Colombia stands at a pivotal point in its history. In mid-2016, the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group signed a peace agreement, formally bringing an end to Latin America's longest and deadliest insurgency in modern history. After narrowly losing in a public referendum in October, the deal was revised, and Colombian Parliament approved it in November. The agreement is now in the early stages of implementation, which has brought with it opportunities for peace and greater stability as well as a whole new set of challenges and uncertainties for the country. A recent trip from Bogota to Medellin shed light on how Colombia got here — and where the convalescing country may be heading.
A History of Strife
The roots of Colombia's battle with the FARC — and with the several other armed groups that have long bedeviled the government — lie in the country's geography. The Andes Mountains cut sharply across the middle of Colombia, and their peaks envelop its demographic core. The capital, Bogota, and the large regional centers of Medellin and Cali are all nestled at high elevations, where the temperate climate fosters higher population density. North and west of the Andes, the coastal lowlands have a more tropical climate. To the south and east are sparsely inhabited jungle and savannah.
Under these conditions, the FARC grew to pose a serious challenge to the Colombian state. The coca boom of the 1980s enabled it to expand its armed forces and conduct larger and more effective attacks against the Colombian military. By 2000, Bogota effectively controlled only one-third of the country's territory. The FARC, meanwhile, was amassing a force of around 20,000 guerrillas that regularly threatened and attacked key roads and other critical infrastructure in Colombia. It even began planning to surround and assault the country's main urban areas, including Bogota and Medellin, in a bid to overthrow the state.
But after the collapse of a peace initiative in the late 1990s and early 2000s — as the security environment in the country's key urban areas began to erode — the Colombian government changed course. Under the leadership of newly elected President Alvaro Uribe, the government launched a new strategy in 2002. The initiative centered on three elements: a counterinsurgency campaign to push the FARC away from urban areas, increased government presence and police patrols in rural areas, and economic development programs for segments of the rural population considered ripe for recruitment. Dubbed "Plan Colombia," the scheme enabled the government, with logistical and financial help from the United States, to gain momentum against the FARC.
By 2015, the group's armed manpower had fallen almost 30 percent compared with 2011, while homicide and kidnapping rates dropped to their lowest levels in decades. These successes, along with the setbacks suffered by the FARC, allowed for more serious peace talks to take place. Negotiations began in 2012 under current President Juan Manuel Santos, and the breakthrough peace agreement emerged in June 2016. As the "no" victory (by a slim 50.2 percent majority) in the subsequent referendum illustrated, though, the terms of the agreement were controversial. But Parliament passed the revised version less than two months later, and today, the country is on the road to peace.
In Bogota, Calculating the Costs
I arrived in Bogota at the beginning of March, just a few months after the peace agreement's approval, curious to know what Colombia's residents thought of the deal. And so, I set off to ask some of the 10 million people living in the country's bustling capital.
One resident I spoke to, an engineer in his 40s who works for Avianca, Colombia's largest airline, said he that supported the peace agreement but that it is likely to come at a high cost. Like many people I talked with, he pointedly opted not to refer to the FARC by name. He said the "guerrillas" were bad people who only wanted power and money, despite their nominally leftist ideology, that the government hadn't handled them well, and that some sort of political inclusion would be preferable to using brute force. As to the FARC's future under the deal, he was uncertain. He mentioned the case of El Salvador, whose government reached its own landmark peace agreement with rebel groups in the 1990s, only to see a diffusion of smaller groups of "delinquents." The same could happen in Colombia, he said.
The engineer's wife — who unlike him was not originally from Bogota but from a rural part of the coastal La Guajira region, near the border with Venezuela — unequivocally opposed the peace deal. She said it was too generous for the FARC, particularly the provision allotting 10 seats in Parliament to the group's political party. She also couldn't believe that FARC members would receive a monthly salary of 1 million Colombian pesos (roughly $350), which she said was more than many working class Colombians make, especially in her impoverished hometown. She hoped the agreement would be revised or eliminated completely, perhaps after the country's next presidential elections in 2018.
A 30-something museum curator I spoke to, born and raised in Bogota, had a more nuanced view. She supports the agreement but understands why many people voted against it. She mentioned that Bogota residents don't feel the war very much, as guerrilla activity has been concentrated mostly in rural areas. She noted, however, that the ELN — which is trying to strike its own peace accord with the government — had recently conducted a bombing just a couple blocks from the museum where she works, killing one policeman and wounding more than two dozen other people. Even so, she said that views of the peace deal in Bogota diverged from those elsewhere in the country, and especially the rural regions.
In Medellin, Guarded Optimism
Keen to get a glimpse of the Colombian countryside, I took the bus from the capital to Medellin. Departing from Bogota's central station in the morning, we made our way through the city's clogged downtown streets before eventually entering the sprawling industrial outskirts. From there, we passed through small farms set against lush green hills. The pastoral landscape then gave way to towering mountains as the bus crawled northwest along a two-lane highway, past tiny villages and colorful roadside Christian altars to Mary and Jesus. The bus swung north at the town of Honda, meandering along the Magdalena River before heading west toward Medellin.
The 10-hour overland trip offered breathtaking scenery and, despite its reputation as arduous and often unsafe, passed without incident. But the route underscored the geographic divide between Colombia's regional population centers — often referred to as city-states because of their isolation — and provided a cross-section of the oft-overlooked segments of the society connecting them. The impression of distance between the cities, both physical and psychological, would have been lost on a 30-minute flight.
Once in Medellin, I was curious whether the local citizenry would have a different view of the peace agreement. During the 1990s, Medellin became infamous as a hub for organized crime and the narcotics trade, thanks largely to its most infamous native son, drug lord Pablo Escobar. At one point, Medellin was billed as the most dangerous city in the world, beating out war-ravaged Beirut at the height of Lebanon's civil war.
But just 20 years later, much has changed in the city. Crime and violence have dropped significantly, and abundant public works projects have revitalized Medellin. It now boasts, for example, a clean and well-run metro system, as well as cable cars that link the bustling downtown to the once-dangerous comunas in the mountains that surround the city. Medellin feels efficient and safe to walk through, newly sanguine in its Andean resplendence.
One resident, a student of biomedical engineering who was born and raised in Medellin, confirmed this impression of positive change. She said that the city was much better off now than it had been during the 1980s and 1990s, a trying time. Nonetheless, she was skeptical that the latest peace agreement would work. She saw the FARC's popularity as a product, in part, of poor government policies, including what she considered moves by the state to steal people's land in the countryside. "There are no good and bad guys in the conflict," she said. "Both the government and guerrillas are somewhere in between."
Another local I spoke to, a professor of statistics in his 40s, held a different view. He supports the agreement. Though he didn't think it was perfect, he felt it was the biggest opportunity to achieve peace that the country had had in 30 years. He noted, moreover, that the cease-fire between the government and the FARC has largely held, even despite the failed referendum, and added that the rebels have already begun turning their weapons over to the government. He was concerned that the agreement could be changed or canceled after the 2018 elections but said he had no choice but to be optimistic about the future. "The peace comes at a cost," he said. "But it's worth it."
My discussions (with an admittedly small sample size of the country's residents) suggest that Colombia is at a sort of crossroads. It has come a long way and is now safer and more stable than it has been at any point in the past half-century. Still, lasting peace is by no means guaranteed, and the economic and political costs of maintaining it are matters of heated debate. The future of the peace deal, like that of the country as a whole, is uncertain. But Colombia's recent progress gives hope of a brighter future.