Peace process under strain as Colombia gears up for election

Colombia’s peace agreement has not led to the immediate prosperity many in the country were hoping for. Violence is still common, the economy is lagging, and refugees from neighboring Venezuela are flooding into the country.

Areas vulnerable to violence, post-conflict Colombia's peace agreement
Implementation of Colombia’s peace agreement has been slow going, and many regions still suffer from high levels of violence. © macpixxel for GIS

In a nutshell

  • Slow progress in implementing Colombia’s peace deal has led to dissatisfaction
  • Recent elections gave an edge to those who oppose the agreement
  • The economy is improving, but violence and inequality are rife
  • Colombians might elect a president who changes the peace agreement

This is an election year for Colombia, as it is for half a dozen other countries in the region – Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Paraguay and even Venezuela. Colombians went to the polls on March 11 to vote for Congress and will do so again in May for the first round of presidential elections. (It is virtually assured there will be a second round, in June.) Who wins the presidency will determine whether the peace process, begun in November 2016, will move forward (and how fast), stall or fall apart. At this point, it is hard to tell what sort of country Colombians want. It is as if the achievement of peace after years of negotiations has left the public stunned.

Over the past year, the peace agreement has produced some unexpected results. A growing majority of Colombians do not like the terms of the deal or the way things are going in the country.

Expectations were unrealistically high. Many thought that the very idea of peace after two generations of constant internal war would solve all the country’s problems. The latest public opinion polls indicate that support for President Juan Manuel Santos has fallen to 14 percent, while 69 percent of those polled think the situation in the country is getting worse.

The state has proven unable to put the agreement into operation, which has had a powerful impact on the public. Whether due to bureaucratic incompetence, opposition in Congress or lack of political will, the terms of the deal – except for the disarmament of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) combatants, which was supervised by the United Nations Verification Mission – have scarcely moved ahead.

The government has proven unable to put the peace agreement into operation.

These failures have made many nervous. Until recently, the view among most Colombians and outside observers was that things were moving in the right direction, despite slow progress and a flawed process. While a large majority of the public is uncomfortable, only a tiny minority on the far right wants to go back to war against the guerrillas and bar them from civil society.


The failure to consolidate the peace process will have important consequences in the presidential campaign over the next few months. It has opened a niche for the hard right, led by former President Alvaro Uribe, to claim that it will save the country and that Mr. Santos has been too soft on the guerrillas. In the March 11 congressional elections, Mr. Uribe’s Democratic Center party significantly improved its result, while FARC (now a political party) garnered just 0.5 percent of the vote. Parties on the conservative side won more seats (though none won a majority) at the expense of those on the left. In two separate primaries, Ivan Duque prevailed among conservative voters and Gustavo Petro overwhelmingly won the moderate or left-leaning vote. These two candidates will probably be the leaders to form coalitions in the coming presidential elections. At the same time, the former mayor of Medellin, Sergio Fajardo, and former Vice President German Vargas Lleras cannot be counted out because of their support among the traditional parties.

Political control in the more rural areas of the country is held by local barons.

Over the past decade, the country’s major cities – Bogota, Cali and Medellin – have become something akin to islands of good governance. These urban areas have made dramatic progress in public transportation, regulatory frameworks for development, and social programs to deal with the less privileged segments of the population. These success stories have produced municipal leaders who have tried, so far in vain, to make the leap to national politics.

By contrast, political control in the more rural areas of the country is held by local barons – caudillos in Spanish. They are usually landowners, who have little or no interest in progressive policies and who control the areas’ representatives in the national legislature. In a few cases, generally in the southeast of the country, huge areas are under the control of organized crime groups in league with drug cartels, abetted (or at least tolerated) by the landowners.


Most estimates for this year have Colombia’s gross domestic product (GDP) growing by 2.9 percent, a significant acceleration from the 1.7 percent recorded in 2017. This optimistic forecast is based on inflation slowing to nearly 3 percent and a radical decline in both the fiscal deficit and the public debt. Faster growth, according to these estimates, will come from robust consumer spending, a peace dividend and rising investment. The last should provide a stimulus for industrial activity, which has been lagging for the past three years, and for oil and gas production. The energy sector, especially the large, newly discovered shale deposits, is attracting international investment, which will continue as long as the price of oil stays above $60 per barrel. Unemployment has come down, while tax receipts have risen due to an increase in the value-added tax (VAT).

Meanwhile, agricultural exports continue to grow, while the service and financial sectors are enjoying modest expansion. Ongoing structural reforms should help efforts to diversify the economy and boost the country’s competitiveness.


Facts & figures

Colombia: economic data

Colombia: economic data Colombia's peace agreement
Colombia’s economy has continued to grow, although a plunge in the currency against the U.S. dollar has hurt export earnings, especially in the oil and mining sector. © macpixxel for GIS

Exports of petroleum and minerals

Exports of petroleum and minerals
The drop in oil prices in 2014 was a huge blow to Colombia’s economy. © macpixxel for GIS

Exports by sector (% of total)

Exports by sector
The industrial sector is resurging, while the mining sector is still recovering. © macpixxel for GIS

Exports vs. imports (USD millions)

Exports vs. imports
Imports have surpassed exports, putting strain on government finances. © macpixxel for GIS

Problems remain. Industrial production and exports have lagged, partly because of inefficiencies in the regulatory regime. The government has been very slow in implementing reforms proposed in 2016 as part of Colombia’s application to join the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Imports continue to outpace exports, putting pressure on government debt.

The declining inflation rate and improvements in industrial investment should help, as would increasing exports of oil and gas. The value of those exports plunged after oil prices collapsed in 2014, but should rebound as oil prices recover, though perhaps less than the government and multilateral agencies expect. Former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gave Colombia’s economic progress a small boost when he declared support for the country’s membership application to the OECD.


Despite the peace accords and FARC’s demobilization, the level of violence remains disturbingly high. Security is the population’s number one preoccupation, overshadowing any other concern. Over the past year there have been nearly 100 assassinations of social activists, journalists and former FARC combatants. This violence is associated with the activity of organized crime groups, known as BACRIM, as well as FARC dissidents who have not disarmed and local paramilitary groups encroaching on formerly FARC-controlled areas. The National Liberation Army (ELN), a smaller armed group, continues to control portions of the country.

The state’s failure to reassert control over large parts of the country will make any reforms difficult to carry out.

All of these groups, in one way or another, have become associated with the drug cartels and the violence they perpetuate. To the dismay of the Colombian and U.S. governments, coca production in 2017 was at its highest in a decade. The state’s failure to reassert control over large parts of the country will make any reforms difficult to carry out. The stalled peace process will also help keep the level of violence high.


Facts & figures

Armed groups and coca cultivation in Colombia, 2017

Armed groups and coca cultivation in Colombia, 2017 Colombia's peace agreement
In 2017, coca cultivation was at its highest level in a decade. The drug trade fuels rebel groups and organized crime. © macpixxel for GIS

To compound these problems, the collapse of the state and society in Venezuela has pushed more than half a million of that country’s citizens across the border into Colombia. Tens of thousands more Venezuelans cross the border each day to buy food and medicine no longer available at home. Dealing with these migrants is a significant challenge, especially in the more remote stretches of the border.

This situation is being exploited by the drug cartels, which have established close alliances with corrupt elements of the Venezuelan military. The Colombian military, which has received billions of dollars from the U.S. to combat drug production and trade, appears unable to interdict the movement of drugs from Colombia into Venezuela or the illegal migration of people from Venezuela into Colombia. While former Secretary Tillerson indicated that the U.S would help Bogota deal with these issues, nothing has yet been done. President Santos has visited the border area and called upon all Colombians to avoid xenophobia and violence in dealing with the migrants.

Social issues

The failure to act on the land reform program written into the peace accords, together with the slow pace of dealing with the 6 million people displaced by the violence of the past decades, has exacerbated the problem of inequality in Colombia. It is already the most unequal country in Latin America after Brazil. Inequality weighs more heavily on rural areas than in the cities, particularly when it comes to indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. The excruciatingly slow pace of land restitution is probably the single most important irritant in the rural areas and the biggest obstacle to land reform.

Other critical issues include education and health-care reform. Both were part of President Santos’s agenda in his second term, but he and the congress could not agree on how to deal with them. Corruption is also a major concern. The pervasive abuse of the state for private gain and the illegal enrichment of elected officials is one of the principal causes of dissatisfaction. Corruption also affects access to education, health care and other public services. The need to deal with these social issues divides the presidential candidates. Those who follow Mr. Uribe and other conservative groups will seek to block social change, while the center-right and leftist parties insist that a transformation is needed in the countryside.


Facts & figures

Departments* of Colombia - open government index

Departments of Colombia – open government index
Pervasive corruption is a big reason for public dissatisfaction. © macpixxel for GIS


The most likely scenario is what we might call muddling through. The optimistic economic forecasts would play out and a candidate who accepts the peace process and is willing to attack the social issues would be elected president. This could be Mr. Fajardo or Mr. Vargas Lleras – but neither is likely to win in the first round. Mr. Duque would probably represent the right in a presidential runoff.

The better Colombia’s economy performs in the first two quarters of 2018, the more likely a moderate or progressive candidate will be able to form a coalition and win the presidency. Getting the ELN to stop bombing pipelines and the price of oil staying above $60 per barrel would be the two key factors in boosting the economy, even if the industrial sector cannot get out of the doldrums.

A less likely scenario is that the economy will stall in 2018, as reviving inflation gives consumers the jitters. This could allow one of the more conservative candidates to win the presidency – probably Mr. Duque, who wants to make changes to the peace agreement. Colombia would be thrown into disarray.

Either way, if Colombia does not improve its ability to implement reforms and regain control over large parts of the country, it will be difficult to advance the peace process. Violence will continue unabated, and the confidence of domestic and international investors will wither.

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