Preparing for Peace in Colombia: An Economic and Security Imperative for the United States

With the reelection of President Juan Manuel Santos, it is likely that Colombia’s peace talks will conclude in the next calendar year. After nearly 50 years of armed conflict, Santos may finally reach an agreement with the leftist insurgent group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). As Colombia’s largest bilateral provider of economic and security assistance, the United States has played a significant role in getting Colombia to where it is today: a growing economy looking toward peace in the near future. Much of this success is due to Plan Colombia, the joint effort of the U.S. and Colombian governments that began in 2000 to address the country’s security issues. In order to ensure a thriving post-conflict Colombia, the United States will need to commit to a sustained engagement for three to five years following the completion of the Peace Accords. Though the benefits of peace for Colombia and its neighbors are clear, peace in Colombia will also provide significant economic and security dividends for the United States and other countries in the region.

Santos’s victory demonstrates that Colombians are dedicated to the peace process and the reconciliation efforts that must follow. In order for successful negotiations to bear fruit, significant commitments for financial, diplomatic, and technical support will be required on the part of the U.S. government, multilateral organizations, bilateral partners, and the Colombian government. Though the peace process is still under way, there are steps that the United States and others can take now in order to prepare for the rebuilding of the Colombian sociopolitical and economic systems. Fortunately, there are a number of past agreements, both in Central America and elsewhere, that provide insight into the necessary steps for bilateral donors and other actors to promote prosperity and security in a newly peaceful Colombia.

When speaking of Colombia’s future, it is vital to acknowledge the strong and increasing capacity of Colombians and their government. The Colombian economy is growing and holds an investment grade of BBB with a stable outlook, according to Standard & Poor’s. Many Colombians and outside experts agree that Colombia is well positioned to finance its own programs and manage its own risk going forward. Strategic engagement on the part of bilateral donors and multilateral development banks will be necessary to support reforms and build technical capacity, rather than to provide additional funding. Colombia provided the majority of the funding for Plan Colombia, and a similar level of commitment will be necessary going forward. Solutions should, in short, be led by Colombians themselves, with donors playing a facilitative role.

The most controversial article of the peace accords is arguably also the one most pivotal to the agreement’s success: the reintegration of the FARC into Colombian society and politics. As with any country involved in violent civil conflict, many Colombians want FARC members to be held accountable for their perpetration of violent crime, worrying that ex-combatants will be rewarded for their bad behavior as soon as they agree to drop arms, with completing the peace process taking precedence over justice for victims. The FARC, on the other hand, largely see their full reintegration into Colombian society and politics as pivotal to the success of their own agenda in the negotiations. This balance among justice, peace, and reintegration is fragile at best—and whatever the outcome, there will likely be many in the country that see the post-conflict political landscape unpalatable after decades of violence.

There are additional challenges to establishing this balance, mainly within the justice system itself. Colombia will operate under international law throughout the peace negotiations and implementation, under which amnesty is illegal. Transitional justice, therefore, must be established, but there will be difficulties defining the characteristics of that justice. Colombia currently lacks a plan to deal with this and other legal challenges standing in the way of peace, justice, and reintegration.

Aside from reintegration and reconciliation efforts, disarmament itself will continue to provide a significant challenge to peace. Due to the long-standing nature of Colombia’s conflict, many individuals involved on both sides are second-generation fighters. Disarmament will likely prove extremely difficult, as many guerrillas have never known life outside of war and may not initially see the benefits of giving up their arms—particularly given that the FARC leaders negotiating in Havana cannot guarantee that peripheral members throughout the country will in fact abide by whatever agreement is reached.

Following the peace process, the United States must avoid a disjointed, piecemeal assistance approach. As issues of peace, justice, demilitarization, and economic opportunity are extremely interdependent, the U.S. approach to helping Colombia sustain peace must be strategic and account for cross-sectoral challenges. While Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs funding from the State Department remains essential to peace, it should be built into a holistic program. The United States and others also risk “donor fatigue” right at the moment when a sustained effort is necessary. This occurred during the peace process in El Salvador, unfortunately, as many in Washington turned away from the country’s post-conflict issues prior to their resolution. Therefore, obtaining early conceptual budget commitments is crucial in order to ensure sustained and effective commitment over the three to five years following the conclusion of the Peace Accords.

A second Plan Colombia, led by Colombians and supported by external actors, should focus on three main areas:

  • First, create effective democratic institutions and processes at a local level, with a particular emphasis on weakly governed rural areas and municipalities. These areas are most likely to continue to experience violence even following official demobilization. An emphasis must be placed on building institutions at the local level, as well as improving weak links between Bogotá and municipalities that hinder the implementation of national reforms.
  • Second, there must be a reconciliation and integration process for victims, ex-combatants, Afro-Colombians, and marginalized indigenous people that balances the need for integration of ex-combatants and justice for victims of their crimes. Solutions will need to reinforce both political and economic reintegration, while recognizing that Colombia has an already-overstretched judicial system. Integration programs must include private-sector efforts that will create opportunities for demobilized soldiers.
  • Third, there must be a plan for inclusive rural economic development and economic growth. This plan will need to address land tenure issues affecting indigenous farmers and how to, more broadly, integrate Colombia’s agricultural sector into the nation’s larger economy. Land tenure, as in many other nations around the world, is a significant issue for Colombia that does not have a clear solution moving forward.

The United States has invested nearly US$10 billion in Colombia. In order to ensure long-term benefits, both for Colombians and Americans alike, it is time for the U.S. government to fully support a final push for peace. Efforts to plan and implement reforms must be led by Colombians themselves, for efforts will be futile if lacking necessary political will. At the same time, targeted U.S. assistance will pave the way for regional and global security and economic benefits for decades to come. This opportunity cannot be ignored.

Carl Meacham is director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Daniel Runde is director of the CSIS Project on Prosperity and Development and holds the Schreyer Chair in Global Analysis.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2014 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.


Daniel F. Runde
Senior Vice President; William A. Schreyer Chair; Director, Project on Prosperity and Development

Carl Meacham