Though a 2016 peace agreement ended Colombia’s decades-long conflict with the FARC, armed strife continues to strain the country’s political and security institutions, making an effective pandemic response all the more challenging. Violence against social leaders and former combatants has risen at an alarming pace, and the implementation of much-needed reforms outlined in the peace accord has stalled. Meanwhile, armed groups have capitalized on the virus to bolster their influence by imposing their own repressive local lockdowns and consolidating control over illicit trade. In this #COVIDandConflict video, our Steve Hege looks at how the virus has impacted Colombia and what opportunities may still exist to advance peace.

Transcript

Hello, my name is Steve Hege and I’m the deputy director for Latin America at the U.S. Institute of Peace, where we have been analyzing the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on violent conflict around the world. In this video, I’ll try to answer several questions about the impact of the virus on peace in Colombia.

What is the status of the virus’ spread in Colombia and how has this impacted the armed conflict?

Of the top 20 countries in the world most affected by the coronavirus, Colombia is the only one simultaneously facing an internal armed conflict, which unquestionably makes the public health response all the more difficult and complex. Although Colombia was early to adopt varying degrees of national quarantines since March, positive tests and deaths have quadrupled over the last month. While the capital city of Bogotá has been the national epicenter, with ICUs at over 90% capacity, many marginalized and conflict-affected areas, including the hard-hit Pacific Coast, have faced significant rates of per capita transmission in the midst of ongoing violent conflict.

Sadly, the pandemic has only intensified the country’s myriad sub-national conflict dynamics. Armed groups and criminal networks have adapted quickly to changing circumstances, seizing on the national quarantine to fortify their control over communities their own localized and brutally repressive lockdowns under the guise of preventing the spread of the virus.

Armed actors have also consolidated their control over illicit trafficking of drugs despite disruptions in global supply chains of critical inputs for processing coca leaves, and ramped up their involvement in gold mining as prices have reached all-time highs in reaction to the global recession. As a partial consequence these two trends, with major restrictions on the movements of environmental authorities, deforestation has already significantly eclipsed the total numbers of hectares lost from all of 2019.  

In comparison with the same period last year, overall Colombia has experienced a 55% increase in the number of deaths due to political violence over the first semester of 2020. The number of social leaders assassinated has increased 30% during the first five months, as individuals have become more vulnerable to attacks because of the inherent limitations on their movements. For their part, the killings of former combatants has also continued at an alarming pace, while child recruitment has seen an important spike with rural schools suspended.

In the face of all this, Colombia’s police and military have become overstretched after taking on a range of new roles related to the pandemic. Simultaneously, they have been rocked by several prominent scandals, and rural communities view them as potential transmitters of the virus, further undermining trust. According to a June Gallup poll, the favorability of the army and the police both fell drastically to historic lows.

How has the pandemic impacted the implementation of Colombia’s recent peace accord?

In 2016, a historic peace accord ended the 50-year insurgency of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or the FARC. At the heart of the peace deal is a series of long over-due agrarian reforms and investments in economic development in marginalized rural communities. Already suffering significant delays and dramatic underfunding in their implementation, the pandemic has unfortunately represented another enormous setback for these efforts as the agricultural sector has been severely affected alongside a shrinking national economy.

While some rural construction and infrastructure projects have continued, the participatory decision-making processes in the 170 priority municipalities have been largely suspended and trust in government officials has suffered due to widespread corruption in the distribution of relief assistance. Already fragile socio-economic livelihood projects for ex-FARC guerillas have been seriously undermined thus jeopardizing their return to civilian lives.

Sustained forced eradication efforts throughout the quarantine have led to spikes in violent confrontations with peasant farmers, who have yet to receive assistance in transitioning to viable alternatives to coca crops. For their part, the Transitional Justice Court and Truth Commission established by the FARC peace agreement have had to suspend or adapt much of their work, as meaningful participation by victims has become an even more pronounced challenge and calls by opponents of the peace accord to defund or significantly restructure these vital institutions have persisted. Financial reparations for registered victims, covering nearly one in five Colombians, have also been halted and will experience long-term setbacks due to foreseeable budgetary constraints.

Finally, because of the pandemic, the national congress for FARC’s successor political party had to be postponed leading to further deteriorating internal divisions and the expulsion of several high-profile former commanders.

What opportunities might the pandemic generate for lasting peace?

Despite all of the stark challenges I have mentioned, the FARC remain committed to the 2016 peace accord and the government has promised to not decrease funding for its implementation. Also, channels of communication exist with the country’s second-largest rebel group, the National Liberation Army, or the ELN. In response to a call by the U.N. Secretary General for a global ceasefire amid COVID-19, the ELN carried out a largely successful unilateral ceasefire during the month of April. Through the auspices of the Catholic Church, the government and the rebels continue to explore a 90-day bilateral de-escalation of hostilities within the framework of the UN Security Council’s recent insistence on a global cessation of hostilities in the face of the pandemic.

Ultimately, the pandemic has really brought to light the significant institutional weaknesses and deep socio-economic and political divides that have plagued Colombia for decades. Many of our inspiring local partners are convinced that–in the face of a once-in-a-generation global crisis–it’s precisely through generating unity among polarized political elites to reinvigorate peace efforts in marginalized regions that Colombia can truly build up its resilience to the pandemic.

Thank you for watching, and for following this series on social media with the hashtag COVID and Conflict. Check out our website, USIP.org, for more resources.  

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