Peace has always been elusive. Every few decades, a new Colombian administration tries unsuccessfully to end the armed conflict that began in the mid-1960s. But after a half century of violence—resulting in an estimated 220,000 deaths, according to the Colombian Center for Historical Memory, and the largest internally displaced population in the world, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, —the idea of peace is beginning to seem possible.

On November 6, peace negotiators in Havana from the Colombian government and the leftist rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), reached a partial agreement on the second of their six-point agenda: political participation for demobilized guerillas. In May, negotiators reached a partial agreement on land reform. 

But land issues should not be expected to simply disappear. Land reform has been an important source of continuing conflict in Colombia, underpinning both the Thousand Day War (1899—1902) and the partisan bloodletting of La Violencia (1948—1958). A sustainable peace will depend on an effective democratic system and a responsive government to mediate land disputes.

While complex, the creation of the FARC can be traced back to a 1958 peace agreement between the Liberal and Conservative parties in Colombia that prevented third party participation in national elections. This exclusion decreased the possibility that rural land disputes could be resolved through peaceful means, and the FARC were created as a violent response. The origins of the FARC are all the more reason that the recent agreement on political incorporation is so pivotal for beginning to end the cycle of violence.

The agreement, though details have yet to be distributed, functionally grants the FARC, through the localities in which they are most active, the same kinds of protections given to Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. They are not guaranteed representation, but the districts in which they operate will be over-represented in the national legislature. Though temporary, these protections could allow former guerillas to legitimately represent areas over which they have functional control, so long as they maintain popular support.

The benefits of this arrangement include the internalization of democratic norms and acceptance of the Bogotá government as legitimate for the traditionally disenfranchised communities from which the FARC recruits. Similarly, it could start the long and difficult process for urban Colombians and displaced persons to get used to the idea of former guerillas eventually returning to legitimate political society.

But challenges do lie ahead. With a legitimized political position, particularly combined with a potential restructuring of the armed forces and the perennial incentives of the drug trade, could political inclusion become a way for former guerillas to carve out new drug-producing fiefdoms unhindered by a civil war? This is important to keep in mind as negotiations continue, especially as illicit drugs are the fourth point in the negotiating agenda.  

Colombia has previously used political inclusion as a successful tactic to integrate a politically-motivated insurrection back into society. The M-19 group of the 1970s, though generally decimated through conflict with drug cartels from Cali and Medellín, rapidly dissolved as a criminal organization once it successfully entered politics in 1990. One of its former members, Antonio Navarro, who went on to serve as a mayor, senator, and governor, is even a pre-candidate to the presidency in next year’s elections. His success is undoubtedly encouraging for the FARC.

The agreement has yielded immediate political consequences. Progress in the negotiations quickly gave a significant boost to the approval of President Juan Manuel Santos who formally announced his intention to run again on November 20.

In a society traumatized by violence, any move toward a more inclusive political system is a welcome step in the right direction. Peace, however, still depends on coming to terms with other points on the agenda.

Alejandro Castaño is an intern with the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center