clock menu more-arrow no yes

The stunning collapse of Colombia’s peace agreement with the FARC, explained

A Colombian citizen votes in a referendum on whether to ratify a historic peace accord to end Colombia's 52-year war between the state and the communist FARC rebels, in Cali, Colombia, on October 2, 2016.
LUIS ROBAYO/AFP/Getty Images

On Sunday, Colombian voters narrowly rejected the government’s peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in a stunning referendum vote that has thrown the peace process into disarray.

The deal between the Colombian government and the Marxist rebel group was reached on August 24 after four long years of fraught negotiations. And just last Monday, it was signed by President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader Timoleon “Timochenko” Jimenez.

All that was left was for voters to approve it in a nationwide referendum on Sunday. Most observers saw the vote as a mere formality that would officially bring an end to the 52-year war that left 220,000 people dead and displaced millions.

Although there was significant public opposition to the deal, nearly every poll predicted that it would be approved by the people with a comfortable margin.

But in what one UK pollster called “one of the biggest polling fails of all time,” the peace deal was narrowly rejected, with 50.2 percent voting against it. That means the peace agreement can’t be implemented — and is effectively dead.

So what happened? And what happens now? Here’s a brief explainer on what Colombia is facing this week.

Who is the FARC?

The FARC is the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). It’s a Marxist rebel group that since 1964 has waged a bloody rebellion against the Colombian government — and it’s the longest-running armed insurgency in the Western Hemisphere.

As Amanda Taub explained for Vox in 2014:

In the early 1960s, the FARC and other leftist guerrilla groups formed as a rural insurgency that claimed to represent the interests of Colombia's poor against the landed elite. The elite responded by organizing private "self-defense" organizations to oppose the rebels, which soon transformed into right-wing paramilitary groups. That became the civil war that has lasted ever since, albeit in sometimes very different forms.

Since 1964, the FARC, fueled by revenue from the Colombian drug trade, engaged in a guerrilla war primarily against the Colombian security forces. FARC rebels attacked police stations and military posts, ambushed security patrols, hijacked airplanes, and carried out assassinations. They also targeted critical infrastructure such as oil pipelines and bridges, and even bombed social clubs.

Many of their victims have been civilians, including children. Thousands of people have been maimed by FARC land mines, and thousands more were kidnapped and held for ransom. Child soldier recruitment and sexual violence were also common.

Starting in 2000, the United States began providing the Colombian government with billions of dollars in mostly military aid to help interrupt the country’s massive drug trade and fight the FARC and other smaller rebel groups. The hope was that social and economic conditions in Colombia’s historically marginalized rural areas in which the armed groups thrive would also be improved.

Under the agreement, called Plan Colombia, the US pledged nearly $10 billion in assistance. As reported by the Washington Post’s Dana Priest, this was paired with “a CIA covert action program that has helped Colombian forces kill at least two dozen rebel leaders.”

As far as the FARC is concerned, at least, the plan seems to have worked. (Its impact on the drug trade, on the other hand, is less clear.) The group suffered massive losses, including the deaths of several high-profile leaders. “In 2008, senior rebel leader Raul Reyes was killed in a bombing raid and FARC founder Manuel Marulanda died of natural causes,” the BBC reports. “In 2011, Alfonso Cano, who took over from Manuel Marulanda, was also killed in a bombing raid.”

This concerted effort severely weakened the organization: In 2002, the group was estimated to have some 20,000 active fighters; current estimates put that number at somewhere between 6,000 and 7,000 active fighters, with another 8,500 civilians who make up the FARC's support network.

In response, the group entered into secret negotiations with the government starting in 2010, and two years later entered into formal negotiations. Finally, in a ceremony on September 26, attended by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, US Secretary of State John Kerry, and a dozen Latin American leaders, Colombian President Santos and FARC leader Timochenko signed the historic peace agreement.

The basics of the deal

Under the 297-page agreement, the FARC’s fighters would have disarmed, handing over weapons to United Nations inspectors, and become a legal political party with 10 guaranteed seats in the country’s Congress in the 2018 and 2022 elections.

The deal would also have allowed rebels to avoid jail time if they confessed to their crimes. Per the BBC, the agreement would have created “a special legal framework” intended “to try those who committed crimes during the armed conflict, including Farc fighters, government soldiers and members of right-wing paramilitary groups.”

“Those who confessed to crimes” would “not serve prison sentences, but [would instead] take part in acts of ‘reparation,’ including clearing land mines, repairing damaged infrastructure, and helping victims,” the BBC reported.

Fighters who demobilized would also receive financial aid from the Colombian government to help them reintegrate into civil society. In the runup to the vote, FARC leaders also offered public apologies to their victims and pledged to publicly disclose all of their financial assets and pay reparations.

"We will proceed to declare before the government all the monetary and non-monetary resources that have formed part of our war economy,” the group said. "We will proceed to the material reparations of victims."

For its part, the government pledged under the peace agreement to invest substantial resources in improving the country’s rural areas, something the rebels have long been fighting for. According to the Washington Post’s Abbey Steele, measures include providing “development assistance to small-share landholders, who now have trouble getting formal titles to the land they’ve been farming and getting their crops into markets” and offering “rural investments and legal crops so that farmers have fewer incentives to grow illegal crops.”

Why did voters reject it?

The public’s main objection to the agreement was that it was far too lenient on the FARC fighters, whose war against the Colombian government has ravaged the country for more than half a century. One Colombian woman told BBC Mundo that Colombians still associated the FARC with “kidnappings, killings and drug trafficking.”

The leading voice of opposition to the peace deal is former President Alvaro Uribe, who is widely credited with having achieved the military gains that forced the rebels to the negotiating table in the first place. “They will spend zero days in prison; they will be awarded with political representation,” Paloma Valencia, a senator in Uribe’s party, was quoted as saying of the rebels. “This deal breaks the rule of law.”

Uribe claims he is not opposed to peace in principle but that he wants to renegotiate the agreement, which he says needs "corrections." These include barring those found guilty of having committed crimes from running for public office, making FARC leaders serve time in prison for crimes they committed, and forcing the FARC to pay compensation to victims.

According to the BBC, opponents of the deal also feared that allowing former FARC members to participate in the country’s political process as a legitimate political party could open the door to disastrous radical left-wing policies like those in Cuba and Venezuela:

They have dubbed this threat "Castro-Chavismo" after the Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro and the late Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez.

They point to the fact that the Cuban government hosted the peace talks and Venezuela acted as a facilitator as evidence of the influence these two left-wing governments had on the negotiations.

They have accused President Santos of "selling the country out" and warn that with the rebels becoming political players, Colombia could soon resemble Cuba and Venezuela and suffer from the same shortages these countries are experiencing.

Finally, some opponents of the peace deal simply didn’t believe that the FARC was sincere in its intentions to lay down arms and make peace with the government.

What happens now?

The peace agreement as written cannot be implemented without an approval by referendum, so it will have to be renegotiated. President Santos has promised to “continue the search for peace until the last moment of my mandate, because that's the way to leave a better country to our children ... I won't give up,” he said.

Speaking to journalists in Havana after Sunday's referendum results, Timochenko said that his group remains committed to ending the conflict. The rebel leader said he regrets that what he called "the destructive power of those who sow hatred and rancor [has] influenced the opinion of the Colombian population.” He promised that the group will keep working to build a stable peace: “Count on us, peace will triumph.”

However, before the vote, Santos told the BBC that there was "no Plan B" for ending the conflict if the referendum on the peace agreement failed. He has reportedly told his negotiators to travel to Cuba to consult with FARC leaders on what the next move will be.

Fernando Giraldo, a political analyst, told the Guardian that the fact that both the government and guerrillas reiterated their commitment to peace was a good sign but the future was unclear. “The plebiscite laid everything out in black and white and now we’re stuck in a grey area,” he said.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays