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Why Colombia’s next president will have to hit the humanitarian ground running

‘We have seen an explosion in violence in recent years.’

Supporters of Gustavo Petro, a left-wing senator and ex-guerrilla, eye a brighter future at a campaign rally in Bogotá on 12 May. Daniela Díaz/TNH
Supporters of Gustavo Petro, a left-wing senator and ex-guerrilla, eye a brighter future at a campaign rally in Bogotá on 12 May.

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Helmut Ángulo lost his parents in 2000 at the height of the Colombian civil war, kidnapped and killed by rebel fighters. When the country signed a peace deal 16 years later, Ángulo vigorously opposed it. He wanted justice for his parents' deaths, and he wanted to find their remains so he could give them a proper funeral.

“When I went to try and find the bodies,” he said, “the prosecutor's office said they couldn’t help me. They wouldn’t even enter the region where it happened because it was so dangerous.”

That was when Ángulo asked ex-rebel fighters themselves for help. “At first, I hated them. I was just in so much pain,” he said. “But after some cruel insults on my part – I think I even threatened them – I noticed they were still listening. They really wanted to help me if they could.”

“‘The war was over,’ I realised. It was time to think of the future rather than the past. And really, now, five years later, when I think back on that day, I think we were all victims [of the war] – not just my parents, not just me, but also the rebels, and really all of Colombia. I strongly support the peace accord now, even if it often seems the government doesn’t.” 

On 19 June, Colombians head to the polls to choose their new president in a country whose politics remain overshadowed and polarised by efforts to bring a peaceful resolution to its 50-year civil war – for decades the world’s longest-running conflict.

The choice is stark and the stakes are high as Gustavo Petro, a left-wing senator and ex-guerrilla takes on Rodolfo Hernández, a construction magnate fighting a social media-driven campaign centred on anti-corruption despite facing his own graft investigation.

A year after at least 60 people were killed when police forces cracked down on protesters, the victor must decide how to tackle a cycle of violence and popular anger that has raged with varying levels of intensity since landmark peace accords officially ended the war in 2016. 

Camilo González Posso, director of peace monitoring group Indepaz, explained why the election is seen as so pivotal.

“In Colombia, we have seen an explosion in violence in recent years,” he told The New Humanitarian, referring not only to the rising power of criminal groups since the 2016 peace accords, but also to social violence, including 2021’s brutally suppressed street protests. 

“At the same time, peace has presented Colombia with a great opportunity. Alongside the humanitarian crisis, we also have a huge explosion of social movements with democratic aspirations. There is a revolution of awareness happening in Colombia.” 

But the winner of Sunday’s second round run-off election will inherit a country riven by renewed conflict, economically battered by the COVID-19 pandemic, and struggling to cope with the many humanitarian challenges the health crisis has exacerbated.

A crumbling peace process 

“To understand Colombia, you have to understand the civil war,” said Darwin Molina, a political organiser and activist in the port city of Buenaventura who tries to help local citizens from poor neighbourhoods get elected to political office. “It all ties back to that.”

In 2016, then-president Juan Manuel Santos pushed through a controversial agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), officially ending the war. Fighters from the leftist guerrilla group agreed to lay down weapons and rejoin civil society, while the government committed to offer them protection and invest in infrastructure, economic opportunities, and education in regions long neglected, including areas around Buenaventura where recent fighting between rival groups has forced tens of thousands to flee.

Violence initially subsided. But two years later, after campaigning to “modify” the peace deal, the new administration of Iván Duque imposed significant delays on its implementation and stonewalled on earlier promises, particularly investment in conflict areas.

When new armed groups or splinter groups moved into the vacuum left vacant by FARC, armed conflict resumed. The government has preferred military solutions to social strategies. As a result, many communities that were flashpoints during the civil war now feel abandoned.

Already facing historically low approval ratings, Duque’s Centro Democrático party was severely punished in March legislative elections. Term limits prevented Duque from running for a second term, and Centro Democrático chose not to present a candidate in 2022. Instead, it informally endorsed the coalition of former Medellín mayor Federico Gutiérrez, who was surprisingly eliminated in the first round of voting on 29 May.

Both remaining candidates have endorsed the 2016 peace deal and criticised the unpopular “Peace with Legality” plan of Duque’s administration, which has involved deadly military operations, including the bombing of children at rebel camps.

Colombian soldiers deploy near a the site of a car bombing in Saravena, Arauca on 20 January. Violence and conflict have been steadily growing in the region since 2018.
Joshua Collins/TNH
Colombian soldiers deploy near a the site of a car bombing in Saravena, Arauca on 20 January. Violence and conflict have been steadily growing in the region since 2018.

Hernández, the ex-mayor of Bucaramanga in the eastern department of Santander, had opposed the peace accord in 2016 but now views its full implementation as “the only way forward”. Billing himself as an outsider to the messy politics of the capital, Hernández has presented an anti-corruption platform, while running an ostensibly right-wing campaign that he has moderated in the final stretch. He has been critisised for xenophobic comments made towards Venezuelan migrants. 

His opponent, a former mayor of Bogotá and current senator, was a member of the M-19 guerrilla group in his youth. Petro has committed to re-implementing the peace plan, including a raft of economic and social investments in rural conflict zones where the poor have very few opportunities. He has also proposed new peace talks with any interested armed groups.

As a vice-presidential running mate, Petro chose Francia Márquez, a well-known Afro-Colombian environmental activist from the long-neglected Cauca region. Having worked and organised with communities in conflict zones for decades, she has given Petro’s ticket a considerable boost, bringing with her a coalition of grassroots activists and social organisations that have long distrusted “establishment politics”.

“I don’t have any faith in our political system,” Marilyn Machado, a sociologist and human rights activist in northern Cauca and longtime colleague of Márquez, told The New Humanitarian. “But I have faith in Francia. Her victories are our victories. And most importantly, she is a powerful symbol – a Black woman who has escaped the cycles of poverty society has forced so many of us into.”

Hernández, too, tapped an Afro-Colombian woman, Marelen Castillo, as his vice-presidential candidate, meaning that whichever candidates wins, an Afro-Colombian woman will hold the second-highest office in the country for the first time, departing from the legacy of high offices here being dominated by white men from wealthy families. But while the nomination of Afro-Colombian women to office may be a sign of progress, Márquez has faced numerous racist public attacks throughout the campaign.

Regaining the trust of Colombians in government efforts to implement the peace deal is another key factor in the election.

One of those who will need convincing is Fredy Dimate, a former FARC combatant who accepted the peace accord and now works for “Reencuentros”, an investigative team that searches for some of the 80,000 people who “disappeared” during the war. He fought under the nom de guerre “King Kong” in the conflict-ridden department of Cauca. 

Dimate feels the current government has betrayed his community. “This isn’t the deal we signed on to,” he said. “We were promised investments in the community. Instead, the vacuum left by the state has created new armed groups who impose a cycle of violence that the government has only tried to stop with more violence.”

Mounting violence and soaring displacement

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, 2021 was the most violent year for armed conflict in Colombia since the peace deal was signed. The ICRC has identified six separate ongoing armed conflicts in the country.

Between January and November, more than 72,000 new displacements  –  a near-tripling over the same period in 2020 – were reported by the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA. With some 5.2 million, Colombia ranks among the top countries globally for people internally displaced due to conflict.

Narco-trafficking, particularly of cocaine, has been a prime source of funding for many of the armed groups that fight amongst each other – and against the state – for control of smuggling routes and territory. Some have origins in Colombia’s civil war: either left-wing rebel groups or right-wing paramilitary organisations that fought on the side of the government.

After the 2016 agreement, when 90 percent of FARC combatants laid down their arms and joined civil society, “dissident” groups rejecting the pact, resumed recruitment.

The National Liberation Army (ELN), the main left-wing guerrilla group that wasn’t part of the 2016 deal, expanded its activities, effectively exerting control over 189 of Colombia’s 1,123 municipalities in 2022, a sharp rise from 136 in 2018, according to Indepaz. The government reached out to ELN for peace negotiations in 2003, and again in 2018, but talks were scuttled when ELN bombed a police station in Bogotá that same year, killing 21 people. 

The Gaitanista Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AGC), also known as the Clan del Golfo, has also expanded rapidly over the past six years. It now controls the most territory of any armed group in the country.

A “training and reintegration community” where former FARC rebels live and train in civilian professions in Tame, in the Arauca region, January 2022.
Joshua Collins/TNH
A “training and reintegration community” where former FARC rebels live and train in civilian professions in Tame, in the Arauca region, January 2022.

In early May, a show of force – announced by AGC after one of the group’s top leaders was extradited to the US – paralysed nearly a quarter of the country as the group forbade transport or economic activity for five days: a decree enforced at times at gunpoint. At least four civilians and three police officers were killed.

Chocó, on the northwestern coast, has suffered particularly high levels of conflict displacement. Colombia’s Ombudsman’s office estimates that up to 77 percent of its municipalities are at risk of further displacement due to ongoing fighting between the ELN and the AGC. Residents in these regions often lack economic opportunities due to lack of presence of the state or basic infrastructure. Many are forced into illegal work, often under threat from criminal groups. 

For humanitarians, reaching many of these victimised populations is a huge challenge. 

“Mines placed by armed groups, violence, displacements, sexual assaults, and kidnappings are rampant in conflict zones,” Luis Eguiluz, a spokesperson for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), told The New Humanitarian. “This creates considerable access difficulties for humanitarian organisations trying to address the needs of communities.”

Humanitarian access to the areas most in need of assistance has been especially restricted in recent months due to other curfews enforced by armed groups, as well as by the fighting between them.

Displacements from these conflicts have further increased demand on organisations like Save the Children, the Red Cross, and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), which operate food and healthcare programmes along the major migration routes. 

Power struggles between new armed groups in regions formerly controlled by FARC have further complicated the situation. “Disputed areas are more dangerous than when one armed group is clearly in control,” explained Eguiluz. “Unfortunately, some of the principal regions of conflict are also migration corridors.”

Lingering impacts of COVID

Roughly 50 percent of Colombia’s workforce is informally employed, and two years of harsh COVID-19 lockdowns have left the country reeling economically. Unemployment sky-rocketed during the height of the pandemic. Rates have since returned to February 2020 levels, but many workers are still recovering from extended periods with little or no work. 

As a result, poverty, at nearly 40 percent, having fallen only slightly since 2020, remains stubbornly high. It has risen 5 percentage points from before the pandemic, according to the most recent quarterly government survey. The highest rates of poverty were reported in conflict regions.

With the rise in poverty, food insecurity has also increased. Malnutrition affected 54 percent of children under six years of age at the end of 2021, while the percentage of families able to eat three meals a day dropped from 90 percent before the pandemic to 70.9 percent. The World Food Programme (WFP) reported recently that some 3.5 million Colombians were food insecure, with Indigenous populations among the hardest hit. In the northeastern department of Guajira, home to the Indigenous Wayuu population, more than 16,000 children suffered from malnutrition and large regions of the department lack potable water.

“Hunger in places like Guajira and Chocó is only likely to increase,” said Sergio Guzmán, director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a research consultancy group. “In the short term,” he explained, “because rising fuel prices and inflation are increasing the real cost of basic goods for already vulnerable communities; and in the long term especially in places like Guajira that have long suffered nutrition insecurity due to global warming.”

The NRC told The New Humanitarian in a written statement that it estimates that 10 million people in the country – almost one in five – are in need of some type of immediate humanitarian aid.

Growing migration risks in the borderlands

As the main destination for Venezuelan migration and also the principal transit country, Colombia saw migration flows slowing in 2021 amid signs of anaemic recovery in Venezuela. Migrants travelling through Colombia from other countries nonetheless increased drastically, particularly those pursuing a dangerous route through Panama known as the Darién Gap.

Many of the migration corridors run directly through some of the most conflict-ridden parts of Colombia, which are concentrated near border areas. 

Reports of xenophobia, particularly against Venezuelan migrants, increased dramatically in Colombia during the pandemic. Many Venezuelans who received a formalised status under a government initiative to grant them permanent residency still face considerable barriers to access health and education.

Duque’s administration officially welcomed migrants, but some politicians have attempted to capitalise on rising anti-migrant sentiment, stoking resentment.

Petro has pledged to largely continue the migration policies of the current government, but the ongoing conflict as well as expected higher numbers of migrants heading to the United States this year is likely to test the aid response.

Edited by Paula Dupraz-Dobias.

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