Small Wars Journal

Bullets for Ballots: A History of Demobilization, Disarmament, and Reintegration in Colombia

Thu, 06/23/2016 - 11:55am

Bullets for Ballots: A History of Demobilization, Disarmament, and Reintegration in Colombia

Paul Angelo

After more than three years of painstaking negotiations, Colombia appears poised to secure by the close of this year a historic peace deal with the country’s largest and most formidable illegal armed group, the 7,000-strong Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Colombia’s other main guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), has also commenced exploratory talks with the government of President Juan Manuel Santos—offering hope that future generations of Colombians will finally enjoy a peace that has eluded the Andean country for nearly 70 years. The signing of accords is merely a first step in a long process that will require decades of investment to address the root causes of violence and conflict. The Colombian government must tackle insurgency and crime through institutional reforms that expand the reach of the state, improve infrastructure nationwide, and enhance employment opportunities in the formal economy. Robust international support for peace is a propitious ignition for this transformation: the international community has pledged billions of dollars for the Colombian government as it engages in post-conflict state building.

Notwithstanding these long-term ambitions, the country’s immediate post-conflict concerns center on the thorny issue of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR). Will the Colombian public accept amnesty for ex-combatants who have turned to all manner of crime including murder, drug-trafficking, extortion, and kidnapping in order to finance their revolutionary activities? Will the FARC and ELN be able to compete among the diversity of existing political actors to push forward meaningful political and social agendas? Who will provide for the physical safety of thousands of demobilized armed insurgents as they reintegrate into Colombian society? Colombia need not look much further than its own recent history to understand the pitfalls and opportunities associated with the implementation of DDR processes. The past 30 years have borne witness to three attempts at peace negotiations with the FARC and five instances of collective DDR for illegal armed actors in Colombia.[i] Most importantly, the experiences of the Patriotic Union (UP), the 19th of April Movement (M-19), and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) in laying down arms and transitioning to post-conflict identities are instructive for the current talks. The lessons from these prior processes demonstrate the vital need for security guarantees, political reconciliation, and social and economic integration in order to ensure that Colombia’s hard-won peace with the FARC is a lasting one.

Between Politics and Persecution: The Rise and Fall of the UP

The UP’s attempt at disarmament and political integration from 1985 through the mid-1990s represents perhaps the most alarming potential post-conflict scenario and has unquestionably informed the posture of the FARC’s leadership throughout its latest round of talks with the government. During the first set of peace negotiations with the FARC from 1984 to 1986, the administration of President Belisario Betancur achieved a bilateral ceasefire and facilitated the creation of the UP political party. The government championed the UP as a banner organization behind which the diversity of Colombian insurgencies, the most prominent of which emerged in the wake of the Cuban Revolution, could rally as they demobilized and began to compete electorally against the country’s traditional political parties, the Conservatives and the Liberals. The UP’s ideological bent was unmistakably Marxist-Communist, and several of the party’s leading representatives were demobilized members of the FARC. In 1986, when hundreds of UP members declared their candidacies for local and national elections, the UP represented Colombia’s first third-party electoral run in 16 years. Furthermore, election results suggested that the Colombian public was increasingly receptive to more reformist ideologies and political solutions. The UP won 24 deputy positions in departmental assemblies, 275 municipal council spots, seven seats in Congress, and 4.6% of the presidential vote.[ii]

However, while the UP organized electoral campaigns around social justice initiatives in poor and marginalized communities, the FARC refused to renounce armed struggle and engage fully in DDR programs. Betancur’s democratic opening inopportunely coincided with the actions of the Colombian military during the appalling 1985 siege on the Colombian Supreme Court by M-19 rebels. The military’s heavy-handed response to put an end to the hostage scenario resulted in the deaths of 12 justices and 86 other individuals. The government’s negotiations with the FARC collapsed soon thereafter under the weight of a presidential transition and ever-increasing right-wing violence.[iii]

In this context, the UP, with its origins in the FARC, fell victim to a systematic campaign to exterminate the far left’s growing voice in Colombian politics. Right-wing paramilitary groups, in collusion with drug cartels and members of the Colombian Armed Forces, commenced a wave of high-profile political assassinations of the UP’s leadership. In 1987, the Medellin Cartel directed the murder of Jaime Pardo, the UP’s 1986 presidential candidate, and his presumptive successor, Bernardo Jaramillo, was gunned down in 1990 by a paramilitary fighter working in concert with rogue state intelligence agents. The party’s rank and file also faced sustained repression throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, when more than 4,000 UP politicians, municipal leaders, unionists, and activists were murdered. Many of the party’s surviving members sought exile abroad or went into hiding, and by 2002 the government had revoked the party’s legal status due to inactivity and insufficient membership.

With the Colombian government’s recent peace overtures, the UP has once again been invited to participate in electoral politics and is intended to serve as a litmus test for the FARC’s political inclusion. Colombia has come a long way in ensuring that all political perspectives are afforded a voice in national debate, as demonstrated by the proliferation of non-traditional parties over the past decade (Democratic Center, Social Party of National Unity, Alternative Democratic Pole, Green Party). In the 2014 presidential race, the UP achieved an electoral alliance with the leftist Alternative Democratic Pole Party, which put forward UP candidate Aida Avella as its vice-presidential nominee, and in last year’s municipal elections, Avella ran an unsuccessful bid for a council seat in Bogotá.

Despite active involvement in politics, UP party members continue to face persecution. They have endured repeated armed attacks and death threats by actors on both the extreme right and left, including an ELN attack on Avella in 2014 and a grenade attack on a private UP gathering in Cartagena just last month. These events remind the FARC and Colombian government alike of the colossal task of ensuring protection for demobilized extra-legal fighters. Criminal bands, such as the Urabeños, have historically competed with the FARC for territorial control and political influence and represent a post-conflict threat to demobilized insurgents. President Santos has charged a specially designed security force called the National Protection Unit with providing for the security of the 30,000 or so FARC guerrillas and sympathizers who are expected to disarm and enter into the legal political life of the country. The U.S. government has additionally vowed to make assistance funds available for this expressed purpose. Even so, the annihilation of the UP serves as a perennial reminder of the vulnerability of reintegrated ex-combatants and the indispensability of robust guarantees for their physical security. Protective measures will only be effective to the extent that the Colombian government also targets and dismantles the FARC’s main illegal armed opponents—a principal failure of the UP’s doomed DDR attempt.

A Spirit of Compromise: The M-19’s Peaceful Path to Political Power

Contrary to the UP’s experience, the M-19 guerrilla group’s DDR process by and large succeeded as an integration effort, offering the FARC a model for the organization’s transition to post conflict. Roughly at the same time that the Betancur administration had achieved a ceasefire with the FARC, the Colombian government engaged in simultaneous peace discussions with other actors in the country’s constellation of leftist armed groups, including the populist-nationalist M-19 movement. Despite years of advances and setbacks in dialoguing with the M-19, the newly elected President Virgilio Barco Vargas kept open lines of communication with the socialist-inspired group, which above all contested political exclusion from Colombia’s customary two-party system. In an act of good faith, President Barco made anti-poverty efforts and political opening top priorities, even introducing an abortive constitutional reform proposal to Congress in 1988 that would have ceded political space to non-traditional parties. Whereas the FARC’s disastrous experiment with the UP hardened the group’s stance against negotiated settlement with the otherwise amenable Barco government, the M-19 recognized Barco’s posture as a bona fide opportunity for political inclusion. The M-19 cautiously formalized peace negotiations in September 1989, and the following year the group’s leadership signed an agreement with the government that outlined the stipulations of DDR and the formation of the M-19 Democratic Alliance political party.

In response to early assassinations of some of the party’s demobilized members, the government authorized a relatively efficacious plan that permitted M-19 Democratic Alliance candidates to employ their former guerrilla colleagues as private security guards. The new party made unprecedented inroads in the 1990 electoral contest, particularly at the municipal level. Indeed, party leader Antonio Navarro Wolff placed third in the 1990 presidential election and became one of three convening presidents of the 1991 National Constituent Assembly, which made good on the Barco administration’s promise to modernize Colombia’s 1886 Constitution. Although the M-19 Democratic Alliance party is no longer active today, many of its leaders, including former Governor and now Senator Wolff, continue to participate in politics as members of the progressive Alternative Democratic Pole party.

Senator Wolff and former Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro—both former M-19 militants—have reached the highest levels of elected office in Colombia and embody the M-19’s complete inclusion in Colombian politics. They also represent the possibilities that await FARC leadership at the culmination of a DDR process. However, central to the M-19’s successful DDR were amnesty and political reconciliation—the most controversial yet vital elements of the current peace process with the FARC. Specifically, the M-19 benefitted from a legal framework that authorized pardons, amnesty, and the creation of a political party. The Colombian government pardoned senior M-19 members—charged primarily with the political crime of rebellion and associated offenses such as arms-trafficking—as a requisite for disarmament and the group’s political participation. In addition, the Ministry of Justice extended amnesty to the M-19, which put a permanent end to investigations and prosecutions of the organization’s rank and file. While the M-19 DDR process denied the delivery of justice for many crimes, broad societal consensus preferred peace to continued hostilities; M-19 members, convinced of the righteousness of their cause, would have refused terms of surrender that did not forgive their crimes.[iv] Amnesty was the condition that facilitated political reconciliation and integration.

The current terms of negotiation with the FARC indicate that similar mechanisms will allow individual insurgents to evade prison sentences for political crimes, as is common in DDR processes worldwide. The FARC’s lead negotiator Iván Márquez has repeatedly insisted that the insurgency will not demobilize if its members will be sent to prison, and the government has agreed to apply selective pardons and amnesty once the FARC completely disarms. Still, the current political climate is less amenable to blanket amnesty for the FARC, which has over the past decade and a half garnered little sympathy among the Colombian populace.[v] In fact, the Colombian government and international community alike have branded the guerrilla group a narco-trafficking and terrorist organization. Moreover, as party to the Rome Statute, Colombia is bound to uphold its diplomatic obligations to the International Criminal Court, which exclude collective amnesty protections for individuals accused of crimes against humanity and war crimes, such as torture, kidnapping, forced disappearances, and the recruitment of minors.  

The Santos administration and the FARC have devised a transitional justice paradigm that imposes requirements for community service on demobilized fighters who comply with the terms of the peace accord and testify honestly about their crimes before a truth commission that will be created as part of the eventual agreement. Individuals who admit to crimes against humanity will face an additional five to eight years of “restricted liberty” but will not serve prison sentences. FARC members will be eligible to run for elected office at the conclusion of their service requirements and rehabilitation. This compromise, which has been among the most difficult to secure over the three years of dialogue, is intended to cajole the FARC into demobilization while satisfying international and victims’ demands for punitive justice.[vi] Some victims of the FARC’s illegality, however, have discounted the agreement as too favorable for the insurgents. The fate of this innovative strategy will ultimately depend on congressional ratification and approval by a popular referendum—a questionable prospect as Colombian voters grow increasingly weary of the talks.[vii] Nonetheless, the spirit of compromise that informed the successful DDR of the M-19, to include amnesty and political reconciliation, serves as a salient precedent and reminder for a Colombian public that desperately hopes to turn the page on more than 50 years of conflict with the FARC.

Unfinished Business: The AUC’s Incomplete Reintegration

While the UP and M-19 DDR processes offer valuable lessons for reincorporating armed political actors into the democratic fold, the most recent collective DDR program in Colombia—that of the AUC paramilitary group which occurred from 2002 to 2006—reveals some of the more practical obstacles faced by demobilized armed actors in a modern post-conflict scenario. The AUC, originally organized in 1997 as an umbrella federation of self-defense forces raised by landowners and drug traffickers, lacked a coherent political mission from its inception. The AUC represented above all the protection of the privileges of the landed elite, who for decades endured routine attacks, kidnappings, and theft of livestock by leftist guerrillas. As illegal armed groups of all political persuasions in Colombia gradually became involved in the profitable drug trade throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the paramilitaries adopted a more offensive posture against their principal competitors, to include the FARC and ELN, with the aim of monopolizing the country’s most important drug crops and trafficking routes.

By 2000, the AUC had transformed from an ad hoc collection of right-wing private armies into Colombia’s largest drug-trafficking organization. The AUC’s principal leaders, many of whom were sought by authorities for their involvement in massacres and kidnappings and appeared on U.S. extradition requests, ranked among the wealthiest criminals in Latin America. Accordingly, when the AUC began to discuss a collective DDR process with the administration of President Álvaro Uribe, serious talk of political integration, which had been so essential to the UP’s and M-19’s demobilizations, was glaringly absent from the dialogue.[viii]

Like the country’s other illegal armed actors, though, AUC members who voluntarily participated in DDR received amnesty from all criminal investigation, prosecution, and conviction, save for egregious human rights abuses. The AUC’s agreement did not include specific provisions for reinsertion of ex-combatants and only nebulously stipulated that the government commit to a comprehensive reincorporation regime. Since 1997, Colombian law has guaranteed legal benefits and social protections such as health care and economic support to demobilized combatants from all illegal armed groups. Yet when some 32,000 paramilitary fighters and collaborators ultimately demobilized under a collection of ceasefire and DDR laws, the Colombian government was woefully unprepared to provide for the social and economic integration of the AUC’s ex-combatant population.[ix]

Securing meaningful post-conflict employment for demobilized paramilitary fighters was one of the Uribe administration’s most significant hurdles. The Colombian government sponsored initiatives to involve ex-AUC fighters in productive projects, such as small businesses and cooperatives, but these efforts have proven largely unsustainable due to a lack of access to credit, insufficient management acumen, and indifference on the part of the private sector.[x] Vocational and educational training programs, intended to level the playing field for the thousands of ex-combatants who never completed secondary education, have also failed to prepare them for competition in an increasingly technical and specialized economy. Likewise, demobilized AUC fighters represent a stigmatized labor force that few in the private sector are willing to hire. Ex-combatants rarely possess the qualifications required for available employment opportunities, and in a low-demand labor market employers prefer to contract law-abiding citizens without violent pasts.[xi] Consequently, thousands of ex-AUC members, incapable of reinsertion, turned back to what they knew best: violence and illegal economies. In the absence of a social and economic safety net, ex-paramilitary fighters regrouped and formed criminal bands dedicated to the production and export of drugs and other contraband, extortion, and human trafficking. Today Colombian authorities estimate that some 17 drug gangs with a total membership of roughly 3,500 members have become the country’s principal narco-trafficking threat.[xii] Thousands of ex-AUC combatants are among those who have been arrested or killed in operations against these newly formed criminal bands, confirming the inadequacy of government efforts to reinsert demobilized fighters into Colombian society.[xiii]

The Santos administration runs the same risk in demobilizing the FARC’s 7,000 guerrilla fighters, many of whom dropped out of school to join the FARC as children, have spent years in remote parts of the country, and are emotionally and practically unprepared for the mundane tasks of a non-combatant lifestyle. The government has promised a robust reinsertion program that includes psychological treatment and vocational training. Unlike with the AUC DDR, Santos has also solicited the support of the private sector in generating employment for ex-FARC fighters.

Be that as it may, the FARC remains one of the principal criminal outfits in Colombia. Guerrilla fighters participate in every stage of the production and transfer of cocaine out of the country. Drug trafficking has been a principal source of revenue for the organization since the 1980s, and although the FARC renounced involvement in the drug trade in 2014, the past three years have shown steady increases in the nation’s coca output, particularly in regions where major FARC fronts operate.[xiv] Once disarmament occurs, guerrilla fighters who return to a life of illegality will no longer be considered political actors and will be subject to legal treatment as organized and common criminals. Even with the FARC’s full compliance with DDR, it is still likely that violence will increase as Colombia’s criminal underworld vies for control of the lucrative and illicit industries currently operated by the guerrillas. The Colombian security forces, in concert with the United Nations (UN), are presently crafting a transition plan for geographic regions where the FARC’s absence would leave behind a security vacuum and limited economic options; a prudent scheme will include at a minimum a large police presence, development projects, drug crop substitution initiatives, and a landmine clearance program. Nevertheless, the AUC’s incomplete DDR process is a recent portent of what awaits Colombia should social and economic inclusion of the FARC not be made an essential priority of the guerrilla’s reinsertion.

An Imperfect Peace and an Uncertain Future

Although each of Colombia’s DDR efforts over the past 30 years has been a reflection of the unique security and political context in which it occurred, the DDR campaigns of the UP, M-19, and AUC hold valuable lessons for the Colombian government’s current peace process with the FARC. Most prominently, post conflict in Colombia will require extensive guarantees of physical security, political reconciliation, and social and economic inclusion for demobilized FARC members. These considerations have gained momentum in recent weeks, as President Santos has suggested in repeated public appearances that the Havana-based peace talks have entered their “final phase.” On June 23, the government finally conceded to a bilateral ceasefire, and the FARC’s top commanders have expressed a rare eagerness to push forward with the peace agenda, too. They recognize that this is likely their last opportunity for a negotiated solution to the conflict. Given the group’s diminished ability to launch military offensives against the security forces, its obsolete political model, and the negligible clout the FARC has with the broader Colombian public, it is hard to imagine that future Colombian presidential administrations would be willing to offer it more favorable terms of peace. The UN, which will sponsor a DDR verification mission, has further reassured the FARC by identifying concentration zones throughout the country where insurgents will disarm and safely reside for a time while commencing a comprehensive reintegration process.

To date, the government’s and guerrillas’ negotiating teams have reached significant agreements on the themes of political participation, reparations for the conflict’s victims, rural land use, illicit drugs, and transitional justice. Debate surrounding the mechanics of disarmament and a bilateral ceasefire is still ongoing but shows promise of being resolved in the coming months. At that stage, the Colombian electorate will weigh in on the agreements and decide whether or not to ratify the DDR plan in a plebiscite. Santos, who has staked his legacy on peace with the FARC, is optimistic that he will garner the public support he needs to consolidate the achievements of the talks. A May 2016 poll indicates that 61% of Colombians would vote in favor of peace in the referendum.[xv]

Still, Santos, whose post-conflict vision has received endorsements and financial support from the U.S. government and the European Union, is conscious that his political window to push through with the historic deal is coming to a close. As he approaches the twilight of his presidential term, opposition politicians have already begun to ready their campaigns for the 2018 presidential and legislative races by rallying their constituents against the peace dialogue. Although the talks enjoy overwhelming support from the majority of Colombia’s political parties, the kidnapping of three journalists in May by ELN guerrillas has soured the national mood and tried the country’s patience with the antics of the armed left. Some of Colombia’s most powerful voices oppose elements of the negotiations with the FARC. Former President Andrés Pastrana, who attempted peace talks with the FARC from 1998 to 2002, published a scathing critique of the current government’s transitional justice model, discounting the creation of a special justice tribunal for the FARC as both unconstitutional and undemocratic.[xvi] Uribe, who served as president from 2002 to 2010, has also openly contested the concessions made by the Santos administration. Last week, he launched a national “civil resistance” movement and signature-gathering campaign to oppose the perceived impunity of the transitional justice scheme and the prospect of political eligibility for demobilized insurgents.

Furthermore, a global drop in oil prices has slowed Colombia’s commodities-based economy and limited the resources that the government needs to invest in security and development for regions of the country currently under the FARC’s influence. Economic hardship will only exacerbate the slow implementation of the peace accords, which will undoubtedly fall in part to a successor government that may not be fully on board with Santos’ plan. Likewise, it will be up to the FARC’s leadership to convince the group’s rank and file that a brighter future lies on the other side of disarmament. Abandoning the drug trade and the camaraderie of guerrilla life will require a generous leap of faith for thousands of FARC insurgents.

In short, Colombia’s long road to peace with the FARC, nearly four years in the making, has only just begun. Even if the accords pass popular muster, the political will to make good on the promises of negotiation and to implement fully the terms of DDR will be the true test for the Colombian government and the FARC—and for Colombia’s long-elusive peace.

End Notes

[i] Alberto Pinzón Sánchez, “What’s Gone Wrong with Past Colombian Peace Processes?” Justice for Colombia: For Peace and Social Justice in Colombia, August 30, 2012,'s-Gone-Wrong-With-Past-Colombian-Peace-Processes (accessed June 02, 2016).

[ii] “El saldo rojo de la Unión Patrótica,” Verdad Abierta, (accessed June 1, 2016).

[iii] Steven Dudley, Walking Ghosts: Murder and Guerrilla Politics in Colombia (New York: Routledge, 2003), p. 86.

[iv] Mauricio García Durán, Vera Grabe Loewenherz, and Otty Patiño Hormaza, “The M-19’s Journey from Armed Struggle to Democratic Politics,” Berghof Transitions Series: Resistance/Liberation Movements and Transition Politics, Berghoff Research Center for Constructive Conflict Management, 2008, pp. 23-27, (accessed May 28, 2016).

[v] Gustavo Alvira Gomez, “Political crimes and amnesty: Getting to peace and reconciliation in Colombia,” Latin America Goes Global, March 7, 2016, (accessed June 1, 2016).

[vi] Stephen Gill, “Amnesty International slams Colombia transitional justice deal,” Colombia Reports, February 24, 2016, (accessed May 20, 2016).

[vii] “Se desploma la popularidad de Santos y el apoyo al proceso de paz,” Univision, May 5, 2016, (accessed June 3, 2016).

[viii] Pablo Medina Uribe, “Explainer: After the FARC, Colombia Still Has to Face Bacrim,” Americas Society/Council of the Americas, January 6, 2016. Accessed May 20, 2016.

[ix] “Colombia: The Justice and Peace Law,” The Center for Justice and Accountability, (accessed June 1, 2016).

[x] Sergio Jaramillo, Yaneth Giha, and Paula Torres, “Transitional Justice and DDR: The Case of Colombia,” International Center for Transitional Justice, 2009, p. 20, (accessed May 28, 2016).

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] “XI informe de presencia de grupos narcoparamilitaries en 2014,” Instituto de Estudios para el Desarrollo y la Paz, November 2015, (accessed June 7, 2016). Ed Buckley, “Colombia’s next front: Organized armed groups,” The City Paper Bogotá, May 18, 2016, (accessed May 20, 2016).

[xiii] Jaramillo, et al., p. 24.

[xiv] Nick Miroff, “Colombia is again the world’s top coca producer. Here’s why that’s a blow to the U.S.,” The Washington Post, November 10, 2015, (accessed May 20, 2016).

[xv] “Crece apoyo al plebiscite para refendar acuerdo de paz, según encuesta,” Minuto30, May 26, 2016, (accessed June 7, 2016).

[xvi] Andrés Pastrana, “Se entregó el país en 72 horas,” El Tiempo, February 28, 2016, (accessed June 1, 2016). “Expresidente Uribe expresó sus críticas sobre el proceso de paz a Kofi Annan,” Noticias RCN, February 24, 2015, (accessed June 3, 2016).


Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Paul Angelo is an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis and received a Master of Philosophy in Latin American Studies at the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. During a nine-year career as a U.S. naval officer, he deployed three times to Colombia in support of Plan Colombia programs and taught Latin American history and politics courses at the U.S. Naval Academy. He currently resides in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where he researches crime and violence prevention strategies. The views presented in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the positions of the U.S. government or the Council on Foreign Relations.