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Colombia Between the FARC and the People

LIMA – Colombian governments have been fighting the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) for the past 52 years, with no victory in sight. In early October, a razor-thin majority of voters rejected Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’s proposed peace deal with the guerrillas.

Compare Colombia’s experience with that of Peru, which defeated its own guerrilla movement, the Shining Path, in less than a dozen years, from 1980 to 1992, with more than 85% popular support. Peru was able to achieve a lasting peace for two reasons.

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First, the Peruvian government focused on creating rights for the poor people whom the guerrillas controlled, and it codified those rights in its 1991 agreements with the United States and the United Nations. By contrast, Santos, despite his good intentions, negotiated a peace plan that creates rights for the FARC.

Second, the Peruvian government won strong support from its citizens, because it never ceded its sovereign right as the country’s sole negotiator, nor did it negotiate in territory outside its borders. Santos, on the other hand, surrendered a degree of Colombian sovereignty by allowing negotiations with the FARC to be brokered by the unelected government of a foreign country with its own agenda: Cuba. Then he treated the guerrillas as equals by negotiating substantive matters with them.

These points are crucial, because it is not as though Peru’s government held a strong position against the Shining Path. In 1987, 60% of Peruvian territory was under martial law, and the Rand Corporation and the US Department of Defense predicted that the Shining Path would achieve total victory as early as 1992.

Peru developed a winning strategy when it realized not only that the Shining Path was extremely unpopular – as is the FARC in Colombia – but also that it did not actually control much territory. Rather, the Shining Path had succeeded in creating and operating out of impregnable strongholds in key areas where its members were indistinguishable from the local population, and where the local population was unwilling to report guerrillas to the authorities.

By 1990, Peru had finally figured out that the reason poor farmers and miners were unwilling to identify guerrillas in their communities was because the Shining Path protected their rights. These rights, documented in 182 informal ledgers found mainly in the war-torn areas of Ayacucho, Cusco, Apurímac, Junín, San Martín, and Huánuco, designated to certain community members rulemaking authority over private property, investments, lending, and so forth.

The ledgers formed the basis of a social contract within these communities. But they also had a strategic military value, because they enabled the Peruvian government to distinguish friends from enemies on the ground.

With the ledgers in hand, Peruvian government strategists knew what to do. First, they identified which community leaders oversaw the ledgers. Then, they legalized, standardized, and harmonized the rights constituted in the ledgers with other stakeholders’ rights. And finally, they enacted laws to protect those rights more reliably than guns could, thereby furnishing the poor with an alternative to the Shining Path’s ideology, authority, and military agenda.

When the guerrillas no longer controlled the ledgers, they could no longer claim to be defenders of the community’s rights. More than 100,000 people from these communities immediately joined the Peruvian armed forces, thus quadrupling the military’s size overnight. They rapidly identified and defeated the Shining Path army in Peru’s rural areas, where 95% of the fighting had taken place.

The war was basically over by 1992, when the Shining Path’s leader, Abimael Guzmán, was captured in Lima. Some very clever policemen found him on the second floor of a dance studio, and arrested him without firing a shot, because he did not have a single armed guard left to protect him.

The Peruvian example suggests that governments can beat insurgents by severing their control over local communities’ rights and assets, which will always be established in a social contract. But this insight, which enabled Peru’s government to prevail, is relevant not only to Peruvians – or, for that matter, to Colombians. Peru's accomplishment has global significance in the fight against groups that rely on terror to seize and control territory.

Five billion of the world’s 7.3 billion people hold their tangible and intangible assets outside of the formal legal system; these assets cannot be invested or create surplus value, nor can they serve as collateral for loans or as identification for accessing public services. Among these five billion people, the most desperate are highly vulnerable to extremist recruiters.

The bad news is that Peru’s model for legal and economic inclusion cannot simply be expanded to account for billions of people overnight. The good news is that new information technologies can accelerate the process significantly.

For example, we already know how to locate, procure, and compile informal-economy data from local ledgers, so that it can be transported, cataloged, and publicized in a transparent global network through distributed-information technology such as blockchain. This same technology then makes the information accessible to the original communities, so that they can verify that their rights are being respected without having to resort to the protection of terrorists.

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Returning to Colombia, the bottom line is that a majority of voters – led by two former presidents, Álvaro Uribe and Andrés Pastrana – have rejected the 297-page peace plan reached in Havana, Cuba. But they have the means to forge a new deal that empowers poor communities by making them no longer dependent on the FARC.

Colombia should now regain its full sovereignty and signal to all Latin American would-be insurgent groups that its peace will not set a precedent for them to gain political power by stealth. We should never allow extremist groups to be treated as sovereign political bodies beyond the reach of elected governments – in Peru, Colombia, or anywhere else.