Santrich was one of the FARC negotiators during the peace talks in Havana, Cuba [File:Franklin Reyes/AP Photo]
Bogota, Colombia – The arrest of a former top FARC commander last week has put an already fragile peace deal under further strain, but could help bolster the peace process in the long run, depending on how the charges are carried out, according to analysts.
The deal between the left-wing rebel groups Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the state, signed in late 2016, formally ended 52 years of conflict that had left an estimated 222,000 people dead and more than seven million displaced.
Despite having received near-universal praise on the international stage, domestically, Colombia‘s landmark peace accord has never received the same level of popularity.
Following delays in its implementation and corruption scandals, the process encountered another setback this week when Seuxis Hernandez, better known as Jesus Santrich, was charged by US courts and the Colombian general prosecutor with conspiracy to ship 10,000kg of cocaine – with a street value of $320m – to the United States.
According to analysts, the charges pose some serious issues for the peace accord by further damaging trust with the FARC, potentially frightening ex-rebels into joining dissident rebels and potentially swelling support for reversing an already unpopular agreement.
“This is a serious blow for the political standing of the FARC,” said Jorge Restrepo, director of the Conflict Analysis Institute, CERAC.
“They did not get more than 50,000 votes in the elections – [the arrest] shows there was reason in the majority of Colombians who did not trust them to abandon organised crime,” he added, referring to last month’s elections that saw the FARC participate as a political party for the first time.
A setback for trust in FARC?
With their history of drug-trafficking, kidnapping, extortion and massacres, building societal trust in the FARC was never going to be easy, analysts say.
A large sector of the population still doubts their ability to reform themselves from narco-criminals to ordinary citizens and despise the special judicial arrangements in the peace accord, which are perceived to let ex-rebels off easy for serious crimes they have committed such as kidnap, murder and drug-trafficking.
According to a Gallup poll from February, 73 percent of those interviewed said they do not believe the FARC will comply with what was agreed on in the accords.
Trusting these individuals only became more difficult when it was revealed that Santrich, who played a role in the historic peace negotiations in Havana, had allegedly continued to conduct illicit activities after the deal was signed.
The blind commander was also one of 10 former rebel leaders guaranteed a seat in congress according to the peace deal, individuals who critics argue should not be in politics but jailed for life for their past actions.
“I don’t understand how this can happen,” former Vice President Francisco Santos Calderon told Al Jazeera.
“Somebody who just won a huge prize of having all his crimes cleaned gets caught drug-trafficking? It gives the peace huge problems, and it gives the organisation huge problems”.
‘Who will be next?’
In response to the shock arrest, President Juan Manuel Santos announced his “hand will not waiver” in extraditing Santrich if he is found guilty. The prospect of jail and extradition to the US, however, has caused a lot of anger among the FARC who continue protesting the innocence of their comrade and reiterating the potential negative consequences for the peace deal at a critical juncture.
“With the capture of our comrade Jesus Santrich the peace process finds itself at its most critical point and threatens to be a true failure,” announced Ivan Marquez, another high-ranking FARC leader.
The former rebels also claim the arrest is a conspiratorial move – “orchestrated by the US along with the public prosecution” – which was hatched when US Attorney General Jeff Sessions was in Colombia last December.
The claims come despite allegedly strong video and written evidence and the capture of his three FARC co-conspirators, but regardless of the truth behind the accusations, the FARC’s fears could still affect all.
“They are chopping heads and making things up to jail FARC leaders, obviously following orders from the Pentagon”, Jorge Tavarich, a demobilised rebel currently residing in a dedicated FARC reincorporation zone told Al Jazeera.
“We are all a little worried, because, who will be next?” he said.
Due to the government’s perceived inability to comply with their end of the peace deal, some 1,200 former FARC rebels did not demobilise and instead joined dissident groups, according to military figures from March.
The probability of a full U-turn by the FARC is next to zero, but the risk of widespread anxiety pushing more former fighters to join the dissidents is very real, according to analysts.
“Obviously, the risk is that certain ex-guerillas feel that promises are not being met and will want to return to arms”, said Yann Basset, a political analyst at La Universidad del Rosario, Bogota.
“It is therefore important for the judicial system to act with all transparency and forcefulness in the evidence provided by the prosecution, and for the government to act prudently and clearly inform demobilised guerrillas of the situation,” Basset told Al Jazeera.
Restore faith in the peace process?
More generally, however, experts say that while the development may increase the already strong anti-peace accord sentiment, it could also restore faith in the process, depending on the results of the judicial process and positions taken in politics.
“It depends on how the political institutions act and political leaders react”, CERAC’s Restrepo said. “If the day after tomorrow he is quickly extradited… that will lead to a strengthening of the peace agreement”.
One potential effect is a boost for right-wing presidential candidate Ivan Duque and his Democratic Center party’s goal to roll back the peace accord.
Fair and transparent judicial treatment of Santrich, however, could strengthen both the accord and “pro-peace” political parties by quashing accusations that FARC criminals are outside the law.
“The issue is being well received by public opinion as it shows the peace accords are not a pact for impunity – contrary to what its most radical opponents pretend”, Basset said.
According to analysts, it appears the Santos government and the judicial system will now have to walk a fine line between respecting the principles of the peace accord and the FARC while, also not going “light” on Santrich.
“This is a moment of reckoning, a serious challenge to the institutions created by the peace process – and particularly those relating to transitional justice”, says Restrepo. “They need to show the FARC that they cannot even entertain the possibility of continuing in criminal activity without the serious threat of prosecution.”
Should the web of illegality be found to entangle more FARC commanders, however, it could be fatal for the peace accord.
“A nephew of [commander] Ivan Marquez was also captured; that tends to point not towards an individual decision, but a collective decision by the FARC to continue with drug trafficking”, former Vice President Calderon said.
“If it’s proven that it is a collective FARC operation, it could mean that all the heads of the organisation are asked for extradition, that would definitely be a deadly blow to the peace process”.