of other people’s cultures… and the Dutch.” I really don’t have anything against the Dutch, but I’m not a fan of Adriaan’s politics. He hates Alvaro Uribe. Uribe is comparable to the Andrew Jackson of Colombia. If he hadn’t kicked FARC ass there would be no peace today. God bless Alvaro Uribe.

    God bless Alvaro Uribe and God bless Andrew Jackson. Fuck my own government if they replace Andrew Jackson with some Black woman on the $20 bill.


  2. Actually, in terms of legal trade, flowers rank just behind coffee. As for Mr. Uribe, I can say he did his part, albeit brutally, but I believe that former presidents (in any country) should step aside and let history takes its course.


  3. Colombia voted No to peace. I’m shocked! Take that Adriaan. Maybe Uribe is going to be President again and kick more guerilla ass.


  4. “Anger and peace issues won’t be resolved by this referendum or the disappearance of the FARC. There’s something in their blood that pits Colombia against Colombia.” Who would have thought that the Mic would be the most accurate out of all of us.


  5. @Mark

    What about me yo? After five years gone, my only observation that you can never underestimate how unpopular the FARC is, voters may reject the government-negotiated peace agreement? Not bad if I may pat myself on the back.


  6. Very interesting to read the earlier opinions now that the vote is over.

    None indicated that a yes vote would be a sure thing.

    And, sure enough, it wasn’t.

    The vote doesn’t only indicate how unpopular the Farc is but also how unpopular Santos is, particularly when contrasted to Uribe (except with the NGO/National University crowd).

    I’d say that most believe Uribe to have acted out of patriotism, not self-preservation.

    If self-preservation were Uribe’s goal, far better for he to have supported Santos and to have faded into obscurity.


  7. Adriaan’s website Colombia Reports is reporting that Colombia’s congress could go forward with the peace deal in spite of losing the vote, but says that doing so might create more unrest in the divided country. Think “La Violencia”. Santos is meeting with the opponents, including Uribe’s party, to determine a path forward. (At times like this a website forum might be useful.)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s