Picture of a pair of boots belonging to a FARC rebel in which he planted plants as a symbol of life and peace, displayed during an event by the civil society in Cali, Valle del Cauca departament, Colombia, on June 27, 2017, in support of the complete disarmament of the FARC and the end of Latin America's oldest armed guerrilla force. / AFP PHOTO / LUIS ROBAYO (Photo credit should read LUIS ROBAYO/AFP via Getty Images)

Picture of a pair of boots belonging to a FARC rebel in which he planted plants as a symbol of life and peace, displayed during an event by the civil society in Cali, Valle del Cauca departament, Colombia, on June 27, 2017, in support of the complete disarmament of the FARC and the end of Latin America's oldest armed guerrilla force. / AFP PHOTO / LUIS ROBAYO (Photo credit should read LUIS ROBAYO/AFP via Getty Images)

Colombia’s President Duque at a Crossroads

Colombia’s President Iván Duque is trying to stabilize the country’s marginalized, conflict-wracked regions while avoiding a full implementation of the 2016 Peace Agreement. The murder of social leaders underscores the limitations of the strategy.


  • Article
  • 17 Mar 2020
  • 12 min read


More than three years after the Peace Agreement between the Colombian state and the FARC guerrillas, Colombian President Iván Duque’s government is struggling with its policy of limiting what was agreed to in the agreement.

The biggest setbacks and problems so far do not come from the FARC, which became a political party (currently, with little electoral relevance and serious internal divisions), but from the differing politics of the government that signed it and the one now that must implement it.

After more than 50 years of internal conflict the Peace Agreement set out to address longstanding, structural issues in Colombia, including unequal land tenure, political participation, illicit crops and access to justice. Of course, it couldn’t solve all of these problems, but in including them the agreement sought to modernize Colombia and address many of the root causes to its endemic violence. 

As a result, the agreement created high – perhaps unrealistic – expectations for social change in a country historically hobbled by poverty and deep inequality, a huge gap between the urban and rural sectors, weak or incomplete state control over approximately 40% of the national territory, and serious problems with illicit financial flows, corruption, tax evasion, smuggling, violent organized crime and a huge informal economy.

Since 2016, two factors weakened the agreement’s implementation.  First was the rejection of the accord in the October 2016 referendum intended to provide popular endorsement of the agreement. Second was the victory in the legislative elections in June 2017 of the Democratic Centre, the right-wing party behind Iván Duque, led by senator and former president Alvaro Uribe, who has vigorously campaigned against the peace agreement. 

Opposition in his party

President Duque is currently navigating two irreconcilable political poles.  On the one hand, there is the president’s own party, the Democratic Centre and its constituency largely opposed to the peace agreement.  On the other are civil society, opposition members of Congress and the FARC that are demanding compliance with the peace deal promises struck in Havana. Meanwhile, the international community, including Norway, Sweden, Germany and the European Union (EU) which fund key elements of the agreement are becoming concerned over the obstacles and the slow pace of the government’s follow through in one of the few on-going peace agreements in the world.

Duque's government has a broad social and electoral base, but the President Duque’s popular approval has sunk to 23%. The extreme right feels he is not strong enough in pushing through state and fiscal reforms. Last year, the president failed to get Congress to pass a series of changes to the labour and pension system in the face of strikes and protests from opposition groups, labour unions and civil society. 

At the same time, the president’s Democratic Centre party criticizes him for not having eliminated the transitional justice courts (Special Jurisdiction for Peace) created by the Peace Agreement. More than 12,000 people have already testified before this special court, including former FARC guerrillas and members of the armed forces. In addition to concerns that the courts are too soft on perpetrators of criminal acts, many politicians and business people fear that as the trials drag on they could be implicated in past connections with paramilitary activities.

The conflict over land

The centre and the left believe that Duque is hindering the agreement, limiting it just to FARC disarmament and not addressing such key issues as access to land and illicit economies. Land tenure is at the root of almost all the violent conflicts that have occurred in Colombian history, generating illegal appropriations, forced displacement, confrontations between settlers and indigenous communities and complex legal controversies.

The negotiations in Havana produced a comprehensive approach to develop the marginalized territories (‘Territorial Peace’). But in practice, the point of the Peace Agreement on rural reform is the one that has made the least progress, according to the analysis of a group of Colombian congress members, led by the senator of the Green Alliance, Juanita Goebertus. Duque has substituted ‘Territorial Peace’ for ‘Peace and Legality’ and ‘stabilization’, centered on an expansion of the state authority and the rule of law.

The government argues that it does not have enough funds for the expectations created by Santos and the agreement. Still it is complying with the reincorporation mandate and is implementing the Development Plan with a Territorial Approach (PDETs) which encourages investments and development in those territories most excluded and affected by armed conflict.

A government priority is to implement a modern cadastre or register of the national territory, with financing from the World Bank.  According to official data, only 5.68% of the national territory has updated cadastral information and 28% of the national territory has no cadaster whatsoever.

The Peace Agreement also linked the reform of the rural sector with the voluntary substitution of illicit crops (Colombia is the world's leading producer of coca). According to the UN Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC), crop substitution had been producing positive results, responsible for a low level of replanting since 2016.

But the government, under strong pressure from the United States, now favours crop fumigation, claiming it does not have the funds to finance more voluntary substitution programmes. The Duque administration has recently canceled the contract with UNODC to follow up and assess the process.


To please his electorate and his party, Duque has limited the implementation of the Peace Agreement to disarming some 10,500 ex-FARC fighters, while obstructing and reducing the budget for transitional justice, and freezing the ‘National Plan for the Substitution of Illicit Crops’.

At the same time, Bogotá is preparing plans for a program of military and civilian operations to bring the government authority and operation to often state-less rural areas and to ‘disrupt the illicit economies.’  However, aside from combating criminal organizations, Dr Vanda Felbab-Brown, Brookings expert, says disrupting illegal economic activity will not be an easy task without a long-term plan providing infrastructure, crop substitution and access to the markets for the alternative goods.

More than 20 armed groups operate in the country, including the National Liberation Army (ELN), which combines its demands with criminal control of illicit economic activity, and the recruitment of 2,600 ex-FARC dissidents who have taken up arms again.

These groups fight the state and each other for control of territories and trafficking routes, especially near the borders. They engage in drug trafficking, illegal mining, bribery, kidnapping, migrant trafficking, and exploitation of natural resources. Many of these activities are internationalized and involve domination of the communities in the territories they control.

On the other side, the opposition criticizes the government approach to the peace deal, complaining that there is no political will to comply, that without leadership the bureaucratic inertia and inter-agency struggles will hamper implementation and that, based on previous experience, stabilization will only mean militarization.  Fully complying with the agreement, many in the opposition say, demands providing security and rule of law for all.  Moreover, for many the success of this agreement may well encourage the other guerrilla group, the ELN, to negotiate.

The victims

The main problem for the government is that having delayed or resisted implementing large parts of the Peace Agreement, several of the issues with which it deals are out of control.    

The murders of social leaders and former FARC combatants is exploding. More than 600 human rights defenders were killed while the agreement was being negotiated since 2012 under the presidency of Santos. While violence in general has decreased significantly in recent years, between 300 to 500 social activists and more than 100 former FARC fighters have been killed in the past three years.

Recently three human rights reports have raised this issue. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights criticized the government for not using the existing mechanisms of prevention and prosecution to guarantee the safety of social leaders. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) concluded ‘that all armed actors in Colombia do not respect the minimum rules of war’.

Michel Forst, UN Special Rapporteur says that among the various human rights defenders, those ‘most at risk are social leaders [who are] promoting the implementation of the Peace Agreement and defending land and environmental rights and the rights of ethnic communities against the interests of criminal groups, illegal armed groups and state and non-state actors, such as national and international corporations and other powerful interest groups’.

The government alleges that some of these UN recommendations are an ‘interference in national sovereignty’. Colombian legal scholar Rodrigo Uprimny reminded Duque that being part of the UN means receiving criticism to improve state compliance.

The government claims it is implementing a plan to protect the social leaders. However, critics argue that it is focused on physical protection but not on preventing and investigating who gives the orders to the hitmen and the possible complicity of economic and political sectors with criminal organizations.

Official foot-dragging on implementing the Peace Agreement reveals that the government may well lack a unified and alternative strategy aimed both at state-building and effectively tackling the violent opposition to integration, modernization and peace.  Only by doing so, however, will Colombia be able to address the socioeconomic, institutional and criminal roots of violence that have plagued the country.


About the author

Mariano Aguirre is an analyst on international politics, the former Senior Peacebuilding Advisor, at the UN’s Office of the Resident Coordinator in Colombia (2017-2019) and the former Director of the Norwegian Centre for Conflict Resolution (2016-2017).