Despite tensions triggered by FARC’s kidnapping of three members of the security forces last month and the military killing of a high-ranking guerrilla commander, the current peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) stand a fair chance of ending five decades of guerrilla warfare in the South American country. But local authorities in conflict zones remain ill-equipped to cope with the challenges they will face if a peace agreement is reached.
This lack of preparedness partly reflects the long-standing institutional weaknesses of many departments and municipalities. But the centralised nature of the current peace talks has arguably further complicated the situation for many local authorities. Negotiations are taking place in Havana, the capital of Cuba (which also serves as one the official guarantors of the process), and the relatively small government negotiating team does not include representatives of regional or local interests. As the talks are being conducted on a confidential basis, the space for direct participation has been limited, although a series of initiatives, including a webpage, regional discussions organised by the peace commissions of Congress and a civil society forum in Bogotá on rural development, has provided participatory channels.
Such a set up may increase the chances that a deal will be reached, but it may also create problems further down the line. The successful implementation of any agreement would not be in the hands of the negotiators. Other actors, including local governments would need to assume lead roles. But as Antioquia’s governor Sergio Fajardo pointed out shortly before the launch of the talks last November, local officials have so far largely remained on the sidelines of the peace process:
As far as I know, no [local] office holder was given an explanation as to what is happening or what will happen. Businessmen yes, and some journalists. This is an error that perpetuates the perspective of the central power that it decides and then gives orders to the territories. […] If we do not take into account from now on the local office holders of the entire country, we will be in serious problems.
Local officials and community members have largely echoed these concerns. For instance, one local government official from Urabá (Antioquia), one of Colombia’s most conflict-affected regions, told Crisis Group in a recent interview that his municipality had not yet been able to give much thought to the implications of the peace process, as they were struggling to keep up with reintegrating the existing group of demobilised paramilitaries and guerrillas.
Challenges for Local Governments
As with the rest of the country, the opening of peace talks with FARC in late 2012 took local governments by surprise. By then, government plans for the 2012-2015 period – a crucial instrument to guide policy making – had already been approved and corresponding budgets allocated. Large cities, such as Bogotá or Medellín, both home to substantial populations of demobilised combatants and victims, have the human and financial resources to at least react to such unforeseen events. But the vast majority of municipalities in conflict-affected areas are much smaller, and they are often in dire financial straits, as much as a result of local mismanagement as of the conflict itself.
Granada is a case in point. The East Antioquian municipality economically collapsed after escalating violence in the late-1990s triggered mass displacements and bomb attacks destroyed much of the city’s infrastructure. Even as the security situation has improved, the town has struggled to revive its economy. In such places, the arrival of some 8,000 demobilised FARC members in addition to an estimated three to four times that number of civilian-clad militias will put further strain on local capacities and complicate reinsertion efforts. And to make matters even more challenging, many cities will not just have to reintegrate former guerrilla members, but will also have to lead local reconciliation efforts in war-torn communities.
It is not just scarce resources, however, that hamper many local authorities. A lack of political will to engage with issues such as reparations for conflict victims also remains all too common. With few exceptions, community leaders from across Antioquia have complained about the slow progress in the implementation of the 2011 Victims Law. In many municipalities, meetings of local transitional justice committees—mandated by the law—are only taking place sporadically, and local government staff reportedly regularly fail to show up. Additionally, local ombudsman offices are often weak and politicised, reducing the confidence victims have in local institutions.
In some places, reluctance towards supporting victims’ rights might reflect a type of “cultural resistance”, as one observer put it: some political leaders see victims as an unwanted reminder of a violent past that they want to leave behind as fast as they can. In others, the lack of commitment to victims’ rights might reflect the continuing leverage of politicians who have risen to power due to links with paramilitaries or other illegal actors. Such paramilitary-linked politicians may also become an obstacle for the political reintegration of FARC, an explicit goal of the peace process.
Against this background, victims’ organisations fear a repetition of what happened after the paramilitary demobilisation under former president Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010). Back then, a large number of paramilitaries either did not demobilise or, after demobilisation, joined illegal groups. These groups, known as criminal gangs (or BACRIM, by the Spanish acronym), have now grown into one of Colombia’s most serious security and humanitarian problems.
Conflict and Post-Conflict
There is a lot the negotiating parties could do to prevent this outcome from happening. The problem is that measures agreed to by the negotiators in Havana will not function properly if they are not embedded in communities through a local consensus. There are some signs that the government has understood this challenge. In January, the interior minister gathered departmental governors to open communication channels, briefing them on the progress of talks and giving them the opportunity to advance proposals, which the negotiating teams will supposedly take into account.
For the national government, this has created a dilemma. As the military campaign against FARC is in full swing and the success of the talks is not yet assured, engaging in discussions on post-conflict scenarios in the regions remains a delicate issue. The often repeated, explicit threat of ending the talks if the guerrillas try to stall or broaden the agreed agenda has been a central piece of government strategy to keep political opposition at bay and maintain pressure on FARC. The government may thus fear that opening the discussion on post-conflict challenges too early will weaken its bargaining position.
But with the possibility that a final peace agreement could be signed as early as the end of the year (according to a deadline set by President Juan Manual Santos), time is already running short. Sustained efforts to engage regional and local authorities and to help them prepare for the post-conflict phase should therefore start sooner rather than later.
Such efforts would be the best the way to ensure that Colombia can seamlessly embark on the lengthy social, political and economic transformation processes in conflict regions that will, eventually, lead to true peace. And generating greater local political ownership and a shared understanding of how to tackle the potential challenges and uncertainties of the post-conflict phase might actually strengthen, rather than weaken, the government’s hand in Havana.