How the FARC-EP Got Gustavo Petro Elected in Colombia (OPINION)

Jul 13, 2022
3:50 PM

A police officer stands guard near a campaign sign for presidential candidate Gustavo Petro and his running mate Francia Marquez, with the Historical Pact coalition, ahead of elections in Bogota, Colombia, Wednesday, May 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

On November 24, 2016, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejercito del Pueblo (FARC-EP), a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla army, signed a peace agreement with the Colombian government, ending its 52-year war against the state.

Following the agreement, the former guerrillas of the FARC-EP took on the monumental task of running as an electoral party under the rebranded name of Comunes (Commoners). Despite acquiring two terms of 10 uncontested legislative seats via the peace agreement and organizing an impressive grassroots campaign, the former guerrillas failed to gain much traction as a political party, with most candidates receiving well under one percent of the vote.

This came as little surprise to everyday Colombians, who often associate the former guerrillas with the nation’s 70-plus-year-old affair with civil war, terrorism, and a very present “past” Colombians would like to leave behind. Instead of support, Comunes party members received constant death threats, suffered over 300 assassinations, and were the targets of persistent harassment campaigns by state authorities and right-wing paramilitary groups.

In light of this panorama and Comunes’ waning popularity as a political party, Colombia’s current president-elect, Gustavo Petro, managed to keep a safe distance from the party in the public eye, despite welcoming Comunes’ support in his center-left coalition, the Pacto Histórico (Historic Pact). Before this, one must ask, what good could possibly come from receiving the electoral support of former FARC-EP guerrillas? In terms of a vote count, not much. However, where the Comunes militants’ contribution may be put on full display is in its unwavering support of a peace accord that has yet to be honored by the Colombian state.

It is in this context of the FARC-EP’s adherence to the peace agreement that the state’s longstanding tendency to blame left-wing groups for much of the nation’s problems was trumped, thus pushing a peace-driven left-wing coalition to electoral success.

Gustavo Petro’s Electoral Win: The End of an Era?

On June 19, 2022, the former M-19 guerrilla member, mayor of Bogota, and senator, Gustavo Petro, was announced the winner of Colombia’s presidential election, garnering 50.4 percent of the vote, thus surpassing his contender, the former mayor of Bucaramanga, engineer, and construction tycoon, Rodolfo Hernández, who came in at a formidable 47.3 percent.

For many analysts, the election was an anomaly as it marked the first time a left-wing candidate had ever won the presidency in Colombia’s history. Others raved at how the traditional Uribista right was defeated in the first round of voting by a new “Trumpian,” right-wing “strongman” that garnered sympathy as a self-described outsider vowing to end what he called “robadera“—a colloquialism used to describe patterns of stealing within the public sphere.

Many analysts were quick to note that Petro’s campaign managed to tap into a longstanding political discontent that had hardened in protests that erupted during the summer of 2021, while others underscored how Hernández’s austere first-round campaign centered on social media was impressive but insufficient for offsetting the misogynistic and offensive commentary he made against women, prostitutes, and the Virgin Mary before the second round of voting. Yet, what many of these appreciations overlook is how both candidates were operating on a different political playing field: one where the FARC-EP —the largest armed non-state actor in the Colombian armed conflict— was absent.

Agrarian Repression and the FARC’s Origins

On September 27, 2016, the FARC-EP ended its 52-year-old war with the Colombian state by signing the Havana accords. The accord’s more important aspects lay in its development of a transitional justice process with a special justice tribunal, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP, in Spanish), how it gave former soldiers tools to “reincorporate” into society, and how it provided them the ability to run as a political party with ten uncontested seats in the national legislature for two consecutive terms, regardless of vote count.

More important, however, the agreement provided a legal scaffolding to attend to the Colombia’s seemingly endless cycles of agrarian violence and displacement carried out predominantly against the nation’s peasantry—people from which the FARC-EP drew its support.

Out of the ruins of the nation’s 10-year civil conflict, dubbed by many historians as “La Violencia” (1948-1958), emerged the FARC in a violence-ridden countryside. Upon its birth in 1964, the group of peasants-turned-guerrillas established a land reform program that aimed to challenge the hegemony of landed elites in the countryside along with a series of other political projects intended to nationalize production and redistribute much of the nation’s wealth. By organizing among peasants, the FARC went from a ragtag militia of a few dozen fighters to a formidable revolutionary army with thousands of soldiers —from the FARC to the FARC-EP— in a matter of a couple decades.

According to its former commanders, the FARC was able to maintain a presence in over 60 percent of the nation’s territory. However, while the FARC’s political strength was derived from its ability to resonate with a frontier peasantry that was subjected to decades of state and elite-led violence and displacement, its monetary strength came from its ability to receive rents from all productive activities under its domain—which included, among other things, taxes from coca, the base product for cocaine. It was in this context that the FARC-EP and the peasantry that once afforded it support became the targets of a myriad of erroneous claims comparing them to drug cartels, a charge that provided the state an excuse to blame the organization and its supporters for most of the nation’s problems.

While this claim took time to materialize, as peacebuilding organizations from the 1980s onward remained committed to solving the root causes of violence —including land concentration, land tenure, poverty, and inequality— much of Colombia’s political elites used false characterizations of the FARC-EP to justify investments made to exterminate groups that embodied the organization’s grievances but not necessarily its tactics. To these ends, right-wing paramilitary death squads were funded and armed by narco-trafficker and landed elites to assassinate agrarian, union, leftist, and Indigenous leaders—a trend that largely continues for a variety of reasons into the present.

Consequently, the dirty dynamics of war coupled with a latent aura of distrust also led the FARC-EP to commit atrocious crimes against humanity, thus contributing to the nation’s seemingly endless cycles of violence and displacement, or what Colombian sociologist Dario Fajardo would call cycles of “migration, colonization, and conflict.”

Yet, despite the horrors of war committed largely by the state, the fact that most of these atrocities occurred in Colombia’s countryside allowed for the nation’s urban dwellers to fall prey to elite-led propaganda about the FARC-EP, its supporters, and any other organization that embodied similar grievances. The combination of these factors provided right-wing state actors a reason to place blame for the nation’s problems on the FARC-EP and other left-wing armed and unarmed non-state actors, thus allowing them to evade accountability when faced with criticism.

More than just a way to circumvent critique, however, the state’s ability to launder blame to an abstract notion of what guerrilla groups allegedly stood for provided authorities with an ideological scaffold used to commit human rights abuses against social movement leaders through terrorist campaigns. Nevertheless, this scaffolding only began to break down when peace became a latent possibility, a reality that left political elites without a scapegoat to blame the nation’s problems on.

The Peace Accords: An Outlook Towards Peace?

Following years of peace talks under the Juan Manuel Santos administration (2010-2018) and the signing of the peace accord in 2016, Colombia was approaching real prospects for peace. With the FARC having agreed to disarm and abide by the stipulations of the accord, the agreement’s peacebuilders were hailed as heroes by the international community. To lend the accord more legitimacy, President Santos held a yes-no referendum on the accords in 2016. However, as peace itself represented a breaking of prior structures of institutional violence and the interests that said structures represented, a right-wing coalition headed by former president and right-wing demagogue Álvaro Uribe —hence, the Uribistas— went on to campaign against the agreement by capitalizing on a latent anti-FARC-EP sentiment socialized among people in the nation’s urban centers. In beating the “Yes” option by a thin margin of .43 percent, the Uribista coalition forced peacebuilders back to the drawing table for minor amendments before the peace agreement was signed again on November 24.

While the accord ultimately prevailed and the changes made to it were minute, it has yet to be implemented in its entirety, which has prompted many signees to take up arms once again. Further complicating the matter is the continued deployment of blame-laundering tactics by political elites under the current presidency of Iván Duque, with the most notorious targets being the ELN and other armed groups that emerged in the aftermath of dissent with the peace agreement.

Some scholars and commentators note that Venezuelan migrants have now taken the FARC-EP’s place in receiving the brunt of the blame for much of Colombia’s problems. Nevertheless, as targeted assassinations of social movement leaders have continued to increase since the signing of the accord —reaching levels as high as one leader a day— and attempts to blame dissidents for the bulk of social movement leader deaths proved unconvincing to the international community, the pressure on the Colombian state to abide by the accords began to increase as well, which ultimately lent legitimacy to Petro’s peace driven Pacto and his winning ticket in 2022.

All in all, the outcome of Colombia’s 2022 presidential election came from a very unorthodox place, with the most unlikely contenders winning the most votes. That said, what should be underscored even further about these candidacies is that each of the final two contenders distanced himself from warmongers on all sides of the political spectrum.

Whether it be Hernandez’s omission of traditional rhetoric made against leftist groups, or Petro’s call for the nation to distance itself from those that want to wage war, the candidates’ active evocation of peace reflects a Colombia that is changing and willing to discuss the continued grievances of the nation’s most vulnerable.


Jenaro Abraham is an Assistant Professor of Latin American Politics at Gonzaga University. Twitter: @JenaroAbraham