By Helen Murphy and Carlos Vargas
BOGOTA (Reuters) – President Ivan Duque’s call for changes to key peace legislation has prompted former rebels to warn he has put Colombia on the path to war, but with his government on a weak footing in Congress, major revisions that could reignite conflict seem unlikely.
Duque last week objected to six out of 159 articles in the law implementing a 2016 peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas and said he will return it to congress.
The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) law – which established a tribunal to investigate war crimes during Colombia’s five-decade conflict – has been criticized by Duque for being too lenient on FARC commanders accused of atrocities.
Duque, whose 2018 presidential campaign focused on changing the peace deal, said the law was not clear enough that the FARC must fully repay its victims. He also criticized the terms of extradition and rules over sentencing for war crimes.
While Duque’s Democratic Center Party is celebrating, others say he is damaging the peace process and deliberately blunting prosecutions that could reveal murky ties between conservative politicians, the military and right-wing paramilitary groups.
Duque’s powerful mentor, hard-line former President Alvaro Uribe, has repeatedly been named by opposition lawmakers as allegedly having ties to far-right paramilitary groups. Uribe denies the allegations.
While Duque’s proposed changes did not explicitly attempt to stifle the JEP tribunal, critics say they could limit its ability to investigate, prosecute and convict.
At the very least, they create uncertainty about the JEP’s jurisdiction and could slow down investigations for as long as Congress deliberates.
“It was a very long, bloody, barbaric war,” said lower house opposition deputy Ivan Marulanda, adding that he had “no doubt” Duque’s move was aimed at avoiding finger pointing for state crimes. “State crimes were committed. They’re proven.”
There have been more than 2,000 cases of so-called false positives reported – where the military allegedly killed innocent civilians and passed them off as FARC killed in combat. The JEP tribunal is investigating some of those cases and some military officials have already been convicted and jailed under the ordinary justice system.
Duque’s move will probably spook the roughly 7,000 demobilized rebels and prompt some to join dissident FARC fighters – who refused to adhere to the peace accords – as implementation of the agreement may get slowed by efforts to toughen tribunal rules.
Indeed, more than two years after the accord was signed, few government reintegration projects to help demobilized fighters are running.
Of the roughly 22 government-approved projects, only a handful have received money.
“Duque has sent a lousy message to demobilized guerrillas,” said leftist Senator Aida Avella of the Patriotic Union party. “Duque’s government is an enemy of the peace process and is working to return us to war.”
Duque has said he does not want to return to conflict and his objections aim to improve the accords and create a “peace that unites us.”
Despite tough words on both sides, Duque’s weak position in Congress – where he has a slender majority in the Senate and less than half the seats in the lower house – means he is unlikely to win substantive changes.
“It’s smoke and mirrors because it’s unlikely to be approved,” said analyst Sergio Guzman, director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a Bogota-based political risk consultancy.
“It looks like he’s done this to shore up his base and show that he is not Santos,” he said, referring to former President Juan Manuel Santos, who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for clinching the peace deal.
Perhaps the biggest impact may be on stalled peace negotiations with the National Liberation Army (ELN) which Duque cancelled in January. Guzman noted the prospect of a deal with the group – which carried out a bomb attack in Bogota in January that killed 22 police cadets – appeared further away than ever now.
While FARC commanders say he has put peace at risk, they are not ready to leave the process that ended their part in a five-decade conflict that killed 260,000 people and displaced seven million.
“We consider that what has been done is an incitement to war,” said FARC leader Rodrigo Londono, better known by his alias Timochenko. “But we’re here looking for solutions.”
Duque’s announcement has also been criticized by Santos’s negotiators and the procurator general. The United Nations has called for the JEP, passed in 2017, to be respected and even strengthened.
While opposition lawmakers have called for a protest march on Monday, others say the FARC has little to fear.
“Those who are complying with the corresponding regulations on the abandonment of arms, the abandonment of crime, and the respect for law have absolutely nothing to fear,” said ruling coalition Senator Jhon Milton Rodriguez.
Established in 1964 and funded by kidnapping, extortion and cocaine trafficking, the FARC grew to a fighting force of 20,000 by 1999 when it reached the mountains above the capital, Bogota, and threatened to seize power.
But a U.S.-backed offensive led by Uribe helped bring the rebels to the negotiating table.
Under the peace deal, the group formed a political party, kept its famous acronym as the Revolutionary Alternative Common Force, and was awarded 10 seats in congress.
The accord allows former rebels who come forward to the JEP tribunal to receive reduced sentences and avoid prison, but they must confess to any crimes and repay victims.
Duque’s right-wing coalition says former members of the rebel group continue to commit crimes, and are incensed that they will have seats in congress. They demand jail terms for FARC commanders.
“This opens the door … to put us all in jail,” said Reinaldo Cala, a FARC lower house deputy. “The goal of these reforms is to extradite us to the United States.”
The United States has sought the extradition of some FARC members for drug smuggling.
(Additional reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Phil Berlowitz)