Colombia Weighs the Cost of Peace ahead of May Elections

After 52 years of war, the Western hemisphere’s longest running conflict came to an end when Colombia signed its historic Peace Accords in 2016. Now the controversial peace deal between the Colombian government and FARC rebels may be in jeopardy ahead of the country’s presidential elections in May.

Creating an inclusive democratic process post-conflict will mean that the leftist guerrilla FARC faction, the main belligerent during the half century of strife, will need to be reintegrated into civilian and political life. In exchange for surrendering their arms, the FARC have been promised political participation, which has led to the formation of their own party and has guaranteed them ten seats in March’s congressional elections.

If these elections were any indication, the peace deal is hotly contested and the public is divided on its terms. Although no party won a majority, the three largest conservative parties are highly critical of the deal and have campaigned to re-write its terms if elected. This could pose a significant threat to the Accord as many of its laws will not take effect until after the presidential elections, and could be subject to modification under a conservative government.

 

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The Accord, brokered by current President Juan Manuel Santos, which earned him a Nobel Peace Prize in 2016, understandably remains contentious in its aim to normalize FARC participation in public life. Many Colombians are wary of the government’s attempt to repatriate scores of rebels who are widely blamed for the killing of almost 220,000 people, 81% of which were civilians, and displacing over 5 million more.

Founded as the military wing of Colombia’s Communist Party in 1964, FARC troops comprised more than 18,000 fighters at the height of the conflict and controlled around 1/3 of Colombian territory. Now around 3,500 former FARC fighters will be tried for crimes committed during the war, including murder and forced disappearances, all financed through extortion and cocaine trafficking.

As Colombians grapple with the implications of living side by side with ex-combatants, they are aware that the price for peace is twofold. According to Colombian officials, the minimum cost to implement the peace deal would be at least 44.4 billion USD over the course of ten years. Pundits question if the current economy can absorb such a high cost.

Colombia is the fourth largest economy in South America and stands to capitalize on newly found political and economic stability, and to an extent this has been achieved. Tourism and foreign investment is rising, and investments in the Fairtrade coffee industry, spurred by the unionization of farmers, have proven beneficial to rural communities. This progress was meant to enable the single greatest economic and geo-political goal of the Santos government: to wean the Colombian economy off its reliance on cocaine exports.

However, the opposite seems to be the case as the peace deal has had an unexpected consequence: Colombian farmers are now producing cocaine at a rate not seen even under Pablo Escobar’s reign. According to the Washington Post, an astounding 710 metric tons of cocaine were produced in 2017, up from 235 metric tons in 2013. That is effectively three times as much cocaine production, as the deal has inadvertently incentivized farmers to stuff their fields with as many coca plants as possible.

 

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The Accord has ushered the FARC out of the drug trade, and tasked them to help rural coca farmers switch to legal crops, such as coffee and bananas. However, this rural development initiative will take effect after the elections. In the meantime, this has left over 460,000 acres of coca fields that were formerly occupied by the FARC unmanned.

Colombian officials have therefore had to persuade farmers to transition from coca farming by other means, and have taken to handing out cash payments to families who voluntarily pull up their coca and transition to legal crops. These commercial incentives, however, are distributed only in communities where cocaine is being produced, incentivizing farmers who have never traded in cocaine to diversify their crop portfolio.

The recent cocaine boom has not gone unnoticed by Colombia’s neighbor to the North. The US is the world’s largest consumer of cocaine and the drug cartels’ most dependable market. The bump in drug trafficking across the US border has prompted President Trump to threaten halving foreign aid to the country if production is not curbed. Given that American authorities are growing increasingly restless as they fail to contain an opioid epidemic, and scrutiny on Latin American countries is at an all-time high, this could not come at a worse time.

 

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As America’s leading ally in the war against drugs, Colombia has received about $10 billion in aid for military and social programs to fight the drug trade. A potential cut in US aid, along with the cost of implementing the peace deal, could hurt an already fragile economy.

These social and economic factors are being leveraged by political parties who oppose the terms of the peace deal, and who have been bolstered further by the results of the congressional elections. As Santos is ineligible for re-election in May’s presidential vote, it remains to be seen if the transitional justice and peace process will survive the end of his term.

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