Just over two years ago, we featured Colombian Ambassador Juan Carlos Pinzón on our cover not long before the Colombian Congress ratified a historic peace deal with FARC rebels, ending the longest armed conflict in Latin American history and earning the president at the time, Juan Manuel Santos, a Nobel Peace Prize.
Today, that hard-fought peace appears to be on shaky ground. Conservative President Iván Duque has criticized the agreement for being too lenient on former FARC rebels, while Duque’s critics accuse him of failing to deliver on the economic development promised to demobilized rebels and the rural areas where they once reigned.
As a result, two former FARC commanders, known by their aliases Iván Márquez and Jesús Santrich, along with a small cadre of hardline loyalists, recently announced they were abandoning the agreement.
But Colombia’s current ambassador to the U.S., Francisco Santos Calderón, insists that despite its reservations about the controversial peace deal, his government remains fully committed to the accord, which formally ended over 50 years of fighting that killed 260,000 people and displaced 6.4 million.
“We will keep rebuilding the areas where the FARC was. We will keep creating the economic projects for those rebels who left that way of life and become integrated into civilian life,” Santos, a former vice president of Colombia under the Álvaro Uribe administration, told us during an expansive interview at his Dupont Circle residence.
In fact, he says the Duque government is doing what the previous one didn’t: implementing the nitty-gritty details of the deal after “we inherited a mess.”
“They left an institutional nightmare,” Santos (no relation to the former president) said. He noted that the previous government built one collective development project to alleviate poverty in rural areas over the span of a year and a half. Meanwhile, Duque has implemented 14 such projects since coming to office in August 2018.
“It’s a long-term process. As a matter of fact, it’s a 12-year process … and so it’s just starting,” he said. “This year is putting our house in order and also telling many members of the FARC, ‘Look, all the promises that were put forward, there’s not enough money.’ We need to create realistic expectations that first we’re going to comply. It’s going to take longer, but we’re engaged.”
A Contentious Peace
But critics counter that Duque is dragging his feet, in part by slashing funds to the transitional justice mechanism, which was meant to foster reconciliation and truth-telling but which has been criticized by some Colombians as letting hard-core guerillas off the hook.
Santos, a straight-talking former journalist who answers questions in rapid-fire, animated fashion, denies that Duque has starved the peace tribunal of money.
“Obviously everybody has budget issues. Everybody wants to have more money. But when you look at the budget that has been given to the [special justices and truth commission], they’re very, very well-funded.”
As for criticism that his government is turning a blind eye to the assassination of hundreds of leftist activists and social leaders partly responsible for implementing the accord, along with roughly 150 former FARC fighters, the ambassador denied those allegations as well.
“The attorney general’s office has a special unit of investigation and more than 60% of those cases have been investigated and have been determined who and what happened, and now they’re going to trial,” he said. “And two, we created a new program to protect them, to prevent [killings], and that’s being rolled out all over Colombia. So this is something that we take very seriously.”
The ambassador also pointed out that 90% of the 13,000 rank-and-file FARC combatants who disarmed remain committed to the peace deal, which offered them amnesty and a role in Colombia’s political system in return for giving up their weapons. Indeed, Rodrigo Londoño, the FARC’s former top military commander who now heads the group’s legalized political party, said Márquez and other dissidents have been expelled from the party and he has urged Colombians to rally around the government.
As for those FARC members who have declared a “new chapter” in their armed struggle against the government, the ambassador said they represent “just a miniscule element — more the ones who are involved in drug trafficking, who’ve got their hands in the cookie jar. And that’s why they decided to jump the ship. And they will be treated as such, as criminals.”
The involvement of those FARC dissidents — estimated to number in the mid-2,000s — in criminal operations is not surprising. Many experts predicted that as the rebels gave up their arms, FARC holdouts, drug trafficking gangs and smaller rebel groups such as the National Liberation Army (or ELN) would scramble to fill the void in the remote rural areas where the FARC once profited from the cocaine trade and illegal mining.
And indeed, last year Colombia’s homicide rate rose for the first time in a decade, while illegal coca cultivation shot up dramatically.
“Coca is the biggest enemy of peace in Colombia,” Santos told us. “And when you look at the killings of most of the social activists and former FARC members, it’s right where coca is. Because of the agreement, what happened is that it sort of took away the pressure on coca, and so from 2013 to 2018, coca increased exponentially. We now have 200,000 hectares, and in those areas is where the conflict activity is the worst.”
But the government has moved to aggressively counter this trend, eradicating nearly 90,000 hectares while stepping up the police and military presence in the remote areas where coca production has soared and where the bulk of homicides has taken place.
“This government has made it very clear that criminality has to be fought harshly … and we’re doing that. So we think that in many of those areas, things are going to change in the mid-term but in the short term, we already stopped the growth of coca — from exponential growth, it’s plateaued,” Santos said, noting that his government has set a goal of reducing coca cultivation and cocaine by half by the end of 2023.
Santos said the uptick in coca production and homicides is another example of how the previous administration viewed the FARC peace deal through rose-colored glasses.
“[W]e inherited many areas where the goodwill and the peace process was supposed to change the environment. Well, that’s not understanding how the criminal activity works. Criminals will be criminals. And they’ll change, and they’ll morph,” the ambassador said. “And so to a very big extent, this is part of the inheritance of the good intentions of a peace process that doesn’t understand how criminality operates.”
Santos has perhaps a more personal understanding of how criminals operate than many other diplomats. In fact, much of Santos’s career has been far from diplomatic.
Long before he became Colombia’s vice president in 2002, Santos was a well-known journalist, working for the newspaper El Tiempo in the late 1980s and writing columns that cast a harsh light on narco-terrorists such as Pablo Escobar.
Escobar did not take the criticism well. On Sept. 19, 1990, Santos was kidnapped on the drug lord’s orders and remained in captivity until his release on May 20, 1991.
Santos calls the kidnapping a “life changer.”
“I wouldn’t be here as an ambassador if it wasn’t for my kidnapping. When I was released, I created an NGO to help kidnap victims and not only was I journalist, I also became a social and human rights activist,” he told us. “And I did marches in the ’90s, huge protests against the illegal groups that were kidnapping people and the lack of action by the state. We were very active and we put millions of people on the streets.”
But Santos’s outspoken activism once again landed him in hot water. In March 2000, while working as assistant director of the newspaper El País, he went into exile in Madrid, Spain, because of threats from the FARC.
“I practically put the bulls eye on my head. But it was my job. I’ve always been like that. I don’t stand quiet against injustice. I don’t stand quiet against violence. That’s been part of my life,” he said.
While in Spain, presidential candidate Álvaro Uribe asked Santos if he wanted to be his running mate. “Crazy he is to offer me and crazy me to accept it,” Santos laughed. “I know nothing about government!”
But he apparently learned the ropes, serving as vice president from 2002 to 2010 during a time when the economy boomed and homicides and kidnappings plummeted.
“We were very, very successful, so that showed me a new life,” Santos said, explaining that he was amazed to see “what governments can accomplish in improving the lives of people … and that changed my own life.”
Reconciliation versus Justice
It’s not surprising then that Santos’s own story of kidnapping and social justice has informed his political views, particularly with regards to the FARC peace deal, which he says was too lenient on rebels who for decades terrorized his country of 50 million.
FARC (a Spanish acronym for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) emerged as a left-wing guerrilla group in the 1960s in response to socio-economic inequalities. Inspired by Marxist-Leninist ideology, the group vowed to defend Colombia’s peasants against wealthy landowners and right-wing governments. In recent decades, however, the FARC embraced kidnappings, bombings, assassinations, landmine explosions, extortion and other brutal tactics. Facing attacks from government forces and state-aligned, rightwing paramilitaries in the 1990s, it also entered into the lucrative coca market, taxing growers and trafficking cocaine.
The peace deal allows former FARC rebels who confess to war crimes such as kidnapping and recruiting child soldiers to avoid jail time as part of an effort to reintegrate them into society.
Former President Uribe — who waged a harsh counterinsurgency campaign against the FARC while in office that significantly weakened the group — spearheaded the “No” campaign to defeat the peace deal in a 2016 referendum.
While Uribe has come under fire for alleged ties to rightwing paramilitary groups accused of extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses, many fellow Colombians agreed with him that the peace deal was “a capitulation.”
As a result, the deal was rejected in the 2016 referendum by a narrow margin. But then-President Juan Manuel Santos, who had spent four years painfully negotiating the deal, was able to push it through by altering the language and ratifying it through Congress.
Not everyone was happy about the runaround, including the ambassador, who says the previous government did not “hear all of society.”
“What I think is very unfortunate is that something that should unite the country, which is peace, divided us. And former President Santos divided us,” the ambassador argued, accusing Santos of presenting the peace deal as choice between those who are “friends of peace versus enemies of peace.”
“No, we’re all friends of peace. But what we wanted is for our voices to be heard regarding elements very critical of the peace process, which is what type of sanctions are going to be put on rebels. How are you going to send the message to future generations that crime doesn’t pay? Those are things that needed to be debated and they weren’t.
“We had a very successful peace process with the paramilitaries and for the most terrible crimes, they paid eight years of jail,” Ambassador Santos added. “Transitional justice cannot give somebody who has committed horrible war crimes as a penalty to plant trees, which is what’s going to happen now. So that’s not acceptable for Colombian society.”
To that end, Duque has developed a strategy known as “Peace with Rule of Law” that in future peace processes will place harsher penalties on rebels who commit crimes such as drug trafficking and kidnapping.
“So rule of law is a central tenet of this government, but it’s in the future,” Santos said.
Asked whether this tougher framework should apply to the former FARC rebels who recently demobilized, Santos said, “If you ask me as an individual, not as an ambassador, unfortunately” it does not apply to those rebels. “But I am an ambassador and that’s the decision of the government and it’s a done deal.”
Indeed, Duque, an Uribe protégé whose attempts to roll back parts of the deal were rejected by Congress and Colombia’s high court, has vowed to faithfully implement the peace accord he spent years opposing.
And despite the recent proclamation by Márquez and other FARC commanders that they are rearming, Duque insists that the peace deal is not unraveling.
“It is important to emphasize that Colombia is not facing the rebirth of a new guerrilla movement, as these criminals claim,” the president wrote in a Sept. 3 op-ed for The Washington Post. “This is a gang that has been emboldened, sheltered and supported in Venezuela by the dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro.”
On that front, tensions between Venezuela and Colombia have exploded in recent months, with Duque accusing the embattled Maduro regime of offering safe haven to dissident FARC rebels as well members of the ELN, the smaller rebel group that killed at least 20 people during a truck bombing in Bogota earlier this year.
Maduro recently launched military exercises along the Colombia-Venezuela border, further heightening tensions and sparking fears of a potential military conflict between the two neighbors. But Santos dismisses those fears.
“There is absolutely no possibility of a confrontation. We understand that Venezuela wants to provoke us,” he told us.
“What we really need is a decision in which Venezuela returns to democracy. Venezuela is a rogue government that promotes drug trafficking, that promotes illegal gold mining, which is creating the worst eco-crisis in the Amazon jungle. You think the fires in Brazil are horrible? Look at what illegal gold mining promoted by a government is doing to the Amazon jungle in Venezuela. That’s an eco-crisis that I think is flying under the radar,” the ambassador said.
“It’s a government that is promoting the FARC and the ELN, it’s harboring them, it’s training them, it’s giving them protection, it’s giving them access,” he continued. “As a matter of fact, the ELN and the dissidents of the FARC are part of that eco-crisis. They managed those illegal gold mining operations. And so it has become a rogue country that is promoting terrorism.”
While many governments agree with Santos, Maduro remains firmly entrenched in power.
Punishing U.S. economic sanctions and the recognition of opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president by over 50 governments have thus far failed to dislodge the socialist leader, who retains the support of the military.
So what can the world community do to kick Maduro out?
“More and more and more pressure. That’s what we need,” Santos replied. “More pressure at the international level. More pressure by the Europeans. More pressure by the Americans. And more pressure not only on Venezuela but also on their partners in crime, which is Cuba and Russia.”
As part of that pressure campaign, in September the U.S. led a push to invoke the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, also known as the Rio Treaty, which includes provisions for the use of military force. Some have worried that President Trump will use the 70-year-old regional defense pact as a pretext to invade Venezuela and overthrow Maduro, but Santos ruled out any kind of military intervention.
“We all want a regime change. Let’s make no distinction about that. We want a regime change but [through] a democratic transition,” he said. “So yes we’re worried, not of a military conflict, but of a very unstable situation because in the middle of this crisis, you have 5,000 Venezuelans going into Colombia every day.”
The Overlooked Migration Crisis
In fact, some 1.5 million Venezuelans have flooded the country since Venezuela’s spectacular economic meltdown — an exodus that has become “the biggest humanitarian and migration crisis in the world right now,” Santos stressed. “And Colombia is harboring the brunt.”
Despite the enormous strain, the ambassador said Colombia is “an example of how to treat a massive migration like this one.”
“If the world wants to know how to do a massive migration with dignity, with honor, with love, with solidarity, you have to go to Colombia,” he said, noting that Venezuelan refugees in Colombia “have health benefits, they have education and they are being assimilated by the informal workforce. There is no xenophobia. Obviously it’s creating tensions. You don’t put 1.5 million new workers and not create tensions. They are there.”
But unlike other governments that view refugees as an economic burden, Santos said his country views them as “a great opportunity for the future. Those are going to be consumers. They’re going to start paying taxes. That’s going to create a huge growth in income for Colombia.”
That’s why the ambassador says that despite efforts by neighboring countries such as Ecuador and Peru to stem the flow of refugees, Colombia will keep its doors open. But he warns that without outside help, his country won’t have the money to do that much longer.
“Our effort is huge — more than $1 billion a year. For a developing country, that’s a huge burden. It’s going to grow even more, and so we also need more money from the international community, especially from the Europeans, from UNHCR and obviously the Americans who are putting most of the money in helping us,” Santos said. “We’re thankful for every cent, but it’s not enough.”
He specifically pointed to the European Union, which suffered its own refugee crisis in 2015 and which should be “more generous with the biggest humanitarian crisis that the world is living through right now.”
“Look, absorbing 1.5 million people in two, two and a half years — that’s a huge thing,” the ambassador said, leaning in for emphasis. “Without xenophobia? That shows what Colombia is made of.”
Part of the reason why this massive influx has not been accompanied by the kind of xenophobia typically seen in other countries is because many Colombians still feel indebted to Venezuela, which for years welcomed millions of Colombians fleeing narco violence and poverty in their own country. Back then, oil-rich Venezuela had the resources to offer its beleaguered neighbors sanctuary. Today, the roles have been reversed.
“Venezuelans used to look at Colombia as, ‘Oh they’re the poor guys in the neighborhood.’ And Colombians looked at Venezuelans as, ‘Oh the rich guys in the neighborhood and they don’t work and we are busting our chops here.’ Now … for the first time I would say in our history, we are looking at each other as partners,” Santos said. “Once we solve this, I see Venezuela and Colombia becoming a lot more integrated and becoming a hub for development in the region like no other area in the world. So I’m optimistic.”
An Untold Success Story
Santos has reason to be optimistic given Colombia’s stunning transformation from a narco-riddled, poverty-stricken state to one of the most dynamic economies in Latin America.
“Colombia’s per-capita GDP has doubled since 2000, and poverty has declined from one in five to one in 25,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during an Oct. 9 press conference with the Colombian foreign minister.
The ambassador credits much of this economic success to Plan Colombia, a major U.S. aid and military package signed in 2000 that devoted billions of dollars to helping Colombia build up its military, tackle the FARC insurgency and curb cocaine production.
Santos said that by improving security, Plan Colombia created “the conditions for this economic growth and sustainability”
“Plan Colombia is a success story that needs to be told more and more and more — and studied more and more. If you look at the State Department, they have volumes on Iraq, volumes on Afghanistan, but a successful story like Colombia will fill a drawer. So sometimes it’s our own mistake not to learn from our really good success stories, and I think Colombia is one of them,” he said.
In addition to increased stability, Colombia’s robust economic growth was also fueled by “a track record of prudent macroeconomic and fiscal management,” according to the World Bank.
Santos pointed out that his former boss, Uribe, offered “huge incentives” for foreign investors. “Both President Uribe and President Duque have a very clear understanding that a strong private sector, a profitable private sector, pays more taxes, creates more formal jobs and creates growth. So everything we’re doing is in that direction.”
In fact, “Colombia is probably the most business-friendly country, with Chile, in Latin America, and that has allowed us to continue growing,” Santos said. “This year, we’re going to grow 3%. We thought we were going to grow between 3.5% and 4%. I would say because of the migration crisis, we’re down to 3%, but it’s a country that is very, very strong. It’s very resilient.
“Colombia is so different today from what it was in the year 2002,” Santos continued, noting that if the country had not transformed its economy and if 1.5 million Venezuelans had fled to Colombia in the year 2002, “there would’ve been a social revolt. Now we’re able to absorb them because of everything we did together.”
Santos became vice president in 2002 and vividly remembers those early years when “nobody would go to Colombia. Nobody!”
But eventually, investors began trickling in, including Jeff Immelt, former CEO of General Electric.
Santos remembered one particular visit that the GE chief made to Colombia toward the end of his vice presidency. Immelt “had just come from São Paolo and he had a dinner with the captains of industry two nights before and he asked them, ‘If you had $100 million, where would you invest it?’ And he was surprised that the unanimous answer was Colombia,” the ambassador recalled.
“Because Colombia is a very well-kept secret and it still is to a certain extent a secret. It’s got a dynamic middle class, it’s growing [and] it has huge room to grow, so there are still the conditions to get a lot of that investment and that’s one of the things that I want to do,” Santos said. “That’s one of my obsessions. We need Colombia to become again the crown jewel in the map for foreign investment.”
Tariffs, Tourism and Taco Bell
Part of that effort is capitalizing on Trump’s tariff war with China. “If you’re an American and want to disengage from China for example for your supply chains, I would look at Colombia as a huge market. And that’s part of our strategy that we’re doing. I’m looking at companies that want to change their supply chains from Asia to Latin America and that’s where we’re going to work to find new investment.”
Santos also wants to bring even more tourists to Colombia. He notes that historic, picturesque cities such as Cartagena have become popular wedding destinations for Americans and other foreigners.
Another popular but less-known area of tourism doesn’t involve brides but birds. Colombia, in fact, is home to more bird species than any other country in the world.
“It has become a huge hub for bird-watching tourism,” Santos said. “And you see all these Americans and British and Germans, with their spectacles all over Colombia. That’s something that is very, very important.
“We’re reaping a peace dividend of tourism that is very important to protect because everybody who goes in comes out saying, ‘Wow, Colombians!’ They’re warm-hearted; they will embrace you,” the ambassador said. “The best thing about Colombia is Colombians.”
While Santos has lots of love for his countrymen, his adopted country of America is a close second. He studied at the University of Kansas and the University of Texas, where he earned degrees in journalism and Latin American studies, respectively.
“I love this country,” the ambassador said excitedly. “This country is a beacon of liberty, of freedom. Americans sometimes don’t understand how important they are to the world of liberty and how this shines a light for many citizens in the world who don’t have it.”
But he also loves the lighter side of American culture.
“I’m a huge NFL fan! If you go to my office, you will see a Patrick Mahomes helmet,” he said, referring to the quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs. Santos is also a fan of the Kansas City Royals baseball team. “When I play golf, I put on my Kansas City Royals cap.”
“And I love junk food,” he groans on a long sigh, as if he just devoured his favorite snack. “I’m a junk food freak! Taco Bell is my favorite restaurant. Can you believe it? I grew up with Taco Bell in college. That last week of the month when you have $1 a day? Taco Bell was survival mode and I am thankful,” he recalled, roaring with laughter.
After expressing our mutual appreciation of Taco Bell’s bounty for broke college kids, on a more serious note, I asked the ambassador if he still loved everything about America given the heated, often hate-filled politics that seems to be dividing the country.
The blunt-talking, Taco Bell-loving former journalist quickly disappeared and in his place was the careful diplomat that Santos has learned to become.
He gave us a wry wink and uttered the two words that all journalists absolutely love to hear: “No comment.”
About the Author
Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.