On 22 June 2016 the Marxist group, the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), signed a historic peace agreement with the government, putting an end to the longest-running civil conflict in the world. Whilst its terms remain subject to a referendum, the agreement will, if approved, mark the first time in any country that guerrilla commanders have agreed to be investigated and potentially put on trial.
It is some thirty years since the government first managed to push FARC back to their jungle strongholds, though this only allowed the guerrillas to consolidate their control of rural Colombia, much of which became off-limits to urban dwellers. The FARC control 70 per cent of all coca-growing territory in Colombia.
The medium and long term beneficiaries of the agreement will be Colombia's non-urban regions and its 200,000-strong military, which will now be able to allocate more resources to fight the other guerrilla organisation, the 2,000-strong National Liberation Army (ELN), as well as Colombian's various non-ideological organised crime gangs known locally as 'BACRIMs'. Ironically, many of the BACRIMs are a legacy of paramilitary forces that had been historically funded by landlords to protect their trade from the FARC.* It is for is for this reason that agrarian reform has formed one of the key issues in the peace agreements, including a series of expensive rural development programmes.
The agreements also aim to transform FARC into a political party capable of encompassing the country's multi-ethnical spectrum. The organisation's 8,000 uniformed troops will assemble in 23 fixed 'encampments' around the country, each protected by a 1-kilometre buffer zone into which the security forces will not be permitted to enter. The FARC troops will spend up to 180 days in the encampments, during which time they will be required to surrender their 45,000 weapons to a UN verification mission and will receive training on their transition to civilian life. By agreement the encampments will not be located in areas where coca crops or illegal mining is present. The hope of the Colombian government is that, by working with FARC in this way, the rural communities may be reintegrated into the wider society and economy, preventing the transfer of criminal activities to other illegal armed groups. This does, however, depend upon the state filling the vacuum in other high risk regions away from FARC encampments, where the drugs trade, as well as widespread illegal mining and logging continue.
The risk of a recycling of illegal economies is compounded by the fact that the FARC's estimated 10,000 strong non-military personnel are not required to take to the encampments. It is these "militiamen" that help manage the organisation's estimated USD1 billion plus income.
At the same time, The ELN has shown no real interest in peace and remains active in Colombia's oil-reach regions, where it has been blamed for the kidnapping of civilians and the bombing of pipelines. Meanwhile it is reported that some BACRIMs are seeking to fill voids left by FARC and in Medellin two neo-paramilitary groups are currently engaged in a territorial war.
In the context of low oil prices and weak economic growth it is anticipated that the Santos administration will have to raise taxes in order to realise the investments called for by the peace agreements. Nevertheless, it is anticipated that Colombians will approve the agreement in the coming referendum. Whatever the challenges ahead, the prize of a peaceful end to a 52 year conflict is one for which the country clearly has a huge appetite.
*Recently Chiquita, a banana producer, pleaded guilty to US federal criminal charges for funding and providing material support to the so called self-defence paramilitary organisation AUC.