In the first round of Colombia’s presidential elections, long-standing opposition leader Gustavo Petro and newly emerged outsider Rodolfo Hernández both handily defeated the conservative establishment candidate Federico Gutiérrez. The latter’s third-place finish signals Colombians’ resounding rejection of the country’s status quo and a rebuke of the political establishment and predominant elites.

Members of the FARC, a guerrilla group that fought the Colombian government for half a century, walk in formation. (Federico Rios Escobar/The New York Times)
Members of the FARC, a guerrilla group that fought the Colombian government for half a century, walk in formation. (Federico Rios Escobar/The New York Times)

All in all, less than one in four Colombians voted in favor of any continuity with the current administration. Even Gutiérrez — despite enjoying the backing of traditional political parties and business leaders — took painstaking measures to distance himself from sitting President Iván Duque, whose approval rating barely cracked 20 percent in February of this year.

The results shouldn’t have been a major surprise after last year’s historic urban upheaval, which paralyzed the country for months and left at least 28 people dead at the hands of the police. Moreover, polling has shown that 82 percent of Colombians have a negative view of the country’s current political parties. 

Petro and Hernández will now face one another in a head-to-head runoff on June 19 to determine what type of change Colombia will embrace. To help solidify their visions for the country, each candidate has sought to align themselves with other current leaders in the region. The leftist Petro recently attended the presidential inauguration of young progressive Gabriel Boric in Chile and is a long-time admirer of former Brazilian President Luiz Lula da Silva, who is poised to seek a return to power this fall. On the other hand, Hernández is committed to modeling himself after El Salvador’s mercurial but popular President Nayib Bukele, whose antagonism towards democratic institutions and civil society has led to cold relations with the United States.

Bleak Security Outlook of Ongoing Armed Conflict

The winning candidate will inherit a country whose security situation has undeniably deteriorated in both objective and subjective terms.

At the 2018 presidential inauguration, Colombia’s then-Senate President Ernesto Macías painted an exaggerated, doomsday picture of a country overrun with drug trafficking, crime and guerilla groups that he attributed to the 2016 peace accord with the former FARC insurgency. To address this crisis, Macías and Duque promised new and effective hardline security policies. However, four years later, the situation has deteriorated even further — looking more like Macías’ hyperbolic 2018 vision than ever before.

While some at the time believed the FARC accord would usher in a new era of peace and stability, the reality is that the FARC peace process only constituted one of three parallel negotiations tracks with the country’s main armed groups. The other two — with the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (AGC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) — suffered from significant neglect and were ultimately abandoned by the Duque administration. Consequently, each group has expanded their territorial and community control throughout much of rural and urban Colombia. Just in recent months alone, each has declared “armed strikes” that have paralyzed large swaths of the country. In the AGC’s case, after their top commander was extradited to the United States, they imposed widespread restrictions affecting 11 out of the country’s 32 departments that included confining many police officers to their stations.

The agreement with the FARC rebels prioritized development projects in 170 rural municipalities historically affected by the armed conflict, with a total population of roughly 6.7 million inhabitants. However, in 2021 the homicide rate in those territories was more than twice the national average, which itself has been on the rise. If those municipalities constituted a country on their own, it would be the most violent in the world, roughly three times higher than similarly sized El Salvador.

Earlier last month, the Colombian government ombudsman for human rights classified 290 out of Colombia's 1122 municipalities as having an “extreme risk” of abuses by armed groups disputing territorial control. Independent civil society found that over a third of the country’s municipalities had some degree of armed group presence and risks.

Escalating Impact on Civilians

This territorial control has been achieved, in part, by the gruesome killing of civilians. In 2017, Colombia had only 11 massacres — defined as collective murders with more than three victims. Over the course of 2020, 2021 and the first half of 2022, there has been a massacre documented roughly every four days, equating to an annual average of over 90. This steady stream of collective punishment is only surpassed in Colombia’s modern history by the paramilitary boom of massacres between 1997 and 2002.
Moreover, the humanitarian situation remains one of the world’s most volatile. Over the course of last year, there were 164,558 victims of internal displacement, adding to the over 7 million officially recognized historic victims of this forced exodus. In the first trimester of this year alone, the U.N. registered a three-fold increase in the overall number of communities affected by violent conflict in comparison with the same period last year. This has included a massive increase in the population plagued by territorial confinement due to combat between armed actors, which has skyrocketed from just 1,400 in all of 2017 to 55,400 in just the first four months of 2022.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) also found that, in the same period, the number of victims of explosive artifacts and antipersonnel mines has increased 40 percent. In 2021, there were 139 human rights defenders killed in Colombia and a more than 60 percent increase in non-fatal physical assaults and aggressions, making it the most violent year on record since 2010 for these critical civil society leaders

Since pandemic restrictions left rural schools with limited internet connectivity, making them essentially obsolete, armed groups have focused on recruiting children, sometimes promising motorcycles or monthly salaries between $200-400 USD.

These alarming trends have particularly affected indigenous communities, leading to a public health epidemic. In the department of Chocó, with a population of just 65,000 indigenous citizens, over 40 youth in their communities have attempted suicide to escape armed groups during the first four months of this year alone.

An Even More Complex Armed Conflict Today

I recently returned to the remote municipality of Bojayá, where I served as a humanitarian worker in the wake of a tragic massacre that killed 78 civilians in 2002. I was struck with how many community leaders decried that the realities of today’s armed conflict were even worse than they were 20 years ago. They said that in the past, armed groups at least had predictable rules and channels for community engagement. But today, they’re at a loss for how to protect their communities in the face of the current generation of armed group leaders — particularly the AGC, who many believe were collaborating with the army and police to control nearly all aspects of social and economic life in rural territories.

The ICRC has categorized six subsets of combative relations between armed actors as the essential components of today’s overarching armed conflict. Earlier this year, these territorial disputes throughout Colombia had deteriorated to such an extent that it was actually affecting international cocaine shipments. And in the absence of any effective government strategies, several Mexican cartel dispatched envoys to act as peace mediators between Colombia’s various armed groups.

The armed conflict has also penetrated even deeper into Colombia’s main urban centers. The capital city of Bogotá has experienced several prominent terrorist attacks on police stations — the most recent of which killed two child bystanders. That led to the temporary re-establishment of army check points at all exits and entry roadways into the city — harking back to the late 1990’s when the FARC insurgency controlled strongholds in the hills overlooking the city.

Increasing Despair and Exodus

These realities have led to widespread pessimism and frustration over peace and security in Colombia. Only six percent of Colombians believe that the security situation is improving in the country. Over the last two years, monthly polls have found that on average nine out of 10 Colombians have expressed a belief that the security in the country is in fact deteriorating. Only 16 percent of Colombians actually believe that 2016 accord with the FARC brought peace to Colombia, an all-time low.

Today, 70 percent of Colombians believe that guerilla groups are expanding, a number that is up from just 48 percent at the start of Duque’s government. In that same timeframe, public perception that drug trafficking is getting worse rose from 56 percent to an all-time high of 75 percent. Only one in three urban Colombians have a favorable image of the police, and USIP’s own polling in several rural municipalities places this figure even lower. Additionally, over the last two years, the army has registered some of its lowest approval ratings in the last two decades (since polling began on this topic). And less than one-quarter of Colombians have a favorable view of the attorney general or the judicial system.

In light of these dramatic figures, Duque’s top national security advisor abruptly resigned in January and the legislative and presidential elections have been 144 percent more violent than the 2018 process.

As a result of this growing hopelessness, historic numbers of Colombians have sought to flee to the United States. More than 15,000 Colombians were detained at the U.S. southern border in March 2022 alone, representing a 100-fold increase from 2021. This has ranked Colombia ahead of both El Salvador and Venezuela as one of the most common countries of origin on the border. In 2022, there has been an overall 545 percent increase of Colombians detained compared to 2021.

Prospects for New Paradigms

Both Gustavo Petro and Rodolfo Hernández have — in their own unique way — expressed openness to altering fundamental assumptions and paradigms regarding security in Colombia. They will undoubtedly need to begin crafting new approaches by revamping traditional indicators of success and redirecting criteria for the evaluation of security officials to prioritize community perceptions of public safety.

Furthermore, both have expressed commitments to not only implement the full spectrum of reforms outlined in the 2016 FARC accords, but also to engaging creatively in negotiations with the AGC and the ELN by building on the lessons learned from previous peace processes with those unique and emboldened armed groups. Fortunately, both candidates can count on a popular citizen mandate for such peace efforts, with 72 percent of Colombians believing that negotiations remain the best option to deal with armed groups and insecurity in Colombia.

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