Endangering the Peace – The Danger of Persistent Corruption in Post-Accord States
By Daniel Friedman, Fletcher School '09
There is a growing awareness by some in the peacebuilding field that corruption is an obstacle to peace. While the focus of many peacebuilders is rightfully on understanding the corruption dynamics that exacerbate fighting as a means of ending conflict, we know relatively little about what happens to the nexus between government officials and armed groups in a post-accord period. After armed groups demobilize, do corruption networks simply disappear without the fuel of conflict to drive them? How might they endure? And what effect does the survival of corrupt networks have on a nascent peace?
Within the international community, all too often there’s a tendency to simply hope that these networks will disappear with the signing of an accord or otherwise morph into a problem that a non-conflict-focused justice system can swiftly handle along with other “normal” crimes. This misguided hope, however, fails to consider the corrosive impact that ongoing corruption can have on a fragile peace.
Colombia provides a relevant case study in this regard. On the fifth anniversary of the peace accords between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla group, we can examine what effect the formal end of the conflict had on the well-established corruption networks that helped drive the fighting. What we see is that these corruption dynamics can evolve to continue beyond the formal phases of a conflict. Left unattended, this corruption can feed continued cycles of violence, generate popular dissatisfaction, and may even endanger the peace itself.
Parapolitical vs. Petty Corruption in Public Perception
The Colombian conflict between the government and the FARC, which lasted for more than fifty years and cost hundreds of thousands of lives, featured “parapolitical corruption,” characterized by ongoing ties between corrupt officials and armed groups involved in the fighting. These relationships were notable in that they were long term and often featured apparent ideological affinity. Interestingly, during the conflict, most Colombians reported relatively low rates of “petty corruption” experienced in their day-to-day lives and Colombia had smaller corruption perception indices when compared to its neighbors. For example, many other Latin American nations had much larger percentages of their population report being asked for bribes by police on the street or needing to pay off functionaries to get permits and conduct everyday business.
Five years after the signing of the accords, the corruption and violence landscape has evolved. Some armed groups were not party to the accords and some dissident FARC units did not demobilize. Other armed groups essentially shed their ideological labels and continued operating as criminal groups pursuing narcotrafficking, extortion, and other illicit activities that had helped to finance the conflict, only now seeking to line their pockets or exert power over specific territories (as opposed to overthrowing the government or defeating an ideologically opposed armed group). That said, thousands of fighters from both the FARC and paramilitary “self-defense groups” have demobilized and no armed groups operate on the size and scale of the FARC or the AUC (the paramilitary group most closely connected to the “parapolitics” scandals).
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In spite of this progress, massive conflict-related problems remain. Criminal groups quickly filled the void left by larger armed groups, often comprised of many of the same people. Colombia still suffers from alarmingly high rates of violence, especially for human rights defenders. Colombia sadly accounts for more than half of the murders of human rights activists in the world, mirroring and even eclipsing the dangers seen in other violent and conflict-affected countries like Afghanistan and the Philippines.
Interestingly, perceptions of corruption have steadily risen since the end of the conflict, with more Colombians now viewing corruption as being more pervasive and as an increasingly urgent and serious problem. The country has been rocked by numerous high-profile corruption scandals, including the Odebrecht scandal which featured widespread graft for construction projects reaching the highest levels of government, more than 1,200 Colombians being revealed to have offshore tax shelters in the infamous Panama Papers, and the “Cartel de la Toga” scandal, which revealed widespread corruption through the previously well-regarded judiciary. Many conflict-era corrupt relationships between government officials and illegal armed actors appear to have survived the conflict and enable armed criminal groups to more freely operate. In some particularly egregious cases, parapolitics corruption networks remain so fully intact that they have prevented the investigation and prosecution of the parapolitics scandal itself.
For a thorough overview of adapting anti-corruption practices to fragile states, see CJL’s Rosemary Ventura’s recent lit review, . For the historical-minded among you, our Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church edited the 2009 volume Pilfering the Peace: the nexus between corruption and peacebuilding.
Why perceptions of corruption matter
There are several possible reasons why perceptions of corruption appear to be worsening, even after the signing of accords and the demobilization of the largest armed groups. Firstly, the high-profile scandals, particularly those in formerly well-perceived institutions like the judiciary, have understandably shaken public confidence. On a related note, Colombians understandably had high-expectations of what the accord would deliver: a decrease in violence, cleaner and more transparent governance, and infrastructure and increased state presence in rural areas that has not fully materialized. A frustrated public may now more directly see the link between corruption and the lack of peace dividends, especially on the heels of public scandals involving infrastructure and development. Other analysts have noted that crises like COVID have led to promises of greater public expenditures; as one wrote, “It’s the same corruption as always, but now there are simply more resources [to steal]."
It is also possible that corruption itself has not necessarily worsened since the signing of the accords, but that the conflict itself is no longer the public’s most pressing concern and Colombians are now simply paying more attention to other major problems in the country. Indeed, more Colombians now cite corruption as the country’s top problem than concerns about guerrillas, crime, and violence combined.
Regardless of the specific cause, many Colombians are clearly dissatisfied with the trajectory of corruption in the country and there are direct implications for the country’s peace and stability as these frustrations boil over. More than fifty people died during a series of anti-government protests in 2021, where many protestors cited corruption as a primary reason they took to the streets.
It is clear that corruption is both driving popular discontent and enabling armed criminal groups to operate freely and even control territory, which is hardly a recipe for a sustainable peace.
The case of Colombia shows that peace accords themselves are insufficient to end the corruption dynamics that characterize a conflict. Absent increased measures for transparency, enforcement, and state presence, other actors can simply exploit the opportunities left behind by demobilized groups. Existing corrupt networks and violent nexuses can also simply endure. Groups may be smaller, more localized, and no longer seek to overthrow government, but they still have ample incentive and opportunity to control territory for power and profit-driven criminal activities like drug trafficking, extortion, and illegal extraction.
The Colombian case study also shows that the public’s expectations for peace and improved governance will be high. The stakes for continued attention to corruption networks are significant. Corruption can allow armed groups to continue to operate, while frustrations with peace not delivering, perceptions of corruption by elites, and the underdevelopment of marginalized areas can actually play into grievances at the heart of conflict. In doing so, corruption creates risks to the peace itself.
Daniel Friedman has worked on peacebuilding, human rights, development, and democratic governance initiatives in more than a dozen countries worldwide with the Inter-American Foundation, U.S. Department of State, the UN, and U.S. Congress. He has also worked with NGOs based in and focusing on numerous countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, including Colombia, where he also conducted research during the conflict.
Daniel received a B.A. in political science from the University of Michigan and an M.A. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.