Security Intelligence & Analysis Service

A small majority of Colombians voted to reject a peace deal with FARC in a plebiscite on 2 October. The result means that the government cannot implement the current agreement and that FARC fighters will not begin the demobilisation process, which was scheduled to begin following the deal’s ratification. The result seems unlikely to trigger a resumption of armed confrontations between guerrillas and the military or FARC attacks in the coming days or weeks.

President Santos said last night that the bilateral ceasefire that began on 29 August is still in place, adding that he remains committed to reaching a peace deal that a majority of Colombians accept. FARC said that it ‘maintains its will for peace’. That almost all of its fighters have respected its unilateral ceasefire since July 2015 suggests that most will follow the wishes of the central command and that fighting will not resume in the near term.

However, any renegotiation will probably be difficult for both sides to achieve. In the coming months, we assess that the postponement of FARC demobilisation will increase the likelihood of clashes between the group’s fighters and other groups that have moved into its traditional territories. Such incidents seem particularly likely in Meta, Narino, Cauca, Choco, Antioquia and Cordoba departments.

A surprise result 

According to the official results published in Colombian and international media outlets, 50.2% of participants voted against the terms of the deal that the government and FARC representatives had signed in Cartagena on 26 September, around 60,000 more votes than those cast by people who backed the deal. The result went against most pre-referendum polls and our own predictions. Early last week, data published by Caracol Radio, a usually reliable Colombian news site, had given the campaign in favour of the deal a 20-point lead.

The campaign against the agreement – led by former president Alvaro Uribe – appears to have been more successful at mobilising its supporters than those in favour of the deal. At 38%, turnout was well above the 13% of the electorate necessary to make the result binding, but it was low. According to media reports, many people who voted against the deal were opposed to the perceived leniency of sentences for FARC fighters convicted of crimes. The result also reflected widespread distrust of FARC and opposition to them joining mainstream politics. Under the current deal, FARC representatives would have been granted seats in the congress and senate.

Efforts at renegotiation highly likely

The result does not seem to suggest that those opposed to the deal favour a resumption of the conflict. Even Senator Uribe has said that there should be protection for FARC fighters and that he is in favour of peace. But he argues that there should be ‘corrections’ to the deal, including that FARC leaders should serve time in prison, that they are barred from public office, and that the group pay reparations to its victims..

However, a renegotiation will be difficult to achieve. FARC has publicly maintained its commitment to peace. But well-placed sources in Colombia have told us that FARC is unlikely to want to re-enter potentially lengthy negotiations with the government. In addition, based on how long it took negotiators to reach an agreement on how to deliver justice for crimes committed during the conflict, we are doubtful that FARC will readily concede to the demands that Uribe has set out.

Armed confrontations in rural areas still likely

Since the start of FARC’s unilateral ceasefire July last year, the number of attacks by the group has fallen to levels not seen since the 1960s. Such adherence shows that most FARC fighters are willing to obey the wishes of their central command. The group’s hierarchical structure also means that this is unlikely to change in the coming weeks and months. We assess ELN – Colombia’s second largest guerrilla group – will continue to pose the most significant terrorist threat. For more on the prospect of talks with ELN, see B-30-09-16-CO.

However, the result of the plebiscite yesterday also puts most FARC fronts in limbo – they are stuck between demobilising and surviving in their current state of armed inaction. The longer any new negotiations last, the greater uncertainty among fighters about the source of their economic survival and the outcome of new talks is likely to become.

Most fronts will probably remain committed to demobilising. But in our judgement, continued uncertainty will probably encourage some to dissent from the peace process in the longer term. FARC’s first front, which operates in Guaviare department, said in July that it does not intend to observe the peace deal. Media reports have also suggested that other fighters have opted to join drug trafficking or guerrilla groups.

We also warn that the current situation will increase the likelihood of armed confrontations between competing armed groups in the coming months. As we noted last week, there is already evidence of ELN fighters moving into territories traditionally occupied by FARC. These include Meta, Narino, Cauca, Choco, Antioquia and Cordoba departments. With FARC fronts now highly likely to remain armed in their strongholds, encroachment by other groups is likely to result in bouts of violence.

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Image: Opponents to the peace deal/ Colombia/ Ariana Cubillos/ AP/ Press Association Images