Negotiating Peace for Displaced Persons in Colombia

February 14, 2013

by Stephanie Leutert

Peace talks between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government are slowly progressing in Havana, Cuba, despite renewed violence and generally low expectations. Land reform continues to be a contentious area and just last month the FARC unveiled a 10-point communiqué outlining its requests. While the plan failed to explicitly mention the 4 to 5 million citizens currently displaced due to the conflict, successful peace talks could create new opportunities for these Colombians to return to their land.

The multiple perpetrators in Colombia’s armed conflict mean that a peace treaty with only one group (the FARC in this case) will not provide a complete solution. The FARC and the paramilitaries (the largest and most organized adversaries for much of the conflict) each displaced millions of civilians from some 7 million total hectares of land. Although estimates vary, by all counts the paramilitaries displaced as many individuals as the FARC and perhaps even twice the amount. Drug traffickers and organized criminal groups like the new bandas criminales (BACRIM) have also followed suit, ousting a good portion of 2011’s estimated 200,000 displaced persons, according to the Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento (CODHES).

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The first step to reversing the displacement is providing basic security, particularly in the areas most affected by the conflict (Caqueta, Putamayo, Valle del Cauca, among others). Here the FARC peace agreement would begin this process, but comprehensive disarmament, demobilization and reintegration is critical.

The good news is that the Colombian government has gradually accumulated experience in this process since its 2003 paramilitary demobilization.

It has supported programs for demobilized soldiers and streamlined proceedings for displaced Colombians. Colombia’s current comprehensive six-year reintegration program educates, trains and provides therapy for former soldiers. And it has shown remarkable flexibility, adjusting many of its policies (including levels of compensation and options for professional development) in response to results.

But major obstacles remain. The past demobilization process was heavily criticized for unintentionally “disarming” non-fighters and for leaving much of the criminal structure intact (leading to a proliferation of new organized criminal groups).

Harder still will be keeping ex-soldiers in civilian life, especially for mid- and high-level officers who control lucrative drug trafficking routes (estimated to generate an estimated $500 to $600 million a year in revenues). The stigmas and discrimination that former guerrillas face also limits their employment options, and makes them more susceptible to engaging in criminal activities.

Further, in 2011, President Juan Manuel Santos passed the Victims and Land Restitution Law, outlining the Colombian government’s pledge to support the conflict’s displaced through financial compensation and a new system of overseeing land claims. But the law failed to meet the public’s initial high expectations, with local governments reporting a lack of federal guidance and resources. Some displaced who sought to reclaim their land even became victims all over again; at least 25 land-restitution leaders were murdered over the past three years and many more Colombians reported new threats.

Even if security could be guaranteed and a large portion of the FARC demobilized, the judiciary and law enforcement must be strengthened to maintain and build on any progress. A peace agreement with the FARC is an important start and would allow for refocusing limited resources on other violent groups (especially the BACRIM) and reframing the discussion around rebuilding the country and (hopefully) Colombia’s social fabric. This would be a step in the right direction for displaced Colombians, but much more will need to be done to achieve a lasting peace.

*Stephanie Leutert is a guest blogger to AQ Online. She is a research associate in the Latin America Studies program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Tags: Colombia Peace Talks, FARC, Colombia

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