Colombian Rebels Suspend Election Campaign, Undermining Peace
Posted February 9, 2018 10:08 p.m. EST
Updated February 9, 2018 10:12 p.m. EST
TUMACO, Colombia — The deal that ended decades of war in Colombia hinged on a simple formula: The rebels would surrender their weapons, and in exchange, earn the right to run for office in the country’s democracy.
But on Friday the former fighters said they were suspending their campaign. Their activists were being killed, they said, and threats were mounting against those who remained — including their top commander who is running for president.
While the decision does not send the country back to war, it does put Colombia’s peace into a kind of limbo. The former rebels’ involvement in this year’s elections was meant to signal an end to decades of political violence and was a pillar of the accords that ended 52 years of civil conflict.
Their sudden departure from the campaign — on the grounds that it is not safe — casts doubt on whether the conflict is over yet.
“It is a fact that profoundly undermines the most important peace process that has taken place in Colombia,” said Álvaro Villarraga, director of the Democratic Culture Foundation, a nongovernmental group based in the capital, Bogotá.
The peace accords, signed in 2016, ordered a vast transformation of post-conflict Colombia, including provisions for courts to settle war crimes, investments to wean farmers off the coca trade and a strong push to establish a Colombian government presence in areas that had been under rebel control. The war with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the main rebel group known as the FARC, left more than 200,000 people dead and many millions displaced. It was the longest civil conflict in the region.
Yet after little more than a year, much of the agreement stands paralyzed. The new courts have not begun work, coca production is still soaring and many rural towns do not have a single police officer. The National Liberation Army, a rebel group that did not sign the deal, has stepped up attacks. Public resentment simmers, with some people saying that the FARC rebels got off too easy.
And on Friday, the FARC said it would stop campaigning for the presidency and 74 congressional seats to be elected in May.
“We’ve decided to suspend our campaign activities until we have sufficient guarantees” of safety, the group said in a statement. It cited a “coordinated plan” of attacks against FARC campaigners, including photos taken of the homes of activists by opponents, social media threats and the killing of a former fighter Tuesday — one of dozens killed since the peace deal was signed.
“Colombia cannot become a failed state electorally because of the enemies of peace,” the former guerrillas wrote in the statement.
For the FARC, it was a turn of fortune for what had been the country’s most feared rebel organization, one that had terrorized Colombians with kidnappings, killings and land mines that still plague the country. The former guerrilla fighters now find themselves fearing the voters they are meant to court.
The killing of FARC members also is a reminder of the past: In the 1980s, thousands of members were slaughtered by paramilitary groups when they last attempted to come out of the shadows, forming a party known as the Patriotic Union. That memory, many say, is behind the caution in the current election.
In an interview Friday, Colombia’s interior minister, Guillermo Rivera, said the FARC’s decision was not what the government had wanted to see.
While Rivera said that former fighters had been killed in recent months, he noted that no candidate had died and that in some cases the FARC had declined protection.
“We will keep offering the guarantees so they can safely continue campaigning,” Rivera said.
Yet while few wished to see violence in the election, sympathy for the former rebels was hard to find among commentators in Colombia on Friday.
“The FARC suffered from a guerrilla’s vanity, which consisted of thinking that upon abandoning arms, signing the peace deal and becoming civilians that Colombians were going to cheer, applaud and unconditionally support them,” said Jairo Libreros, a political scientist and columnist in Bogotá.
The U.N. mission responsible for monitoring the peace process reported last month that 36 FARC members had been killed since the war ended in 2016. Recent killings include the cases of two activists working for the campaign of a FARC congressional candidate who were found dead on Jan. 17, and Kevin Andrés Lugo, a former guerrilla the FARC said had been killed on Feb. 8.
The targeting of FARC campaigners runs all the way to the top. Rodrigo Londoño, their former top commander, was attacked by protesters who pelted his motorcade with rocks, on one occasion practically destroying his vehicle. One prominent Senate candidate, Luciano Marín, also known as Iván Márquez, canceled a campaign event this week in the face of violent protests. Who is behind the attacks is unclear. Londoño’s running mate, Imelda Daza, said in an interview with a local radio station Friday that the violence had been instigated by “persons interested in sabotaging the FARC’s campaign.” The FARC also has blamed National Liberation Army rebels.
Daza singled out the hard-line Democratic Center party and its spiritual leader, Colombia’s former president, Álvaro Uribe, a fierce critic of the peace process.
During Uribe’s tenure in the seat Londoño hopes to occupy, he oversaw a brutal military campaign against the FARC, and led the campaign to reject the peace deal in an initial referendum in October 2016. Uribe has denied involvement in attacks against former FARC members.
More seasoned politicians said such attacks were not entirely unexpected in a country where war had been the norm and anger against the rebels remained.
“I think that no one expected that the political transition from FARC’s guerrilla organization to this new movement would be simple or easy,” said Iván Cepeda, whose father, Manuel, was killed in 1994 during the attacks against the FARC’s Patriotic Union party.
However, Cepeda said it was important to distinguish between the protests of angered war victims and “methods which are frankly done to incite violence,” which he said he suspected had been organized by supporters of Uribe’s party.
Londoño, the FARC’s presidential candidate, has been running on an anti-poverty platform. He began his campaign last month in a downtrodden Bogotá neighborhood.
Bespectacled and wearing a suit and tie, he is a far cry from the guerrilla in the jungle fatigues he once donned, and he has represented the FARC’s willingness to move from armed struggle to politics.
Yet the rebels’ appetite for politics has also offended some.
In August, the group established its political party, choosing a slight alteration in its name that allowed the former guerrillas to retain the same acronym they used during the war. The move enraged many victims groups who said its leadership appeared unapologetic.
Then in November, Londoño, who had previously promised not to run for president, reversed himself. His approval rating in polls is barely 2 percent, and many Colombians see him as a terrorist.
“He was the face of the insurgency and the most emblematic representative of everything that Colombians hate about the FARC,” said Cynthia J. Arnson, an analyst at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington. Villarraga, director of the democracy center, said he hoped Colombians would overcome their anger toward leaders like Londoño and defended his right to campaign.
“All politicians, institutions — and even opinion makers — we need to be circling around the FARC now because it is a product of the peace process,” he said. “We must absolutely have all of the political parties, including the FARC.”
But some presidential candidates seemed uninterested in that aspiration.
“What can they expect?” asked Germán Vargas Lleras, a candidate who had been vice president while the peace accords were negotiated, in an interview on the W Radio network. “That after 40 years of kidnappings and killings they get received with hugs?”